Missing Weapons in 2004 Gives Way to Media Blackout of Iraq Success in 2008

November 4th, 2008 3:21 PM

Remember those missing weapons that were reported by the New York Times just a few days before the election in 2004, the one where President Bush was re-elected?

"Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished from Site in Iraq," read the headline in the Oct. 25, 2004 edition of the New York Times. The facility in question contained 380 tons of weaponry that were powerful enough to take out buildings, manufacture missile warheads and even produce nuclear weapons, according to reports.

Some bloggers suggested at the time that the report was false and was meant to embarrass the Bush Administration on the eve of the election. Mohammed El Baradei, who was then the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), allegedly submitted a "false letter" about the explosives to the media in an effort to sabotage Bush, one blogger wrote.

NBC News later reported that the explosives had already been removed by the time U.S. troops arrived at the Al Qaqaa storage facility located south of Baghdad. Fast forward to 2008 and Iraq appears to be missing from the news altogether.

Fast forward to the 2008 election cycle.

With control of over two-thirds of Iraq now transferred to local officials and the U.S. military continuing to pressure defeated al Qaeda operatives, a Nexis search shows that The New York Times and The Washington Post have lost interest in a war that appears to have ended in most of Iraq.

Front-page stories and overall coverage in both papers dropped significantly in October 2008 compared to coverage of previous election cycles in 2004 and 2006.

There were only two front-page New York Times stories that mentioned "Iraq" in the headline in October 2008 - there were 11 in October 2006 and 17 in October 2004.

Put another way, front-page headlines in The New York Times that use the word "Iraq" in the days leading up to an election are down about 88 percent since President Bush was up for re-election in 2004.

The Washington Post ran four front-page stories that had headlines using the word "Iraq" in October 2008 - in October 2006 there were 17 stories, and 27 stories in October 2004. This means front-page headlines in The Post with the word "Iraq" are down 85 percent since the last presidential campaign in 2004.

By any measure, coverage of the Iraq war in the midst of an election is down sharply in both papers from where it was in previous campaign cycles.

Throughout the entire paper, there were 21 stories in The New York Times that mentioned Iraq in the headline in October 2008 versus 70 in October 2006 - a drop of 70 percent. In October 2004 there were 98 such stories, which means coverage has fallen off by 79 percent since that election cycle.

Reporting in both papers began to fall off toward the end of 2007. At that time, U.S. casualties in Iraq were also in decline.

There were 319 New York Times stories that mentioned "Iraq" at least five times in January 2007 when the troop surge began. In October 2008, there were 87 such stories - a drop of about 73 percent. The Washington Post shows a similar trend. There were 283 stories that mentioned "Iraq" at least five times in January 2007 and just 96 for this month - a drop of 66 percent.

Some U.S. officials have suggested the media have consciously turned their attention away from the war now that President Bush's surge strategy apparently has succeeded.

At a recent event at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Tom Korologos, a former ambassador to Belgium, who served in Iraq in 2003, said: "Perhaps the most telling sign the president's strategy has worked in recent months is the drastic decline in coverage by the mainstream press.

"News bureaus in Baghdad that were staffed 24/7 at the height of the violence have now been abandoned or are manned by skeleton crews. The embedded media are now at their lowest level in years. It's getting more difficult every day to see or hear news out of Iraq. There aren't enough explosions, I guess," Korologos said.

Vice President Dick Cheney made a similar observation at the National Press Club earlier this year.

"I see, just in general, less reporting, less interest," he said. "The fact is that people have got other things to worry about. And there have been a lot of other issues to cover. I mean, we're in the middle of a presidential campaign. That's big news. Gasoline prices are $4 a gallon. That's big news. So it doesn't receive as much attention. Good news never does. That's just the way our system works.

"But I do think - I think the surge has been enormously successful," said Cheney. "And anybody who looks objectively at where we are today in Iraq would have to conclude that we're in far better shape than we were just a couple of years ago."