Washington Post Continues Blackout On Lancet Death-Count Critics

October 17th, 2006 7:20 PM

On Oct. 11, the Washington Post's David Brown filed Study Claims Iraq's 'Excess' Death Toll Has Reached 655,000, reporting this year's Lancet pre-election broadside against the war. While Brown noted the earlier study claiming 100,000 deaths was "controversial" and said this one would be too, he failed to cite a single critic attacking it. He did quote outside experts who support the study, and of course one of its co-authors, Gilbert Burnham. Since then the paper's only mention of the study has been in passing, again without any mention of its critics.

This blinkered view of the world was exposed today in a live chat with Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman:

Cumberland, Md.: The story from last week that has stayed with me the most is that 2.5 percent of the Iraqi population has died as a result of the war. That's amazing and sad and incredible and I wonder why people aren't more shaken up about this? If that happened here, based on the latest that America's got 300 million people, it'd be 7.5 million people. Even so, I think the report said that something like 600,000 people have died because of this. I know there are elections coming up here, and the voters can express their opinions then, but are they listening to all of this? Thanks.

Jonathan Weisman: It was a shocking statistic, but it was quickly dismissed by President Bush. The number became just another partisan issue, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. And as such, people tend to dismiss such stories as just more political gamesmanship. That's sad for the researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who after all are not doing the work of the Democratic National Committee.

Well, not on paid staff anyway. As Newsbusters' Mark Finkelstein pointed out, but the Post has not, co-author Les Roberts unsuccessfully campaigned this year to become the Democratic nominee for the 24th Congressional District in upstate New York, and said the Iraq war was launched "under unsupportable, and probably illegal, pretenses." As Finkelstein and Charles Johnson have reported, but the Post has not, Lancet editor Richard Horton is a fierce critic of the war, and Tony Blair, and President Bush. At an antiwar rally, Horton said:

[the British] government… prefers to support the killing of children instead of the building of hospitals and schools…As this axis of Anglo-American imperialism extends its influence through war and conquest, gathering power and wealth as it goes, so millions of people are left to die in poverty and disease.”

If you want to learn about these things, don't read the Washington Post. Read one of my commenters, ErnestD.

And while Weisman says the Lancet statistic was "quickly rejected by President Bush," it wasn't rejected only by President Bush, as I've been saying for days. Finkelstein's post cites a number of critics outside the Administration quoted by the BBC online, AP, and The New York Times. And now we have Iraq Body Count. None of this seems to have arrived inside Weisman's head. Which allows him to say this:

Bethesda, Md.: Two questions. (1)On the Johns Hopkins study that the Bush administration summarily dismissed, what is Hopkins doing to counter this disinformation campaign? (2) If the Dems. win the House, is Pelosi really a shoe-in for Speaker or might the Dems. decide on a different or more effective voice to represent them? and if so, who's in the running? Thanks. (I guess thats really three questions.)

Jonathan Weisman: 1) Nothing. It's not the place of researchers to counter a political campaign, and they did not release their study to be part of the political season....

Of course not. And the last study these folks co-authored, also published by the Lancet, also just happened to appear in October 2004 before the last national elections. Most likely the authors wanted to get it out so they could relax on one of those autumn foliage tours.

Philadelphia, Pa.: "That's sad for the researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who after all are not doing the work of the Democratic National Committee."

I wish that point would be made more often when reporters are covering this story. And that the truth isn't biased, it's the truth....

Jonathan Weisman: The truth is the truth, but statistics are not necessarily. The Hopkins study was done by taking a relatively small sample of households and extrapolating outward. Just like any academic study, it is subject to legitimate questioning.

In theory. In practice at the Post, not so much.

Centreville, Va.: I would remind "Independent" from Arlington that reporters don't make the news, only report on it. I may be naive, but I've never really understood the position that the press has a bias one way or another. I read the stories and decide what to think on my own. Whatever a reporter's political affiliation, if any, do you think that most reporters are able to simply report the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves?

Jonathan Weisman: I think we are very able. We have multiple layers of editors, and because of folks like Independent, we are very conscious of perceived bias.

Dear Centreville: Yes. You may be naive. Mr. Weisman: Please unblock your multiply layered firewalls that apparently lie between you and the Lancet's critics. Otherwise people ask questions like this (typos in original):

Twinbrook, Md.: How can Bush just get away with dismissing the Iraqi death toll study with a wave of his hand? This was a peer reviewd study using standard widly accepted scientifice methods. How come that hasn't gotten more press?

Jonathan Weisman: It's gotten a lot of press, but for goodness sakes, we have a lot to write about these days. (And we're spending a lot of time on Internet chats.)

Or, in the immortal words of Eugene Robinson, the study provided Science-Based Evidence.

Update: My favorite line in this long post? We have multiple layers of editors. Weisman actually said that.

Cross-posted, with slight alterations, at PostWatch