Media coverage isn't serving up the truth

Posted: Jun 22, 2006 12:01 AM

Coverage by national media of the two American servicemen tortured, murdered and mutilated in Iraq was revealing in itself.

This gruesome event overseas was reported here against a backdrop of debate on Capitol Hill about whether and when U.S. forces should withdraw from Iraq.

We are left to wonder what potentially dramatic impact this deliberate butchery might have had on Americans' opinion of the war effort had most newspapers across the nation chosen to make banner headlines of it.

Some did, as did a number of broadcast outlets. More typical, however, was the editorial decision at the nation's largest newspaper, USA Today. The full story of these atrocities could only be found deep into the first section of the daily edition.

Liberal media conspiracy?

I've addressed this idea many times. I've tried to explain that, in most instances, well-meaning editors and others in the news profession view stories differently than those in the American heartland.

As a result, they often have sincere if misguided reasons for what can appear to many of us as their head-in-the-sand indifference to stories that perhaps should be page-one material.

But it's important for news organizations to understand that this kind of editorial reasoning only feeds the widespread belief that a largely liberal Third Estate manages the news to fit their worldview, instead of reporting it to reflect the views of most readers.

This is too often done by giving top billing to comparatively insignificant stories.

In coverage of the Iraq war, American troops are not infrequently cast as the villains in any of various misdeeds a few may have committed. But when they are the victims of ghastly war crimes, it seems to warrant far less media focus.

This particular incident has the potential to galvanize the nation in support of its troops, if not of the Iraq war itself. In days past, the public's reaction to something like this would have been swift and certain. Unspeakable mutilation and desecration of young American servicemen would have brought out American flags, and would have become a rallying point for protests and demands for retribution. Undoubtedly, the end result would have been a big boost to support for America's war efforts.

But these are different times. The reaction to a story can only be as strong as the story itself, and how it is presented. It's hard to imagine that the nation can rally to instant indignation when many of its largest news sources choose to treat this story as just one of many in the course of the day. Just a few new killings -- that just happen to feature barbaric acts such as slicing organs and other body parts.

As one who polls and interprets polling, I find it important to remain dispassionate and nonpartisan in my views. This often causes Democrats to attack my columns when my conclusions appear to favor Republicans, and Republicans to take similar issue with me when the GOP's failures are judged harshly by public opinion.

But this is not a partisan issue. Anyone who believes this story deserves anything less than top billing in every newspaper and on every television broadcast is seriously out of touch. Not just out of touch with the feelings of the American people, but with the feelings of human beings everywhere.

As a nation of laws, our military has and continues to take appropriate action against U.S. soldiers who may be found, through proper legal proceedings, to have engaged in serious misconduct in Iraq. This is as it should be. But somehow we seem to write off the barbarity and lawlessness of enemy combatants with a dismissive shrug of our shoulders, as if such deeds were amoral acts of nature.

They are not.

I've often expressed my concern about the Iraq war. Its impact on our nation and its politics has been worrisome, at best.

But when I see such a horrific and revealing story largely brushed aside by media, my only proper response as a living, breathing human being is outrage. But also this: personal determination to support whatever course the president and Congress are taking.

Of course, as a pollster, my opinion doesn't count. But the American people's does. And I'm willing to bet that, because these mutilation murders of our soldiers weren't reported as they should have been, most Americans will go on with no opinion at all.

And that's a tragedy, too.