18 October 2006

655,000 reasons to laugh at the networks

(Originally published in the 19 October Freeport Ink)

If I put on my reporter hat and told you President Bush’s approval rating is 77%, but might be as high as 137%, how would you view the quality of my reporting and of this newspaper? You can view some recent conduct by the three major broadcast networks the same way.

All three prominently covered a study published in The Lancet, the famed British medical journal, by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. I use the terms “study” and “researchers” very loosely. The researchers claim post-invasion violence in Iraq has killed 655,000 civilians there. Introducing the CBS segment, anchor Katie Couric said, “Now we're learning that the war has been a lot more deadly than we knew,” and reporter David Martin lead off his report with: “A new and stunning measure of the havoc the American invasion unleashed in Iraq.” He went on to note that these 655,000 people killed “as a consequence of the war” would be “2.5 percent of the entire population.” “To understand how large,” he continued, “consider this: The same percentage of the much larger American population would be 7.5 million dead.” ABC and NBC ran with the story like an Olympic sprinter, and it was discussed over graphics showing Iraqi bodies.

As you’ll see below, presenting this study on a major newscast was arguably an act of journalistic malpractice on the order of presenting a story about how JFK was really assassinated by Mother Theresa. But even worse, while there was mention of the study being rejected by President Bush and one top general, there was no discussion of why critics have dismissed it as a hunk of academically produced toilet paper.

Such discussion would have gutted the story. Just ask the New York Times. The Times has criticized the liberation of Iraq more than any other major American newspaper, but they stuck their story about the study on page A-16 and began debunking it in the second paragraph. The Washington Post gave it similar treatment, and put it on page A-12.

The study is based on interviews with randomly selected Iraqi families, who were asked if they had lost a close relative to violence since the invasion. To believe the results, one must only believe the following:

1. Fifteen thousand Iraqis are being killed by violence each month, even though that would mean (for example) that over 14,000 Iraqis died each month from 2003-2005 without the media noticing or the bodies seeing the inside of a morgue.

2. The terrorists found a way to kill civilians (or our forces have found a way to accidentally kill them) so super-efficient that 95% or more of the victims are killed before they can be treated at a hospital. Maybe it’s some sort of disintegrator ray, which would explain the missing bodies.

3. As Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy pointed out to the times, you have to believe that you can extrapolate over 650,000 deaths from the 547 death reports the families gave to the researchers. They based their extrapolation of the pre-invasion death rate on only 82 death reports This led them to a “finding” of 426,369 to 793,663 deaths. In other words, give or take 56%.

At Houston’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, the chairman of biostatistics, Donald Berry, told the Times the study has “a tone of accuracy that’s just inappropriate.” Now that’s understatement, ladies and gentlemen.

4. You have to ignore the realities of Iraqi tribal life. As radio producer Franklin Raff, who did a stint in Iraq as an embedded reporter, points out, a study by Arab scientists in 1986 found that 58% of Iraqi marriages were consanguineous, or between blood relatives, usually first or second cousins. A similar study found that 30% of Iraqi marriages were between first cousins. How would this affect the study? “In a city of 100,000,” Raff wrote, “one hundred men can say ‘my cousin died - Mahmoud was his name.’ …Same dead Mahmoud, 100 reported deaths.”

Ignorance would be no excuse for the networks, but this was not ignorance. The anti-war Iraq Body Count Project uses media reports to keep track of civilian deaths in Iraq, and their count is about one thirteenth of the Johns Hopkins number. To believe the study, these networks would have to believe that reporters are missing a dozen civilian deaths for every one they report. No, this is that special blindness the media has when it comes to anything that might damage George W. Bush, which makes them do things like present “fake but accurate” forged memos about his National Guard service. But then, given the shaky relationship the national media has with truth these days, perhaps blindness is too kind a word.

The promotion of this study is reminiscent of the last years of Vietnam, when the media believed every word about “systematic” atrocities, but somehow the thousands of reporters swarming the country failed to notice them when they were happening.

Were the networks playing the Vietnam card less than four weeks before Election Day? Something tells me they are, and I’m not just guesstimating.