Iraq, the Black Hole

One of my main reasons for attending Davos was to participate in a session on media criticism titled, provocatively, “We’re News, They’re Propaganda”. When it was originally presented to me, the panel was explicitly about coverage of Iraq, and included representatives of three major global news networks, a journalist from Nepal, a moderator from the BBC and me. The email inviting me to the session made it clear that my role was to be “critic”, a role I would have played whether or not I’d been invited.

With a new focus on propoganda, and the most jingoistic of the three networks dropping out, I wasn’t clear what to expect. The major network representative was replaced by an editor of a newspaper written by the homeless, and the Nepali journalist by a Japanese cartoonist. But we still couldn’t avoid talking about Iraq.

And that was the point of the remarks I’d hoped to make at the session. I took a look at coverage of Iraq, versus coverage of other major world conflicts, during the past year. The conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, which has claimed, according to IRC, 3.3 million lives, at least 350,000 in combat, merited 77 mentions on all CNN networks over the entire year. And Congo got a lot of attention compared to the bloody conflict in northern Uganda, or the peace process in Burundi – 3 mentions all year long.

Iraq, on the other hand, got 1100 mentions the first week of the war. It’s actually hard to say how many times CNN mentioned Iraq because the Lexis/Nexis search engine returns only 3,000 results per query. I’m estimating 10-12,000 times.

So it surprised me very little when I couldn’t get the major media figures to challenge me on media undercoverage. One of the network news heads said, “Sometimes we make mistakes. Not big ones, but everyday. And we have to make choices.” I took this to mean that it was a conscious choice not to cover the conflicts in Central Africa and to focus on Iraq instead.

But I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised when Iraq swallowed the conversation. As the two networks squared off about their very different approaches to covering the war, any discussion of media fairness, bias and comprehensiveness collapsed into the discussion of whether or not it was morally right to air footage of Bin Laden. Which, I’ll admit, may have been an interesting debate six months ago. But I have a real hard time getting interested in it now.

I just finished reading Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots and I’ve got cosmology on the brain. As a result, I’m starting to think of the war in Iraq as a black hole. Perhaps the concentration of media in Iraq became so intense that the very fabric of media was warped by attention density. We reached a media singularity – media focus so overconcentrated that networks literally might have gone out of business had the war been averted – that no other stories could escape.

Once Iraq came up in our session today, the rest of the conversation disappeared, like the spaceship inexorably passing the event horizon. And while I’m sorry we didn’t engage more on why Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and others don’t get well covered, I’m pleased by the irony that this failure itself helped prove my point.

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