John Tierney’s column in today’s NYT, Bombs Bursting on Air takes issue with the media’s obsession with suicide bombers.
There was no larger lesson except that some insurgents were willing and able to kill civilians, which was not news. We were dutifully presenting as accurate an image as we could of one atrocity, but we knew we were contributing to a distorted picture of life for Iraqis.
The standard advice to newly arrived journalists at that time was: “Relax. It’s not nearly as bad here as it looks on TV.”
Never mind that this was back in the summer of 2003, when it really was not that bad yet. Now, of course, Western journalists stay locked in their hotels afraid to set foot on the street for fear of abduction or worse.
I suspect the public would welcome a respite from gore, like the one that New Yorkers got when Rudolph Giuliani became mayor. He realized that even though crime was declining in the city, people’s fears were being stoked by the relentless tabloid and television coverage of the day’s most grisly crime. No matter how much the felony rate dropped, in a city of seven million there would always be at least one crime scene for a live shot at the top of the 11 o’clock news.
Mr. Giuliani told the police to stop giving out details of daily crime in time for reporters’ deadlines, a policy that prompted outrage from the press but not many complaints from the public. With the lessening of the daily media barrage, New Yorkers began to be less scared and more realistic about the risks on their streets.
I’m not advocating official censorship, but there’s no reason the news media can’t reconsider their own fondness for covering suicide bombings. A little restraint would give the public a more realistic view of the world’s dangers.
Just as New Yorkers came to be guided by crime statistics instead of the mayhem on the evening news, people might begin to believe the statistics showing that their odds of being killed by a terrorist are minuscule in Iraq or anywhere else.
According to the BBC: “More than 300 people are believed to have died in violence this month.” If we extrapolate this number from a country the size of Iraq to the United States it would be as if 3000 people had been blown up in May alone. The United States is engaged in a global war because some 3000 people were killed by suicide bombers.
If we extrapolate the number of people blown to pieces in Iraq by suicide bombers over the past 10 days to the United States for a full year, it would be the equivalent of more than 100,000 blasted bodies. Not quite so miniscule after all. If you add in the number of wounded survivors and the number of people affected in some way, the number quickly climbs into the millions.
It might be different if the statistics were going down and the situation actually improving, as it was in NYC in the ’90s. In Iraq this is not the case.
As Bob Herbert recently wrote we need to see more of what is actually going on in Iraq, not less.
Americans’ attitude toward war in general and this war in particular would change drastically if the censor’s veil were lifted and the public got a sustained, close look at the agonizing bloodshed and other horrors that continue unabated in Iraq. If that happened, support for any war that wasn’t an absolute necessity would plummet.