Sunday, January 09, 2005

While our attention was diverted ...

A timely piece from the BBC, reminding us that, while the world's (and the media's) "attention has been on the disaster in Asia, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated so much that the insurgency has developed into near-open warfare." Near-open warfare. I repeat that because it isn't repeated often enough in the U.S. media. Of particular concern is the estimate - by Gen Muhammad Shahwani, the head of Iraq's intelligence service - of the true number of insurgents at "200,000, of which 40,000 are said to be the hard core and the rest active supporters." This is likely to be one of those "bad numbers", like the claim made in The Lancet medical journal that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the coalition invasion, that gets very little play in the media. Both numbers might be accurate or inaccurate - I don't know - but the fact that they make so little impact in the U.S. (mediated) public sphere is mystifying. Last October Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, pointed out in that America’s public reaction to the Lancet study was as remarkable as the study itself:
    for the reaction has been no reaction. The vaunted New York Times ran a single story of 770 words on page 8 of the paper (October 29). The Times reporter apparently did not interview a single Bush administration or U.S. military official. No follow-up stories or editorials appeared, and no New York Times reporters assessed the story on the ground. Coverage in other U.S. papers was similarly frivolous. The Washington Post (October 29) carried a single 758-word story on page 16.

Whatever figure for Iraqi dead we come up with, it seems natural we should be playing close attention to it. After all, the media love numbers. We all know another number - 150,000 - which I don't need to tell you is the estimated number of dead from the Asian tsunami. The media have closely tracked that number - i.e., every day - as it has risen inexorably over the past two weeks. Yet nothing equivalent on dead Iraqis since the invasion? Not even a weekly update headlining the press and the cable news channels? Odd, that. But then nobody in the U.S. military or the Alawi administration even tracks the number of civilian deaths any more (Iraq's Health Ministry for some odd reason stopped doing that a year ago); so there's no easy oficial number reporters can go to for an easy story. And then of course the tsunami is a natural disaster for which no-one - and particularly no-one in the United States - can justifiably be blamed; whereas the dead in Iraq ...


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