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March 19, 2011

Media Coverage of War: Where Is It?

by K. Tsetsi

–by Kristen Tsetsi

After March 19, 2003 – George W. Bush’s “Shock and Awe” campaign – it was difficult to leave my living room.There was so much constant coverage of the war in Iraq that I was afraid I would miss something on TV, like a glimpse of my husband alive and well, the feed delivered by one of the many embedded reporters sent to the Middle East.

Everywhere you went, the news was on. People back then, even those with no military connection, talked about the wars and the soldiers fighting in the wars.

They argued about the impact of the wars, questioned the wars, and had opinions that were influenced not only by what was interesting to them politically, but by the people whose lives were directly impacted by the wars.

As much as the news was relied upon by military families for updates and assurances that loved ones “over there” were okay, it was admittedly too invasive, too sensationalistic.

It was real war in real time. There was a chance the live coverage of a battle could result in the broadcast of the death of a soldier whose  family would then witness it, as it happened, on TV.

It is of some comfort to know that there’s little risk of that occurring, these days. As military families across the country brace for their tenth year of war in the Middle East, many of them are asking, “Where did the news coverage go?”

The 2008 New York Times article “The War Endures, but Where’s the Media?” offers some possible explanations for the then-waning (and now, three years later, almost nonexistent) coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

– A decline in public interest due, in large part, to the lack of a “compelling narrative,” said Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.

– Competitive political campaigns taking over the news and public interest.

– A poor economy.

– The expense of sending reporters to the Middle East.

“The available news hole got so much smaller because election and economic news took up so much of the space,” Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, said in the NYT article.

Political conversations once again dominate the news media as the 2012 election season gets off to an early start, and the economy continues to struggle.

Also edging the wars out of the “news hole” are Justin Bieber, who recently transformed his image with a haircut,  and Kate Middleton, who once wore a see-through dress in a fashion show.

In a transcript found at Media Matters, Bill O’Reilly defends a lack of Fox News war coverage in a 2007 “Radio Factor” exchange with Colonel David Hunt:

O’REILLY: When you’re watching the news cruising around, is there any value to you, as an American, not as a military analyst, to see the latest atrocity du jour, the latest explosion du jour? Do you want to see that?

HUNT: Yeah, we’ve got to disagree on this one. … I care about the bomb in Tikrit if it kills American soldiers. That’s why I think it’s important, and I — we’ve got guys in combat — we seem, as a nation — I’m not hitting the press, but as a nation, we’ve turned our back on this.

A bit later in the program:

O’REILLY: I think Americans understand that soldiers and Marines are dying. I think they know they die in explosions.

HUNT: It’s too easy to forget, Bill. Look at the people in VA hospitals.

O’REILLY: I’m not buying it. … There’s no news value to it, Colonel. There’s just no news value to it. Just trust me on this.

What qualifies as “news value” is arguable, but if the viral facebook status update calling out the media for giving more air time to Charlie Sheen than to fallen soldiers is any indication of what the public views as “news value,” it might be time for the big networks to revise their programming.

Further explanations for a lack of war coverage are, “The news is only giving us what we want” (that is, ratings are better when we can watch Charlie Sheen’s rambling video feed than they are when war is the topic) and “The war is old news.”

(That these wars are “old news” is simply inaccurate. On March 17, 2011, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Christopher “Steele” Meis was killed in Afghanistan.)

Military families were recently asked on the LIFT Facebook page how they feel about the media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of their replies follow:

  • “What coverage?”
  • “The coverage has really slowed. My husband is there so it’s important to us that others see what our service members are doing. It almost feels like people forget about it if it isn’t on the news. We live it every day and will never forget, not even when he comes home because we will have friends there.”
  • “There isn’t enough coverage. We have friends, other family, all on different deployment rotation schedules… and it’s hard to find any news about it. But hey… as long as we can hear about Charlie and Lindsay.. then who cares, right? Because their antics are far more important than any ol’ war. GRR!”
  • “I wish they did more to tell the real story about what our soldiers and their families are going through. Honestly, I think the American public is clueless and prefers it that way. If they had to deal with our reality it would be too depressing. People would rather stick with Charlie and Lindsay, the more mind-numbing the better.”
  • “My husband is deployed, as well, and when my mother told her hairdesser that her son-in-law just left, she said, ‘Obama brought back all of our troops didn’t he?’ UGH!”
  • “A lot of people don’t know what’s even going on anymore or what our men and women go through….as well as their families.”
  • “Half the time they don’t even want to show hometown soldiers who were KIA. It makes me sick that our guys and gals are fighting over there and actually doing a lot of good for the country and…there is nothing showing the progress that has taken place in either [of the] countries. Instead of them broadcasting about Charlie Sheen the crackhead and the thieving Lindsey Lohan, do something to show the good that our troops are doing for Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s like no one cares anymore that there is a war going on, no one cares that our soldiers are being killed, and they don’t care that our soldiers are making any progress and rebuilding those countries.”

In September of 2001, Americans reacted to the terrorist attacks with an overwhelming display of support and concern for one another, citizens bonding with citizens.

Not long after that, we popularized the “Red State” “Blue State” distinction introduced in 2000 and soon became rabidly “Red” or “Blue,” “Left” or “Right,” “For” or “Against.”

The ubiquitous American flag window decal was replaced with an Every Man for Himself mentality. And it didn’t even take very long.

David A. Copeland writes in “Fighting for a Continent” , an exploration of newspaper coverage of the French and Indian War, “Newspapers not only covered the war effort, but they also promoted a unity of consciousness for colonists along the Atlantic seaboard.”

As we wade deeper into our tenth years of war(s), one thing we could use – at the very least – is some unity, a sense of country. Something that makes “The United States of America” ring true.

If you’d like to contact the media to let them know what kind of programming you would be interested in seeing, here are a few links to get you started:




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