07/22/2005 12:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why the War Isn't Being Shown

Two nights ago Arianna wondered why the American media was so reluctant to report certain critical news that has come out of Iran and Iraq.

Since I started Democratic Vista in large part to look at that kind of question, I'd like to offer a few points of explanation here as well.

1) The American media is accountable not to the public but to its investors. Consequently, news that controverts American foreign policy initiatives will not be published unless it is profitable to do so. And put simply, the story of American profligacy is not one that sells: we may expect the press to contest American exceptionalism every now and then, but in the main we demand that it celebrate our uniqueness along with us.

2) Unless Iranian news directly concerns our national security -- ie, unless it concerns Iran's nuclear weapons program -- it will be significantly underreported in the American media. The specific reasons for this are twofold. First, despite exemptions for a few notable writers (most recently Michael Ignatieff), American reporters are generally persona non grata in Iran. Second, the American media cannot compensate for its absence with international coverage of Iran because the American public does not trust international coverage in general. (As evidence of this, contrast the American reaction to the earthquake in Bam nineteen months ago with comparable catastrophes to which the American media did have access.)

3) Of themselves statistics are morally neutral. As a result the Iraqi Body Count report that Arianna cites is newsworthy only to the extent that it changes our understanding of what is happening in Iraq. Sadly, it does not. In a population of 26 million, 25,000 civilian deaths constitutes a mortality rate of just below .1%. That is roughly what most people have intuited and deemed acceptible. (Even worse, compared to other contemporary wars, the Iraqi civilian mortality rate is remarkably low -- meaning that even if it rose significantly, apologists for the Pentagon could argue that such a higher number is what we should have expected all along.)

Crucially, in making these points I'm not trying to defend the discrepancy between domestic and foreign coverage of foreign events. I'm making them because you cannot change what you don't understand.

And since I'm heading to an Americans for Informed Democracy conference this weekend, hopefully I'll be able to report back soon on the latter half of that equation.