We’re paying less attention to Iraq when we ought to be paying more.
That’s the message from Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times (until further notice, a foreign correspondent continues to be a journalist who reports stories from other countries, rather than from outside the metropolitan circulation area), wrote in the most recent New Republic:
That an undertaking as momentous and as costly as America’s war in Iraq could vanish so quickly from the forefront of the national consciousness does not speak well of the United States in the early twenty-first century: not for its seriousness and not for its sense of responsibility. The American people, we are told, appear to be exhausted by the war in Iraq. But exhausted by what, exactly? Certainly not from fighting it. The fighting is done by kids from the towns between the coasts, not by any of the big shots who really matter. And they are not exhausted by paying for it, either: another generation will do that. No, when Americans say that they are tired of the war in Iraq, what they really mean is that they are tired of watching it on television, or of reading about it on the Internet. As entertainment, as Topic A, the agony has become a bore. “A car bomb exploded today in a crowded Baghdad marketplace, killing 53 and wounding 112.” Click.
The irony of America’s big tune-out lies in its timing. It has taken place during what has been the most dramatic phase of the six-year-long conflict–more precisely, during the reversal of the war’s fortunes. It is this reversal, this unexpected turnaround to the possibility of something less than a disastrous outcome, that has allowed so many Americans guiltlessly to forget about it.
Filkins, it must be said, covered the first three years of the war from Baghdad and lately wrote a book about it, so Iraq’s a big deal with him. Take that into account if you want to blow him off.
Anyway, Filkins is writing about the surge, which he says worked, though Iraq remains “very fragile.” And because after this delicate success we cannot now simply walk away from Iraq, he predicts American soldiers by the tens of thousands will remain there for years to come. As for Afghanistan, “Taliban fighters move freely across the countryside,” and as for Pakistan, its “nightmarish qualities make its neighbor seem almost docile by comparison.” As for Afghanistan and Pakistan collectively, “pulling out could have catastrophic consequences.”
So America faces hard choices. Americans face an easier choice — to go on reading about those three troubling countries or not to — and Filkins believes we’ve made it. And American journalism faces what might be the easiest choice of all — to go on paying millions of dollars covering those parts of the world anyway or to give the public what it apparently wants, nothing.
Here’s Filkins again, back in Baghdad, in an online Q&A with readers: “As for the future of the business, I don’t know. The New York Times bureau [in Baghdad] is an unbelievably expensive endeavor. It’s just mind boggling. The business model needed to sustain this kind of expensive reporting doesn’t really work anymore — ads on the Internet are cheaper — and no one has yet come up with one that does. Let’s all hope.”
Hope but downsize. The Washington Post reported last fall that in September 2007 the U.S. military embedded journalists 219 times, last September 39 times; in the early years of the Iraq war a dozen newspapers and newspaper chains kept full-time bureaus in Baghdad, as of last October four.
The Chicago Tribune, which at one time provided its readers with some of the most distinguished reporting of the Iraq war, has not only pulled out of Iraq but dismantled its foreign service. Under Sam Zell and in bankruptcy, the Tribune has become a different sort of newspaper. I’ve done a quick and dirty search through the Tribune archives. I simply typed in “Iraq” and counted the number of stories that mentioned the country — this year to date, and during the same January 1 – May 11 span of previous years. In 2007 those were the first months of the surge, and there were 1,598 stories. Last year there were 1,031. This year there were 536. Graph those three numbers and extend the line — in one more year it hits the magic zero mark.
It’s not just Iraq. Every country I checked against the Tribune archives showed a dip from last year to this. Afghanistan, from 414 stories to 392; Pakistan, from 277 to 225; Russia, from 351 to 273; Japan, from 552 to 335; China, from 977 to 403; Mexico, from 742 to 639; South Africa, from 160 to 119. These numbers should bother anyone who thinks, as I do, that when a newspaper no longer attracts reporters like Dexter Filkins who want to go overseas it becomes not more focused but more parochial.
But who worries about that? Evan Osnos, who once manned the Tribune‘s shuttered Beijing bureau, recalled a couple months ago in the New Yorker that when Tribune readers in a focus group he sat in on were asked about the paper’s foreign reporting, “they had about as much to say as they might have on the mating habits of the red-footed booby.”