That the Iraq War is no longer a high priority for TV news divisions is obvious — if not merely in the amount of personnel and program minutes dedicated to a conflict that still involves 130,000 U.S. troops, then in how much network executives are willing to talk about their coverage on the record.
On the evening newscasts at ABC, CBS and NBC, where the bulk of the broadcast networks’ Iraq coverage is placed, program minutes dedicated to Iraq seem commensurate with the military death toll: 1,888 minutes in 2007 and just over 400 minutes in 2008, according to news analyst Andrew Tyndall. The U.S military sustained 303 casualties in 2008, according to GlobalSecurity.org. That is less than half the yearly casualties of 2004 through 2007, which was the deadliest year on record with nearly 900 service men and women killed. Baghdad bureaus, in turn, have been reduced to skeletal levels.
In Brian Stelter’s diligent report in Monday’s New York Times about the severe media drawdown in Iraq, none of the executives at the broadcast networks would talk to Stelter on the record.
"ABC, CBS and NBC declined to speak on the record about their news coverage decisions," writes Stelter. "But representatives for the networks emphasized that they would continue to cover the war and said the staff adjustments reflected the evolution of the conflict in Iraq from a story primarily about violence to one about reconstruction and politics.”
In the summer of 2007, when I wrote about the financial and personal burdens of covering Iraq – the deadliest conflict ever for journalists – executives and correspondents at all three networks spoke on the record about the challenges they faced in Iraq. Then, running a fully staffed bureau was costing them about $7 million a year, a disproportionate amount of that going toward hiring heavily armed security to protect their employees. I spent nearly an hour on the phone with CBS News’ chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, who was in Baghdad at the time. NBC’s Richard Engel and ABC’s Terry McCarthy also spoke candidly about the dangers of covering a story where western journalists had become targets.
A year and a half and a presidential election later, Iraq is still costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each month. But you will find few, if any famous faces reporting from Baghdad.
The American television media has collectively relegated the war to the occasional standup. Viewers now get the view from 30,000 feet, hung on video from foreign sources with little context. It is a vicious circle, a symptom of the industry’s shift from a public service-driven to a ratings-driven mission, to be sure. And the recent financial crisis has only accelerated the contraction.
There are exceptions. And yes, newsgathering has changed and evolved. Foreign partnerships, pooling agreements and one-man band correspondents can punch the ticket at global hot-spots. But it’s hard to find the kind of human interest stories that viewers respond to when your mandate is simply to plant the flag with a drive-by report.
Has substantive foreign news become a luxury many news organizations have decided they can ill afford? Perhaps. But, it seems, it is corporate heresy to say so.