Media were MIA toward end of the war in Iraq

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2011 - 8:12 PM

'Support our Troops' should extend to durable coverage and citizen interest.

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A soldier gestures from the gun turret of the last vehicle in a convoy of the US Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011. The brigade's special troops battalion are the last American soldiers to leave Iraq.

Photo: Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

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War's end is often captured by iconic images: a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day; an evacuation helicopter on the rooftop of a Saigon apartment building; burning oil fields and charred remains of fleeing vehicles (and soldiers) at the end of the Gulf War.

The photo most identified with the end of the Iraq war -- President George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier under a "Mission Accomplished" banner -- came eight years early. So far, no photo defines the recent drawdown that actually ended the U.S. military role in the nearly nine-year war.

And if there were, would any one notice?

Maybe not, according to an Oct. 26 study from the Pew Research Center, which details how the Iraq war has fallen off the media's radar screen (and thus Americans' TV, computer and cellphone screens).

Since 2007's military "surge" led to more media coverage -- Iraq was the top story that year, comprising 15.4 percent of overall news -- coverage has declined to around 0.6 percent.

The media retreat raises profound questions for the press, politicians and the Pentagon, as well as participants in this month's Minnesota International Center "Great Decisions" dialogue on national security.

The drop in coverage comes despite a year of increasing international interest, according to a separate Pew report released this week. It said that five of the 10 biggest stories of the year were international and accounted for 21 percent of overall news coverage, compared with just 6 percent in 2010.

But most of these stories were about tsunamis and earthquakes, whether natural (Japan) or man-made (the Arab Spring). Conversely, coverage of the war in Afghanistan dropped from an already scant 4 percent in 2010 to 2 percent in 2011.

Overall, international stories with U.S. involvement only rose 1 percent to 10 percent in 2011, while coverage of defense and military matters was halved to just 1 percent this year.

The dichotomy is due to issues specific to the press and the public, said Michael Dimock, associate director of research at Pew.

"It's expensive to cover a war zone, and there were big stories developing. ... It's a combination of the press and, potentially, a decline in public engagement, with the more subtle story of economic and political rebuilding. I don't know if either side is to blame in that chicken-and-egg situation."

The shame is that news coverage should not so closely reflect public interest that important stories are nearly ignored. True, combat cooled since Iraq's insurgency.

And, yes, Americans -- war-weary and whipsawed by world events -- may actually be more worried about the home front. But in Iraq, lives were still at stake, just as they still are in Afghanistan.

If nothing else, "Support our Troops" should also mean we, and the media, pay attention to them.

This is particularly true when so much was already asked of so few: Pew estimates that one half of 1 percent of Americans have been on active military duty since 9/11.

News consumers sense this, too, said Dimock. "People really do care about the sacrifices people have been asked to make. But the reality is there are huge, pressing issues here at home that are of deep salience to people."

Among these people will be vets returning to economic and employment challenges. And here, despite the dwindling interest, the media has done admirable work, said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, director of public affairs for the Minnesota National Guard.

"The press was critical in conveying the home front sacrifices of our families, employers and communities during the war in Iraq. ... This coverage informed elected officials and the public about existing issues, and helped the Minnesota National Guard begin the "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" program, a groundbreaking process to reintegrate returning service members back from deployments."

Olson also saw a decline in media coverage between his two tours in Iraq, and he noted that just as media technology advanced during the war, so to did the media and public's understanding of the home-front challenges.

And unlike another long war, the public differentiated between the war and the warriors.

"There are a number of people who disagree with the policy and how it was implemented, but not anyone was less than very supportive of our service," Olson said.

So while no snapshot symbolized the end of the Iraq war, hopefully the best image will be one that doesn't capture a moment, but a movement: Veterans reunited with their families and communities.

* * *

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.

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