Fewer Bodies on the Ground
If peace flowers in Iraq, but no one's there to report on it, is it still news?


Pete Hegseth

American Air Base, Kuwait — On September 30, I wrote a piece for National Review Online called “The Sounds of Silence” which pointed out that the mainstream media’s coverage of events in Iraq had dropped off significantly.

There were two possible reasons for this lull. First, General David Petraeus had delivered his long-awaited testimony before Congress two weeks earlier, earning 24-hour news coverage for days. Following this, news outlets were eager to move to another topic — Iraq fatigue may have set in.

The second and more likely reason for this silence was that the news out of Iraq in the weeks following Petraeus’s report was largely positive. And in war coverage, as on the local news, if it bleeds, it leads. Explosions and killings drive headlines; safety and success aren’t newsworthy — or, at best, show up on page A17.

The second scenario was the more likely because, had the explosions and killings continued — had events on the ground put the lie to Petraeus’s positive testimony about progress in Iraq – the media would have been quick to seize on the contradiction. “General Betray-Us” would have been his title in the news section of the New York Times, not just in the paid advertising on its pages.

Yes, there was “Iraq fatigue” in the media following his report, but it’s hard to believe the New York Times would not have mustered the strength to report a resurgence by al-Qaeda or failures by American forces, had those occurred.

For quite some time, the mainstream media trumpeted the narrative of inevitable defeat in Iraq. General Petraeus’s testimony — and the facts it outlined — disrupted this narrative. Facing an acute case of “writer’s block,” the storyteller refused to change his story, and instead, fell silent.

As dishonest as this silence is, it’s still better than the public statements of the Democratic leadership in Congress, who persist in spreading the false narrative of inevitable defeat in Iraq. Senator Harry Reid, for instance, continues to poison public opinion with inaccurate descriptions of al-Qaeda’s growing strength — months after the surge’s success had become widely reported and recognized. Apparently, Reid never got the memo.

The relative media silence I noted in September continued — and intensified throughout October and November. As the good news from Iraq increased (American combat deaths down, and overall violence plummeting) the corresponding news coverage from Iraq decreased. How, could this be? It couldn’t all be media bias, could it?

Well, as I sit here in Kuwait, waiting for a flight to Baghdad, I’ve been chewing the fat with two sergeants from the Army’s Public Affairs Office (PAO). And early in our conversation, one of them remarked, “the flow of journalists coming through here has been a bit slow lately.” So I asked what the flow has looked like over the past year.

He pulled up the statistics, and sure enough, they tell a story. There was a significant increase of journalists headed to Iraq in late August 2007, reaching an apex in early September. Following the Petraeus hearings, there was a sharp decline — over 65 percent — in the number journalists making the trip from Kuwait into Iraq in late September, October, and November. Then the numbers climbed back up in December and January.

These numbers aren’t definitive, because most of the major outlets have a Baghdad bureau and send reporters directly to Baghdad, rather than through Kuwait. However, the likes of Fox News Channel, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Atlanta-Journal Constitution have all come through the PAO in Kuwait. These sergeants have their finger on the pulse of media interest in Iraq. And that interest is weakening, even as our prognosis for success improves.

If there’s no one there to cover the progress we’re making in Iraq, how will it reach the American people?

The media, en masse, will cover major events like General Petraeus’s testimony in September, and historic benchmarks like the one-year anniversary of the surge. But this is only periodic coverage; bombings and attacks win consistent coverage. Even in our interconnected world, without a body on the ground to report on the slow, steady, mundane progress we’re making, good news won’t make the news. Only dead bodies on the ground are front-page material.

Not a groundbreaking revelation, but a relevant one. The motto of the PAO section here in Kuwait is “Public Opinion Wins War” — and they’re mostly right. Soldiers and Marines on the front lines win wars, but they can’t do so without the support of their fellow citizens. To maintain that support, they need someone to tell their story.

NR editor Rich Lowry helped do just that in his recent report from Hamada. Now I hope to hitch a ride to Baghdad in a few hours, to do my part.

– Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He’s back in Iraq for the next week to cover the surge for NRO.