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June 15, 2013

Should The U.S. Intervene in Syria?

Public ignorance over Iraq carnage largely due to media blindness

When count­less jour­nal­ists refuse to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for ac­cu­rately re­port­ing on the re­al­ity of wars in Iraq, Syria or Libya, it’s un­sur­pris­ing that the ef­fect on civil­ians can be so easy ig­nored. Me­di­alens ex­plains:

Last month, a Com­Res poll sup­ported by Media Lens in­ter­viewed 2,021 British adults, ask­ing:

‘How many Iraqis, both com­bat­ants and civil­ians, do you think have died as a con­se­quence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?’

An as­ton­ish­ing 44% of re­spon­dents es­ti­mated that less than 5,000 Iraqis had died since 2003. 59% be­lieved that fewer than 10,000 had died. Just 2% put the toll in ex­cess of one mil­lion, the likely cor­rect es­ti­mate.

In Oc­to­ber 2006, just three years into the war, the Lancet med­ical jour­nal re­ported ’about 655,000 Iraqis have died above the num­ber that would be ex­pected in a non-con­flict sit­u­a­tion, which is equiv­a­lent to about 2.5% of the pop­u­la­tion in the study area’.

In 2007, an As­so­ci­ated Press poll also asked the US pub­lic to es­ti­mate the Iraqi civil­ian death toll from the war. 52% of re­spon­dents be­lieved that fewer than 10,000 Iraqis had died.

Noam Chom­sky com­mented on the lat­est find­ings:

‘Pretty shock­ing. I’m sure you’ve seen Sut Jhally’s study of es­ti­mates of Viet­nam war deaths at the elite uni­ver­sity where he teaches. Me­dian 100,000, about 5% of the of­fi­cial fig­ure, prob­a­bly 2% of the ac­tual fig­ure. As­ton­ish­ing – un­less one bears in mind that for the US at least, many peo­ple don’t even have a clue where France is. Noam’ (Email to Media Lens, June 1, 2013. See: Sut Jhally, Justin Lewis, & Michael Mor­gan, The Gulf War: A Study of the Media, Pub­lic Opin­ion, & Pub­lic Knowl­edge, De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, U. Mass. Amherst, 1991)

Alex Thom­son, chief cor­re­spon­dent at Chan­nel 4 News, has so far pro­vided the only cor­po­rate media dis­cus­sion of the poll. He per­ceived ‘ques­tions for us on the media that after so much time, ef­fort and money, the pub­lic per­cep­tion of blood­shed re­mains stub­bornly, wildly, wrong’.

In fact the poll was sim­ply ig­nored by both print and broad­cast media. Our search of the Lexis media data­base found no men­tion in any UK news­pa­per, de­spite the fact that Com­Res polls are deemed highly cred­i­ble and fre­quently re­ported in the press.

Al­though we gave Thom­son the chance to scoop the poll, he chose to pub­lish it on his blog viewed by a small num­ber of peo­ple on the Chan­nel 4 web­site. Find­ings which Thom­son found ‘so stag­ger­ingly, mind-blow­ingly at odds with re­al­ity’ that they left him ‘speech­less’ ap­par­ently did not merit a TV au­di­ence.

Les Roberts, lead au­thor of the 2004 Lancet study and co-au­thor of the 2006 study, also re­sponded:

‘This March, a re­view of death toll es­ti­mates by Burkle and Garfield was pub­lished in the Lancet in an issue com­mem­o­rat­ing the 10th an­niver­sary of the in­va­sion. They re­viewed 11 stud­ies of data sources rang­ing from pas­sive tal­lies of gov­ern­ment and news­pa­per re­ports to care­ful ran­dom­ized house­hold sur­veys, and con­cluded that some­thing in the ball­park of half a mil­lion Iraqi civil­ians have died. The var­i­ous sources in­clude a wide vari­a­tion of cur­rent es­ti­mates, from one-hun­dred thou­sand plus to a mil­lion.’

Roberts said of the lat­est poll:

‘It may be that most British peo­ple do not care what re­sults arise from the ac­tions of their lead­ers and the work of their tax money. Al­ter­na­tively, it also could be that the British and US Gov­ern­ments have ac­tively and ag­gres­sively worked to dis­credit sources and con­fuse death toll es­ti­mates in hopes of keep­ing the pub­lic from uni­fy­ing and gal­va­niz­ing around a com­mon nar­ra­tive.’ (Email to Media Lens, June 12, 2013. You can see Roberts’ com­ments in full here)

In­deed, the pub­lic’s ig­no­rance of the cost paid by the peo­ple of Iraq is no ac­ci­dent. De­spite pri­vately con­sid­er­ing the 2006 Lancet study ‘close to best prac­tice’ and ‘ro­bust’ the British gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately set about de­stroy­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of the find­ings of both the 2004 and 2006 Lancet stud­ies. Pro­fes­sor Brian Rap­pert of the Uni­ver­sity of Ex­eter re­ported that gov­ern­ment ‘de­lib­er­a­tions were geared in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion – to­wards find­ing grounds for re­ject­ing the [2004] Lancet study with­out any ev­i­dence of coun­ter­vail­ing ef­forts by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to pro­duce or en­dorse al­ter­na­tive other stud­ies or data’.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the same po­lit­i­cal ex­ec­u­tives who had fab­ri­cated the case for war on Iraq sought to fab­ri­cate rea­sons for ig­nor­ing peer-re­viewed sci­ence ex­pos­ing the costs of their great crime. More sur­pris­ing, one might think, is the long-stand­ing media en­thu­si­asm for these fab­ri­ca­tions. The cor­po­rate media were happy to swal­low the UK gov­ern­ment’s al­leged ‘grounds for re­ject­ing’ the Lancet stud­ies to the ex­tent that a re­cent Guardian news piece claimed that the in­va­sion had led to the deaths of ‘tens of thou­sands of Iraqis’.


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