‘Journalists’ Tell Howard Kurtz Why Good News from Iraq Shouldn’t Get Reported (updated w/video)

As CNN's Howard Kurtz accurately pointed out on Sunday's "Reliable Sources," few media outlets seemed at all interested in giving much attention to the great news out of Iraq last week regarding September's sharp decline in casualties.

To Kurtz's obvious frustration, his guests - Robin Wright of the Washington Post and Barbara Starr of CNN - both supported the press burying this extremely positive announcement.

I kid you not.

*****Update: Wright responds to reader e-mail message at end of post.

After introducing the subject, Kurtz asked, "Robin Wright, should that decline in Iraq casualties have gotten more media attention?"

This was Wright's amazing answer (video available here):

Not necessarily. The fact is we're at the beginning of a trend -- and it's not even sure that it is a trend yet. There is also an enormous dispute over how to count the numbers. There are different kinds of deaths in Iraq.

There are combat deaths. There are sectarian deaths. And there are the deaths of criminal -- from criminal acts. There are also a lot of numbers that the U.S. frankly is not counting. For example, in southern Iraq, there is Shiite upon Shiite violence, which is not sectarian in the Shiite versus Sunni. And the U.S. also doesn't have much of a capability in the south.

So the numbers themselves are tricky.

Wow. Numbers shouldn't be reported because they're "tricky," "at the beginning of a trend," and there's "enormous dispute over how to count" them?

No such moral conundrum existed last month when media predicted a looming recession after the Labor Department announced a surprising decline in non-farm payrolls that ended up being revised up four weeks later to show an increase.

And, in the middle of a three and a half-year bull run in stocks, such "journalists" have no quandary predicting a bear market every time the Dow Jones Industrial Average falls a few hundred points.

Yet, when good news regarding military casualties comes from the Defense Department, these same people show uncharacteristic restraint in not wanting to report what could end up being an a anomaly.

Isn't that special?

Alas, not seeing the stupidity in this position, Starr, with a straight-face nonetheless, agreed with Wright:

But that's the problem, we don't know whether it is a trend about specifically the decline in the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq. This is not enduring progress. This is a very positive step on that potential road to progress.

Hmmm. So, I guess a "very positive step on that potential road to progress" isn't newsworthy, huh Barbara? Even Kurtz recognized the hypocrisy here, which led to the following:

KURTZ: But let's say that the figures had shown that casualties were going up for U.S. soldiers and going up for Iraqi civilians. I think that would have made some front pages.

STARR: Oh, I think inevitably it would have. I mean, that's certainly -- that, by any definition, is news. Look, nobody more than a Pentagon correspondent would like to stop reporting the number of deaths, interviewing grieving families, talking to soldiers who have lost their arms and their legs in the war. But, is this really enduring progress?

We've had five years of the Pentagon telling us there is progress, there is progress. Forgive me for being skeptical, I need to see a little bit more than one month before I get too excited about all of this.

Hmmm. So, a shocking increase in deaths would have "certainly" been newsworthy. However, for a decrease to be reported, skeptical journalists have to be more convinced that it's a lasting improvement.

Sadly, this is what makes today's reporters more like sports fans than real journalists.

After all, it shouldn't be their position to decide when a comeback, rally, or winning streak is real enough for them to jump on the bandwagon and get excited about. News - be it good or bad - is to be reported.

That's their job.

And when folks like this make dissemination decisions to not share information on something as important as American casualties of war due to their own personal skepticism, they have indeed abdicated their solemn responsibility to the public whose interest they regularly claim to serve.

What follows is a partial transcript of this segment.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The news from Iraq has been consistently depressing for several years now, a continuous tableau of death and destruction. But when the administration released more positive casualty figures this week, the media paid little attention. A couple of sentences on the "CBS EVENING NEWS" and NBC "NIGHTLY NEWS," The New York Times ran it on page 10, The Washington Post," page 14, USA Today page 16. The L.A. Times, a couple of paragraphs at the bottom of a page 4 story.

One exception was Charlie Gibson, who made it the lead story on ABC's "WORLD NEWS."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC ANCHOR: The U.S. military reports the fourth straight month of decline in troop deaths, 66 American troops died in September, each a terrible tragedy for a family, but the number far less than those who died in August. And the Iraqi government says civilian deaths across Iraq fell by half last month.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to put this into perspective, Robin Wright, who covers national security for The Washington Post. And CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Robin Wright, should that decline in Iraq casualties have gotten more media attention?

ROBIN WRIGHT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Not necessarily. The fact is we're at the beginning of a trend -- and it's not even sure that it is a trend yet. There is also an enormous dispute over how to count the numbers. There are different kinds of deaths in Iraq.

There are combat deaths. There are sectarian deaths. And there are the deaths of criminal -- from criminal acts. There are also a lot of numbers that the U.S. frankly is not counting. For example, in southern Iraq, there is Shiite upon Shiite violence, which is not sectarian in the Shiite versus Sunni. And the U.S. also doesn't have much of a capability in the south.

So the numbers themselves are tricky. Long-term, General Odierno, who was in town this week, said he is looking for irreversible momentum, and that, after two months, has not yet been reached.

KURTZ: Barbara Starr, CNN did mostly quick reads by anchors of these numbers. There was a taped report on "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Do you think this story deserved more attention? We don't know whether it is a trend or not but those are intriguing numbers.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: But that's the problem, we don't know whether it is a trend about specifically the decline in the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq. This is not enduring progress. This is a very positive step on that potential road to progress.

KURTZ: But let's say that the figures had shown that casualties were going up for U.S. soldiers and going up for Iraqi civilians. I think that would have made some front pages.

STARR: Oh, I think inevitably it would have. I mean, that's certainly -- that, by any definition, is news. Look, nobody more than a Pentagon correspondent would like to stop reporting the number of deaths, interviewing grieving families, talking to soldiers who have lost their arms and their legs in the war. But, is this really enduring progress?

We've had five years of the Pentagon telling us there is progress, there is progress. Forgive me for being skeptical, I need to see a little bit more than one month before I get too excited about all of this.

*****Update: Susan Duclos of Wake up America sent an e-mail message to Robin Wright concerning this matter. Here was Wright's response:

Ms. Duclos -
Thanks for your comments. The point I was trying to make on CNN is that two months do not make a permanent trend. As Gen. Odierno said last week, when he came to the Post, the numbers have been good the last couple of months but the US military has not yet reached the point of "irreversible momentum." When they do, it will certainly mean a different kind of reporting about the war in general. Unfortunately, all it will take is one or two really bad incidents and the numbers will start going up again. The numbers aren't the whole story either. The progress in Anbar has been widely covered in the US media -- and that in many ways tells us far more about both the war and the future than the death tolls.
I also think we're all a little nervous about declaring victories before we're fully confident that they represent a long-term and enduring trend and are not just a favorable blip on the screen.
With regards,
Robin Wright


Diplomatic Correspondent
The Washington Post
Telephone: 202 334-7443
Email: wrightr@washpost.com
Fax: 202 496-3883
Susan wasn't pleased with Wright's answer; neither am I.

 

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.