In late October 2004, Ken
Silverstein, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau
of the Los Angeles Times, went to St. Louis to write about
Democratic efforts to mobilize African-American voters. In 2000,
the Justice Department later found, many of the city's black
voters had been improperly turned away from the polls by
Republican Party officials.
Democrats were charging the
Republicans with preparing to do the same in 2004, and
Silverstein found evidence for their claim. Republican officials
accused the Democrats of similar irregularities, but their case
seemed flimsy by comparison, a point that even a local
Republican official acknowledged to him.
While doing his research, however, Silverstein learned that the
Los Angeles Times had sent reporters to several other states to
report on charges of voter fraud, and, further, that his
findings were going to be incorporated into a larger national
story about how both parties in those states were accusing each
other of fraud and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing
the bland headline "Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing
the extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful atmosphere that
pervades battleground states in the final days of the
presidential campaign. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri,
Pennsylvania, Oregon and other key states, Democrats and
Republicans seem convinced their opponents are bent on stealing
The section on Missouri gave equal time to the claims of
Democrats and Republicans.
Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an editor a memo
outlining his concerns. The paper's "insistence on 'balance' is
totally misleading and leads to utterly spineless reporting with
no edge," he wrote. In Missouri, there was "a real effort on the
part of the GOP...to suppress pro-Dem constituencies." The GOP
complaints, by contrast, "concern isolated cases that are not
going to impact the outcome of the election." He went on:
I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The
idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time
to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both
sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we
see with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's just an easy
way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility
to inform readers.
This is not to deny that the best newspapers run many first-rate
stories, Silverstein said, or that reporters working on
long-term projects are often given leeway to "pile up evidence
and demonstrate a case." During the last year, he has written
articles on the ties between the CIA and the Sudanese
intelligence service; on American oil companies' political and
economic alliances with corrupt third-world regimes; and on
conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania Congressman John
When it comes to political coverage,
though, Silverstein told me, newspapers are too often,
"afraid of being seen as having
an opinion." They fear "provoking a reaction in which
they'll be accused of bias, however unfounded the charge."
The insistence on a "spurious balance," he says, is a
widespread problem in how TV and print organizations cover
news. "It's very stifling."
As Silverstein suggests, this fear
of bias, and of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful
sedative on American journalists—one whose effect has been
magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative bloggers and
radio talk-show hosts. One reason journalists performed so
poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that there were few
Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration on the
record; without such cover, journalists feared they would be
branded as hostile to the President and labeled as "liberal" by
The Plame leak case has provided further insight into the
relation between the journalistic and political establishments.
It's now clear that Lewis Libby was an important figure in the
White House and a key architect of the administration's push for
war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to have spoken with him
regularly, and to have been fully aware of his power, yet
virtually none bothered to inform the public about him, much
less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president.
A search of major newspapers in the
fifteen months before the war turned up exactly one substantial
article about Libby — a breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the
The New York Times about his novel The Apprentice.
In reporting on the government, the
Los Angeles Times, like
other papers, faces another serious constraint. As a result of
budget cuts imposed by its corporate owner, The Tribune Company,
the Times recently reduced its Washington staff from sixty-one
to fifty-five (of whom thirty-nine are reporters). Doyle
McManus, the bureau chief, says the paper is stretched very
thin. Since September 11, 2001, he has had to assign so many
reporters (eight at the moment) to covering news about national
security that many domestic issues have been neglected.
The Times has only four daily
reporters to cover everything from health care to labor to the
regulatory agencies, and it has no regular reporter in
Washington dealing with the problems of the environment. "It's
nuts for a California paper to have its environmental job open
this long," McManus says.
The Chicago Tribune, he said, has a
full-time agriculture writer whose beat includes agribusiness
and its activities in Washington. Despite the huge national
political influence of agricultural interests, the Los Angeles
Times, like most other big US papers, lacks the resources to
report on them regularly.
The same is true of most of official Washington. At no time
since before the New Deal, perhaps, has corporate America had so
much power and so much influence in Washington. Between 1998 and
2004, the amount of money spent on lobbying the federal
government doubled to nearly $3 billion a year, according to the
Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group.
The US Chamber of Commerce alone
spent $53 million in 2004. During the last six years, General
Motors has spent $48 million and Ford $41 million. Before
joining the Bush White House, chief of staff Andrew Card worked
as a lobbyist for the big auto companies. To what extent have
such payments and activities contributed to the virtual freeze
on the fuel-efficiency standards that have long been in effect
in the US and which have helped to produce the current oil
crisis? More generally, how have corporations used their
extraordinary wealth to win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts,
and bend administrative rules to their liking?
On November 10, The Wall Street
Journal ran a probing front-page piece about how the textile
industry, through intensive lobbying, won quotas on Chinese
imports—an example of the type of analysis that far too rarely
appears in our leading publications.
"Wall Street's influence in
Washington has been one of the most undercovered areas in
journalism for decades," according to Charles Lewis, the former
director of the Center for Public Integrity.
Of course, corporations are extensively covered in the business
sections of most newspapers. These began growing in size in the
1970s and 1980s, and today The New York Times has about sixty
reporters assigned to business. The Times, along with The Wall
Street Journal, runs many stories raising questions about
For the most part, though, the
business sections are addressed to members of the business world
and are mainly concerned to provide them with information they
can use to invest their money, manage their companies, and
understand Wall Street trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, the
business press in the 1980s largely missed the savings and loan
scandal. In the 1990s, it published enthusiastic reports on the
high-tech boom, then watched in bafflement as it collapsed.
Of the hundreds of American business
reporters, only one —Fortune's Bethany McLean— had the
independence and courage to raise questions about the high
valuation of Enron's stock. The criminal activities in recent
years of not only Exxon but also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and
other corporate malefactors have largely been exposed not by the
business press but by public prosecutors; and the fate of the
companies involved, and of those who were damaged by their lies,
has been only fitfully followed up.
While business sections grow larger, the labor beat remains very
solitary. In contrast to the many reporters covering business,
the Times has only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time
about labor and workplace issues. (Several other Times reporters
cover labor-related issues as part of their beats.)
Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at
once, reporting on union politics, low-wage workers, and
corporate labor practices. More than any other big-city
reporter, he has called attention to Wal-Mart's Dickensian
working conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When, for
instance, General Motors recently announced that it was scaling
back health benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on
the Times' front page for a day, then settled back into the
business section, where it was treated as another business
As a result, the paper has largely
overlooked the painful social effects that the retrenchments at
GM, the auto-parts company Delphi, and other manufacturing
concerns have had on the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of
our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of
the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West
Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so
provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.
This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years as the
lone labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times, left her beat. She
made the move "out of frustration," she told me.
"really didn't want to have
labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a
management and business perspective—'how do we deal with
In 2003, Cleeland was one of several
reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart's labor
practices that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize. That, she had
hoped, would convince her editors of the value of covering
labor, but in the end it didn't, she says.
"They don't consider
themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they're all
making too much money to relate to the problems that
working-class people are facing," observed Cleeland, who is now
writing about high school dropouts.
Despite her strong urging, the paper
has yet to name anyone to replace her.
(Russ Stanton, the Los Angeles
Times's business editor, says that the paper did value
Cleeland's reporting, as shown by her many front-page stories.
However, with his section recently losing six of its forty-eight
reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position is
unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)
On August 30—the same day
the waters of Lake Pontchartrain inundated New Orleans — the
Census Bureau released its annual report on the nation's
economic well-being. It showed that the poverty rate had
increased to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 12.5 percent in the
In New York City, where so many
national news organizations have their headquarters, the rate
rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 20.3 percent in 2004, meaning
that one in every five New Yorkers is poor. On the Upper West
Side of Manhattan, where I — and many editors of The New York
Times — live, the number of homeless people has visibly grown. Yet
somehow they rarely appear in the pages of the press.
In 1998, Jason DeParle, after covering the debate in Washington
over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as well as its initial
implementation, convinced his editors at The New York Times to
let him live part-time in Milwaukee so that he could see
Wisconsin's experimental approach up close. They agreed, and
over the next year DeParle's reporting helped keep the welfare
issue in the public eye.
In 2000, he took a leave to write a
book about the subject, and the Times did not name anyone to
replace him on the national poverty beat. And it still hasn't.
Earlier this year, the Times ran a monumental series on class,
and, in its day-to-day coverage of immigration, Medicaid, and
foster care, it does examine the problems of the poor, but
certainly the stark deprivation afflicting the nation's urban
cores deserves more systematic attention.
In March, Time magazine featured on its cover a story headlined
"How to End Poverty," which was about poverty in the developing
world. Concerning poverty in this country, the magazine ran
very, very little in the first eight months of the year, before
Here are some of the covers Time
chose to run in that period:
"Meet the Twixters: They
Just Won't Grow Up"
"The 25 Most Influential
Evangelicals in America"
"The Right (and Wrong) Way
to Treat Pain"
"Hail, Mary" (the Virgin
"Ms. Right" (Anne Coulter)
"The Last Star Wars"
"A Female Midlife Crisis?"
"Inside Bill's New X-Box"
(Bill Gates's latest video game machine)
"Lose That Spare Tire!"
"The 25 Most Influential
Hispanics in America"
"Hip Hop's Class Act"
"How to Stop a Heart
The magazine's editors put special
energy into their April 18 cover, "The Time 100." Now in its
second year, this annual feature salutes the hundred "most
influential" people in the world, including most recently NBA
forward Lebron James, country singer Melissa Etheridge,
filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Ann Coulter (again!), journalist
Malcolm Gladwell, and evangelical best-selling author Rick
Time enlisted additional celebrities
to write profiles of some of the chosen one hundred—Tom Brokaw
on Jon Stewart, Bono on Jeffrey Sachs, Donald Trump on Martha
Stewart, and Henry Kissinger on Condoleezza Rice (she's handling
the challenges facing her "with panache and conviction" and is
enjoying "a nearly unprecedented level of authority").
To celebrate, Time invited the
influential and their chroniclers to a black-tie gala at Jazz
at Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner Building.
A staff member of Time's business department told me that the
"100" issue is highly valued because of the amount of
advertising it generates. In 2004, for instance, when
Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was named a "Builder and
Titan," her company bought a two-page spread in the issue.
Because Time's parent company, Time Warner, must post strong
quarterly earnings to please Wall Street, the pressure to turn
out such moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there's
little advertising to be had from writing about inner-city
mothers, so the magazine seems unlikely to alter its coverage in
any significant way.
Time's "100" gala is only one of the many glitzy events on the
journalists' social calendar. The most popular is the White
House Correspondents' Dinner. This year, hundreds of the
nation's top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to
mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs,
diplomats, and actors.
Laura Bush's naughty Desperate
Housewives routine, in which she teased her husband for his
early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was
shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn't shown was
journalists jumping to their feet and applauding wildly.
Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the
hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog,
The Nation's David Corn described arriving with Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, New York Times columnist
Maureen Dowd, and Times editor
Seeing the long line, Corn feared he
wouldn't get in, but suddenly Arianna Huffington showed up and
"whisked me into her entourage." Huffington, he noted, asked
everyone she encountered —Wesley Clark, John Podesta— if they'd
like to participate in her new celebrity-rich mega-blog.
It was left to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show to imagine what the
journalists and politicos at the dinner were saying to one
another: "Deep down, we're both entrenched oligarchies with a
stake in maintaining the status quo—enjoy your scrod."
A ruthlessly self-revealing look at journalists' obsession with
celebrity was provided earlier this year by Bernard Weinraub.
Writing in The New York Times about his experience covering
Hollywood for the paper between 1991 and 2005, he told of
becoming friendly with Jeffrey Katzenberg (when he was head of
Walt Disney Studios), of being dazzled by the ranch-style house
of producer Dawn Steel, of resenting the huge financial gulf
between him and the people he was covering. He recalled:
Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my
company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned
producer who said, "I used to drive a car like that." Though I'm
ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near
Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a
valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some
luncheon companion with a Mercedes.
During the 1990s, the Times reporters, Weinraub among them,
breathlessly recorded every move of the agent Michael Ovitz.
Today, it does the same for Harvey Weinstein. The paper's
coverage of movies, TV, pop music, and video games concentrates
heavily on ratings, box-office receipts, moguls, boardroom
struggles, media strategists, power agents, who's up and who's
The paper pays comparatively little
attention to the social or political effects of pop culture,
including how middle Americans regard the often sensational and
violent entertainment that nightly invades their homes.
As in the case of factory shutdowns,
journalists at the elite papers are not in touch with such
people and so rarely write about them.
All of the problems
affecting newspapers appear in even more acute form when it
comes to TV. The loss of all three of the famous anchors of the
broadcast networks has led to much anxiety about the future, and
CBS's decision to name Sean McManus, the president of its sports
division, as its new news chief has done little to allay it.
Yet even under Peter Jennings, Tom
Brokaw, and Dan Rather, the network news divisions had become
stale and predictable. After September 11, there was much talk
about how the networks had to recover their traditional mission
and educate Americans about the rest of the world, yet one need
only watch the evening news for a night or two to see how absurd
were such expectations.
On November 4, for instance, CBS's
Bob Schieffer spent a few fleeting moments commenting on some
footage of the recent rioting by young Muslims in France before
introducing a much longer segment on stolen cell phones and the
anxiety they cause their owners. ABC's World News Tonight's most
frequent feature, "Medicine on the Cutting Edge," seems directed
mainly at offering tips to its aging viewers about how they
might hold out for a few more years—and at providing the drug
companies a regular ad platform. In 2004, the three networks
together devoted 1,174 minutes —nearly twenty full hours—to
missing women, all of them white.
Decrying the decline of network news has long been a popular
pastime. The movie Good Night, and Good Luck features a famous
jeremiad that Edward R. Murrow delivered at a meeting of the
Radio and TV News Directors Association in 1958, in which he
assailed the broadcast industry for being "fat, comfortable, and
In 1988, the journalist Peter Boyer
published a book titled Who Killed CBS? (The answer: CBS News
President Van Gordon Sauter.) Tom Fenton's more recent Bad News:
The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger
to Us All, is especially revealing, drawing as it does on
extensive firsthand experience. In 1970, when Fenton went to
work for CBS, in Rome, the bureau there had three
correspondents—part of a global network that included fourteen
major foreign bureaus, ten mini-bureaus, and stringers in
Today, CBS has eight foreign
correspondents and three bureaus. Four of the correspondents are
based in London, where they are kept busy doing voice-overs for
video feeds from the Associated Press and Reuters—the form that
most international news on the networks now takes.
During his years at CBS, Fenton writes, he took pride in finding
That was my job, my fun, my
life—until the megacorporations that have taken over the
major American television news companies squeezed the life
out of foreign news reporting.
Of the many people in the business
he spoke with while researching his book, he writes, "almost
everyone" agreed that the networks "are doing an inadequate job
reporting world news."
Among the exceptions were Brokaw,
Jennings, and Rather, none of whom, he writes,
"seemed to share my intensity of
concern at the lack of foreign news and context on their
Fenton writes angrily about the
immense sums the anchors were pulling down while their bureaus
were being shuttered. Noting Tom Brokaw's plans to retire as
anchor and do more investigative reporting, he asks,
stopping him from sending his correspondents out to do that for
the last fifteen years or so?" (The answer is hinted at in
Fenton's brief acknowledgment that foreign stories cost twice as
much to produce as domestic ones.)
In Fenton's view, the press has grown so lax that "anyone with
the merest enterprise can have a field day cherry-picking
gigantic unreported stories."
Seymour Hersh as saying he
couldn't believe all the overlooked stories he was able to
report on simply because The New Yorker allowed him to write
what he wanted. Fenton lists some major stories that remain
neglected, including the influence of Saudi money on US policies
toward the Middle East, the links between the big oil companies
and the White House, and the largely ignored dark side of
Kurdish activities in Iraq.
"Nowhere has the news media's
ignorant performance been more egregious than in its
handling of the Kurds," he writes, "a catalogue of sorry
incompetence and dangerous misinformation that continues to
He mentions the murderous feuds
between the two Kurdish strongmen Jalal Talabani and Massoud
Barzani, and the "tribulations and suffering" of minorities like
the Turcomans and Assyrian Christians living under the "strong
arm of Kurdish rule."
The Kurds have always been cast as
good guys, and no American news organization, he writes,
"wants to burden us with such
complex and challenging details. You never know what might
happen—viewers might switch to another channel."
Iraq remains by far the
most important story for the US press, showing its strengths as
well as its many weaknesses—especially the way in which
political realities shape, define, and ultimately limit what
Americans see and read. The nation's principal news
organizations deserve praise for remaining committed to covering
the war in the face of lethal risks, huge costs, and public
Normally The Washington Post has
four correspondents in the country, backed by more than two
dozen Iraqis, as well as three armored cars costing $100,000.
The New York Times bureau costs $1.5 million a year to maintain.
And many excellent reports have resulted. In June, for instance,
The Wall Street Journal ran a revealing front-page story by
Farnaz Fassihi about how the violence between Muslim groups in
Iraq had destroyed a longtime friendship between two Baghdad
neighbors, one Sunni and the other Shiite.
In October, in The Washington Post,
Steven Fainaru described how Kurdish political parties were
repatriating thousands of Kurds in the northern oil city of
Kirkuk, setting off fighting between Kurdish settlers and local
Arabs. And in The New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise described
how the growing chaos in Iraq was eroding the living standards
of middle-class Iraqis, turning their frustration "into
Just a few months before, at the start of the year, however, the
tone of the coverage was very different. President Bush, fresh
from his reelection, was enjoying broad public support, and he
was making the most of Iraq's January 30 election, which was
widely proclaimed a success. The anti-Syria demonstrations in
Lebanon and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of
the Palestinian Authority only added to the impression of the
growing success of Bush's foreign policy. Journalists rushed to
praise his leadership and sagacity.
"What Bush Got Right," Newsweek
declared on its March 14 cover. Recent developments in Iraq,
Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East had "vindicated" the
President, the magazine declared.
"Across New York, Los Angeles
and Chicago — and probably Europe and Asia as well—people are
nervously asking themselves a question: 'Could he possibly
have been right?' The short answer is yes."
Another article, headlined,
"Condi's Clout Offensive,"
hailed the new secretary of state, noting how she "has
rushed onto the world stage with force and style, and with
the fair wind of the Arab Democratic Spring at her back."
Rounding out the package was "To the
Front," a look at US soldiers who, having lost limbs in Iraq and
"are doing the unthinkable:
Going back into battle."
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was daily
celebrating Iraq's strides toward democracy. On April 6, for
instance, after the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was selected
as Iraq's new president, Blitzer asked Robin Wright of
Washington Post and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution
about him and his two deputies.
Blitzer, addressing Wright, said,
"They're all pretty moderate and
they're pretty pro-American, is that fair?"
"Absolutely," said Wright. "These are people who have been
educated in the West, have had contacts with Western
countries, particularly in the United States...."
Blitzer: Your sense is this is
about as good, Ken Pollack, as the US, as the Bush
administration, as the American public could have hoped for,
at least as a start for this new Iraqi democracy.
Pollack: Absolutely. I think the Bush administration has to
be pleased with the personnel.
Such leading questions provide a
good example of Blitzer's interviewing style, which seems
designed to make sure his guests say nothing remotely
spontaneous; the exchange also makes clear the deference that
CNN, and the press as a whole, showed President Bush just after
his reelection, during the first months of the year. Throughout
this period, violence continued to plague Iraq, but stories
about it were mostly consigned to the inside pages.
US soldiers continued to die, but
this news was mostly relegated to the "crawl" along the bottom
of the cable news shows.
Then, in April, insurgent attacks began to increase, and Bush's
popularity began to slide. As oil prices rose and the Plame leak
investigation got more attention, political space for tougher
reporting began to open up. The stories about assassinations and
ambushes that had earlier been buried began appearing on the
front page, and Wolf Blitzer, newly emboldened, began
questioning his guests about US exit strategies.
By late October, when the two-thousandth US serviceman died, the
news was splashed across the nation's front pages.
As Iraq Tours Stretch On, a Grim Mark," declared The New York
As the Times's Katharine Seelye
pointed out a few days later, this milestone received far more
press attention than had the earlier one of one thousand, in
Still, there remained
firm limits on what could be reported out of Iraq. Especially
taboo were frank accounts of the actions of US troops in the
field —particularly when those actions resulted in the deaths of
On the same day The Times ran its front-page story about the two
thousand war dead, for instance, it ran another piece on page
A12 about the rising toll of Iraqi civilians. Since the US
military does not issue figures on this subject, Sabrina Tavernise relied on Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit Web site that
keeps a record of casualty figures from news accounts. The site,
she wrote, placed the number of dead civilians since the start
of the US invasion at between 26,690 and 30,051. (Even the
higher number was probably too low, the article noted, since
many deaths do not find their way into news reports.)
The Times deserves credit simply for
running this story — for acknowledging that, as high a price as
American soldiers have paid in the war, the one paid by Iraqi
civilians has been much higher. Remarkably, though, in
discussing the cause of those deaths, the article mentioned only
insurgents. Not once did it raise the possibility that some of
those deaths might have come at the hands of the "Coalition."
This is typical. A survey of the Times' coverage of Iraq in the
month of October shows that, while regularly reporting civilian
deaths caused by the insurgents, it rarely mentioned those
inflicted by Americans; when it did, it was usually deep inside
the paper, and heavily qualified.
Thus, on October 18 the Times
ran a brief article at the bottom of page A11 headlined,
Are Killed by American Airstrikes in Sunni Insurgent Stronghold
West of Baghdad."
Citing military sources, the article
noted in its lead that the air strikes had been launched
"against insurgents" in the embattled city of Ramadi, "killing
as many as 70 people." A US Army colonel was cited as saying
that a group of insurgents in four cars had been spotted,
"trying to roll artillery shells
into a large crater in eastern Ramadi that had been caused
when a roadside bomb exploded the day before, killing five
US and two Iraqi soldiers."
At that point, according to the
Times, "an F-15 fighter plane dropped a guided bomb on the area,
killing all 20 men on the ground." The Times went on to report
the colonel's claim that "no civilians had been killed in the
strikes." In one sentence, the article noted that Reuters,
"citing hospital officials in Ramadi," had reported "that
civilians had been killed."
It did not elaborate. Instead, it
went on to mention other incidents in Ramadi in which US
helicopters and fighter planes had killed "insurgents."
The AP told a very different story. The "group of insurgents"
that the military claimed had been hit by the F-15 was actually
"a group of around two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage
of the US military vehicle" that had been attacked the previous
day, the AP reported.
The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting
another roadside bomb in the location of the blast that killed
the Americans. F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided
bomb, killing 20 people, described by the statement as
But several witnesses and one local leader said the people were
civilians who had gathered to gawk at the wreckage of the US
vehicle or pick pieces off of it—as often occurs after an
American vehicle is hit.
The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 people, said Chiad Saad,
a tribal leader, and several witnesses who refused to give their
Readers of the Times learned none of these details.
This is not an isolated case. Regularly reading the paper's Iraq
coverage during the last few months, I have found very little
mention of civilians dying at the hands of US forces. No doubt
the violence on Iraq's streets keeps reporters from going to
these sites to interview witnesses, but Times stories seldom
notify readers that its reporters were unable to question
witnesses to civilian casualties because of the danger they
would face in going to the site of the attack.
Yet the paper regularly publishes
official military claims about dead insurgents without any
independent confirmation. After both General Tommy Franks and
Donald Rumsfeld declared in 2003 that "we don't do body counts,"
the US military has quietly begun doing just that. And the Times
generally relays those counts without questioning them.
In any discussion of civilian casualties, it is important to
distinguish between the insurgents, who deliberately target
civilians, and the US military, which does not—which, in fact,
goes out of its way to avoid them. Nonetheless, all
indications point to a very high toll at the hands of the US. As
seems to have been the case in Ramadi, many of the deaths have
resulted from aerial bombardment. Since the start of the
invasion, the United States has dropped 50,000 bombs on Iraq.
About 30,000 were dropped during the
five weeks of the war proper. Though most of the 50,000 bombs
have been aimed at military targets, they have undoubtedly
caused much "collateral damage," and claimed an untold number of
But according to Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, the toll
from ground actions is probably much higher. Garlasco speaks
with special authority; before he joined Human Rights Watch, in
mid-April 2003, he worked for the Pentagon, helping to select
targets for the air war in Iraq. During the ground war, he says,
the military's use of cluster bombs was especially lethal. In
just a few days of fighting in the city of Hilla, south of
Baghdad, Human Rights Watch found that cluster bombs killed or
injured more than five hundred civilians.
Since the end of the ground war, Garlasco says, many civilians
have been killed in crossfire between US and insurgent forces.
Others have been shot by US military convoys; soldiers in
Humvees, seeking to avoid being hit by suicide bombers, not
infrequently fire on cars that get too close, and many turn out
to have civilians inside.
According to Garlasco, private
security contractors kill many civilians; they tend to be "loosey-goosey"
in their approach, he says, "opening fire if people don't get
out of the way quickly enough."
Probably the biggest source of civilian casualties, though, is
Coalition checkpoints. These can go up anywhere at any time, and
though they are supposed to be well marked, they are in practice
often hard to detect, especially at night, and US
soldiers—understandably wary of suicide bombers —often shoot
first and ask questions later. Many innocent Iraqis have died in
Such killings came into public view in March, when the car
carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, rushing to the
Baghdad airport after her release from captivity, was fired on
by US troops; she was badly wounded and the Italian intelligence
officer accompanying her was killed. Three days after the
incident, The New York Times ran a revealing front-page story
headlined "US Checkpoints Raise Ire in Iraq."
Next to the prisoner abuse scandal
at Abu Ghraib, John Burns wrote,
no other aspect of the American
military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay
and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts
on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security
companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no
apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded
by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that
the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.
US and Iraqi officials said they had
no figures on such casualties, Burns reported,
but any Westerner working in Iraq comes across numerous accounts
of apparently innocent deaths and injuries among drivers and
passengers who drew American fire, often in circumstances that
have left the Iraqis puzzled, wondering what, if anything, they
Many, he said, "tell of being fired on with little or no
Burns's account showed that it was possible to write such
stories despite the pervasive violence, and despite the lack of
official figures. While few such stories have appeared in this
country, they are common abroad.
"If you go to the Middle East,
that's all you hear about—the US killing civilians," Marc Garlasco observes. "It's on the news all the time."
In this country, one can catch glimpses of this reality in
documentaries like the recently released Occupation: Dreamland,
in which directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, drawing on the
six weeks they spent with an Army unit stationed outside Fallujah, show how the best-intentioned soldiers, faced with a
hostile population speaking a strange language and worshiping an
alien God, can routinely resort to actions designed to
intimidate and humiliate.
One can also find glimpses in The
New York Times Magazine, which has been much bolder than the
daily New York Times. In May, Peter Maass, writing in the Times
Magazine, described how Iraqi commando units, trained by US
counterinsurgency experts, are fighting a "dirty war" in which
beatings, torture, and even executions are routine.
And in October, Dexter Filkins, also
in the Times Magazine, described the sobering case of Lieutenant
Colonel Nathan Sassaman, a West Point graduate who, under
constant attacks in a volatile Sunni area, approved rough
tactics against the local population, including forcing local
Iraqi men to jump into a canal as punishment. One died as a
Only by reading and watching such accounts is it possible to
fathom the depths of Iraqi hatred for the United States. It's
not the simple fact of occupation that's at work, but the way
that occupation is being carried out, and the daily indignities,
humiliations, and deaths that accompany it. If reports of such
actions appeared more frequently in the press, they could help
raise questions about the strategy the US is pursuing in Iraq
and encourage discussion of whether there's a better way to
deploy US troops.
Why are such reports so rare?
The simple lack of language skills
is one reason. Captain Zachary Miller, who commanded a company
of US troops in eastern Baghdad in 2004 and who is now studying
at the Kennedy School of Government, told me that of the fifty
or so Western journalists who went out on patrol with his
troops, hardly any spoke Arabic, and few bothered to bring
interpreters. As a result, they were totally dependent on Miller
and his fellow soldiers.
"Normally, the reporters didn't ask
questions of the Iraqis," he said. "They asked me."
In addition, many US journalists feel queasy about quoting
eyewitnesses who offer information that runs counter to
statements put out by the US military. Journalists don't like
writing stories in which an Iraqi civilian's word is pitted
against that of a US officer, regardless of how much evidence
there is to back up the civilian's claims.
The many tough pieces in the press
about abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret detention
facilities usually have official US sources and so are less open
Even more important, though, I believe, are political realities.
The abuses that US troops routinely commit in the field, and
their responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of
innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American press as too
sensitive for most Americans to see or read about.
When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites
filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced as an antiwar activist, and
sent death threats. Such incidents feed the deep-seated fear
that many US journalists have of being accused of being
anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field.
subjects remain off-limits.
Of course, if the situation in Iraq were further to unravel, or
if President Bush were to become more unpopular, the boundaries
of the acceptable might expand further, and subjects such as
these might begin appearing on our front pages. It's
regrettable, though, that editors and reporters have to wait for
such developments. Of all the internal problems confronting the
press, the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive
matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and
provoke, remains by far the most troubling.
On November 8, I turned on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 to see how
the host was doing in his new job. It was Election Day, and I
was hoping to find some analysis of the results.
found Cooper leading a discussion on a new sex survey conducted
by Men's Fitness and Shape magazines. I learned that 82 percent
of men think they're good or excellent in bed, and that New
Yorkers report they have more sex than the residents of any
At that moment, New Orleans and
Katrina seemed to be in a galaxy far, far away.
—November 16, 2005
 Her comments on her case are
 See "The End of News?," The New York Review, December 1,
 See the discussion of conservative new commentators in
"The End of News?"
 American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's
Drive to End Welfare (Viking, 2004); see the review by
Christopher Jencks in this issue of The New York Review.
 For more on this subject, see my article "Off Course,"
Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2005.
 See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "A Face and a
Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq," October
 See the NPR show This American Life, "What's in a
Number?" October 28, 2005.
 Human Rights Watch has issued many reports about the
civilian victims of US military actions, including "Civilian
Deaths/Checkpoints," October 2003, in which it observed that
"the individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this
report reveal a pattern by US forces of over-aggressive
tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a
quick reliance on lethal force."