The civilian death toll in Iraq has nearly reached 25,000, but the press continues to shrink from depicting the carnage wrought by the war. At Vanity Fair, James Wolcott argued last week that the media’s reticence to cover the horrifying loss of Iraqi lives “reeks of bad faith” and originates in a desire to package all conflicts as though they follow a traditional narrative arc.
journalistic self-censorship may be more pernicious than government censorship. At least the latter is honestly motivated by the dishonest self-interest of our elected chiselers to deceive the citizenry and get away with grand larceny. But the pale, apprehensive, hand-wringing, soul-searching self-censorship of editors and publishers trying to measure just how much unpalatable truth can be doled out to the public without upsetting their delicate digestive system serves no one’s interest, not even their own. You might as well put Charlie Brown in charge.
Mr. Media’s inclination to avert his eyes involves more than protecting the precious sensibilities of American viewers and denying the terrorists free publicity. Mr. Media prefers packaging conflicts as if they followed the classical unities of drama with a linear beginning, middle, end, and coda. The occupation of Iraq refuses to follow the playbook. “The shooting script” (to quote from Tamara Lipper and Howard Fineman’s Newsweek story) that Bush put into production with the invasion of Iraq has gone wildly overbudget and out of control. No matter how dutifully the Bush Tabernacle Choir recites the “Democracy on the March” catechism, the story line for Iraq has broken down, centrifugally spun off, splintered. With Iraq, there’s no end in sight, no off-ramp from the killer highway, not even a coherent middle to sustain the narrative until a new ending can be cobbled together. Where’s the payoff, where are the upbeat stories? Fox News nearly herniates itself straining for a silver lining to each bolt of bad news (watching Ollie North interview the troops makes North Korean propaganda look sophisticated) and seizing upon each climactic episode from the siege of Fallujah to Operation Matador as a possible turning point in the war.