Politics & Policy

Bad Counts

An unquestioning media.

Last Tuesday, the hard-left antiwar group Iraq Body Count issued a “dossier” on civilian casualties in Iraq. The group compiled this dossier using its database of civilian casualties, which it maintains using reports from various media sources. The database is irredeemably flawed–to say nothing of the dossier it spawned.

#ad#The dossier alleges that 24,865 civilians in Iraq died violently between March 20, 2003 and March 19, 2005. It alleges that coalition forces were responsible for 37 percent of those deaths, and that insurgents were responsible for only 9.5 percent. “Criminal violence” gets 36 percent of the blame, and 11 percent goes to “unknown agents”–a category into which suicide bombers are strangely lumped.

The group’s antiwar credentials are impeccable–they are affliated with a who’s who of hard-left organizations, from Counterpunch to Peace UK to Operation Human Shields. A number of music professors from a group Musicians Opposing War round out the group’s roster, making it such an imminently credible source of scholarly research that the mainstream media, once it got the press release, trumpeted the group’s findings without much qualification.

The BBC ran a report shortly after the press release went out that identified the dossier’s authors as “the Iraq Body Count group and Oxford-based academics.” After a short introduction, the BBC essentially reprinted the press release.

The phrase “Oxford-based academics” referred to the dossier’s cosponsor, the Oxford Research Group. This antiwar group, though located in Oxford, is not part of the University of Oxford–yet the BBC’s report, though technically accurate, certainly left the impression that it is.

In this report, Reuters only identified the study’s authors as a “US-British non-government group” and reported that “US-led forces have been found to be chiefly responsible for deaths,” without questioning the methods that yielded such a result.

To Hassan M. Fattah of the New York Times, it sufficed to identify Iraq Body Count as a “London-based group”. Again, “American fire accounted for the greatest loss of life in Iraq.” Fattah admits, at the bottom of his report, that it is “not clear how the report differentiated between insurgents and terrorists.” Indeed, such answers seem as elusive as fresh air on garbage day in the Big Apple. Of course, Fattah could have easily learned from the dossier itself that the “unknown agents” category includes terrorists “who do not attack obvious military/strategic or occupation-related targets.” But who needs to check such things? “The deaths were painstakingly cross-referenced and reconfirmed across various news media, researchers said,” and that explanation is good enough for Fattah.

Viewers of Newshour on PBS heard Gwen Ifill describe the group as “U.S.-British organization.” Again, viewers heard that “insurgents were blamed for about 10 percent” of civilian deaths, without any explanation of the methodology behind that claim.

Listeners to Day to Day on NPR heard host Alex Chadwick interview John Sloboda, one of the men behind the dossier. Of Iraq Body Count’s estimate of 25,000 civilian deaths, Chadwick said, “It sounds to me as though it would be a fairly conservative estimate.” Then NPR viewers heard a false assertion go uncorrected:

CHADWICK: Can you say how this might compare to other conflicts? Is there any other conflict you could compare this to?

Mr. SLOBODA: This is unique. And the thing that we can say is that the death-to-injury ratio does appear to conform to the figures for other modern wars, which is roughly three injuries for every death.

CHADWICK: So about a hundred thousand casualties in all, one-quarter of those deaths.

Mr. SLOBODA: That would be our best estimate, yes.

Actually, the dossier only reports on “67,365 civilians (most of them Iraqi citizens) who have been reported killed or wounded during the first two years of the ongoing conflict, up to 19 March 2005.” Give or take 30,000?

Needless to say, NPR simply identified Iraq Body Count as a “London-based” group.

The list goes on. As of late last week, a full-text Nexis search for Iraq Body Count in major papers over the last six months yielded 55 results. Add “anti-war” and the number shrunk to 5. Of those, only one story–in the Irish Times–identifies Iraq Body Count as an antiwar group. For the news wires, 35 shrunk to 3. For news transcripts, 14 shrunk to zero.

Obviously, Nexis can miss a few. In an online report last week, CNN identified Iraq Body Count as “a London-based group comprised of academics, human rights and anti-war activists.” But CNN still failed to ask the most important question: How can you differentiate civilian casualties in a war against un-uniformed terrorists?

The only story I’ve read that attempted to answer that question came from Los Angeles Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin, who wrote:

Outside experts cautioned that because of the difficulty of gathering reliable information in Iraq and the inevitable political biases, the information was almost certainly incomplete. However, “the high casualty figures indicate the stubbornness of the anti-coalition forces,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. … The new report is particularly vulnerable to the criticism raised by Cordesman that it may have counted some people as civilians who in fact were allied with the insurgency. In a guerrilla war, it is often difficult to tell who is a fighter and who is a passerby.

“Making that judgment is one of the most intricate things we do,” said Hamit Dardagan, one of the study’s authors. “We made a judgment based on the context of each article we reviewed, and most of our uncertainty about the numbers is due to that,” he said.

The media coverage of this report, by and large, failed to convey that uncertainty to the public. Nor did it convey the nature of the Iraq Body Count organization, a hard-left anti-war group with a clear agenda. Nor did it convey, as Stephen Pollard reported in this piece for the London Times, that a member of this group, Marc Herold, had “attempted this trick before, when he ‘revealed’ in December 2001 that there were then 3,800 civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The now-accepted figure at the time was two thirds less–about 1,200.” Most stories simply repeated the allegations in the group’s press release, occasionally followed by a statement from a U.S. or Iraqi authority.

Fox News anchor Brit Hume gave the truth about Iraq Body Count a hearing on Special Report last Thursday when he reported the group’s hard-left ties. Will the rest of the media follow suit and apologize for passing off antiwar propaganda as hard facts?

Don’t count on it.

Stephen Sprueill reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog.

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