Prior to the war against Iraq, Americans heard very little from the corporate media about the most basic fact of war: people will be killed and civilian infrastructure will be destroyed, with devastating consequences long after the fighting stops.
Since the beginning of the year, according to a search of the Nexis database, none of the three major US television networks' nightly national newscasts — ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News — have examined in detail the likely long-term impact of the war will have on the people of Iraq.
The closest thing to a report on the likely humanitarian disaster that awaits Iraq was a January 23 CBS Evening News story about the mood in Iraq. Noting that "many [Iraqis] are genuinely scared" of war, the report stated that "almost half" of the country's people "would starve without government food handouts". But CBS's report shifted responsibility for any humanitarian disaster away from Washington, suggesting that what Iraqis fear "perhaps even more than an American military attack" is that domestic "hatred and revenge could tear [Iraq] apart" in the aftermath.
The networks' failure to integrate humanitarian concerns into their war coverage is especially striking in light of the numerous humanitarian and relief agencies that have issued urgent warnings about the impending crisis. Human Rights Watch, for instance, issued a 25-page briefing paper on February 13 warning of a "humanitarian disaster" impacting on hundreds of thousands of people if the US attacked Iraq. ABC, CBS and NBC did not cover HRW's findings.
Nor did they cover the announcement, made on February 13 by the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs Kenzo Oshima, that as many as 10 million people might need food assistance during and after an attack on Iraq, 50% of Iraq's population might be without potable water and that between 600,000 and 1.45 million people might become refugees.
Also unreported were internal UN estimates leaked to the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq and the Center for Economic and Social Rights, which predicted that 30% of Iraq's children under five "would be at risk of death from malnutrition" in the event of war (CASI press release, February 17) and that 500,000 people could "require medical treatment as a result of direct or indirect injuries", with potentially 100,000 Iraqi civilians wounded "and another 400,000 hit by disease after the bombing of water and sewage facilities and the disruption of food supplies".
ABC did address some humanitarian issues on Nightline (February 24) in a segment about the "aftermath" of war. The program reported that "millions of Iraqis will need food, fresh water and medical care" and that "tens of thousands" of refugees may be created. But the central question posed was: "Who will take care of them? The American military or private humanitarian groups?" Seen through Nightline's lens, the main humanitarian problem would be the quandary confronting the US as it both attacks Iraq and attempts to relieve the devastation it wreaks there.
Reporter John Donovan presented valuable information about the potentially "catastrophic" impact of war, but bracketed this with a tortured attempt to suggest that the US would not be the real cause of civilian suffering: "And even if Saddam is the source of so many of the Iraqi people's problems, very likely it's the US the world would choose to blame."
What could charitably be called Nightline's credulity was topped off by Donovan's closing lines. Humanitarian assistance is necessary to ensure that the war will have a "positive impact", he said, because "it is assumed that some Iraqi civilians, perhaps many, will be killed... Not deliberately, but as a result of what is called collateral damage."
Unfortunately, Nightline is not alone among major US media outlets in asserting that civilian deaths can be considered accidental even if the Pentagon predicts them ahead of time and factors them into its battle plans.
NBC Nightly News, for instance, aired a story on February 19 about the Pentagon's "growing worries" about civilian casualties, in which it reported that military officials predict that thousands of Iraqi civilians may "be killed entirely by accident in an intensive bombing campaign". Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski offered details of the planned "devastating" air assault and explained that "despite the most advanced technology" and "all the painstaking efforts the US military", a large percentage of bombs "will stray off target, increasing the likelihood that civilians will die".
Obviously, predicted deaths from an aerial bombardment of a major city cannot be said to come about "entirely by accident".
Commendably, CBS Evening News on January 13 aired one segment on the prospect of "door-to-door urban warfare" in Iraq that noted that fighting in cities like Baghdad, "filled with women, children and unarmed men", would involve heavy casualties, both military and civilian.
There have been other scattered mentions of civilian deaths on the three network nightly newscasts. All made brief mention on March 3 of Iraq's charges that US and British warplanes killed six civilians near Basra in early March. CBS and NBC on February 16 reported on the anniversary of the US destruction of the Amiriyah bomb shelter in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, an attack which killed more than 400 civilians.
(CBS thoughtfully noted that "apart from the tragedy" involved, "the images of the civilian dead and wounded were a major public relations setback".) All three networks have also aired stories about peace activists volunteering to be "human shields", which alluded to the activists' concerns about civilian casualties, but did not elaborate.
Overall, however, death and disaster have been discussed as troubling details rather than fundamental facts of war — unless the media can blame Saddam Hussein. One segment on ABC's Good Morning America on February 20, for instance, focused on the evils that Hussein may wreak. Reporter Claire Shipman asserted that "what the Bush administration most fears" is that Hussein might "starve thousands of his own people, destroy their infrastructures, even cities in order to slow down US troops, and then blame the United States". This remark was followed by a soundbite from a spokesperson from the Center for Strategic and International Studies asserting that Hussein "is very likely to try and commit some kind of humanitarian disaster" in the event of war.
It's important for journalists to investigate the Iraqi regime's atrocities, but the media must just as tirelessly investigate the Washington's role in Iraq's sufferings — and not merely as actions committed "by accident".
Journalists might remember, for example, that the US deliberately targeted Iraq's water system during the 1991 Gulf War, even while predicting that this would lead to large-scale epidemics (see the Progressive, September 2001).
When the media fails to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of deaths that US policy has contributed to in Iraq, they obscure the plain fact that war is always, in its own right, a humanitarian disaster.
[Abridged from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting at <http://www.fair.org>.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 26, 2003.
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