War Deaths and the Press

Kevin Drum observes that the flap over the Nightline special devoted to the soldiers who have died in Iraq is the latest in a series of episodes where conservatives have made what he believes is an incorrect calculation.

Present day conservatives seem to unthinkingly assume that any public acknowledgement of Iraqi war deaths is obviously just an underhanded political gesture designed to weaken support for the war. This is partly a result of their paranoid conviction that the sole purpose of the media is to undermine conservative causes, but it’s also a tacit admission that this is, fundamentally, a war with very shallow support indeed. If they really believed in the war and in the administration’s handling of it, they’d show some backbone and welcome Ted Koppel’s gesture of respect tonight. Instead they’re acting as if they’re ashamed we’re over there.

While there is some reason to think that personalizing the deaths of our soldiers will undermine support for the war with a public that hasn’t seen significant combat losses in a generation, I don’t think that’s the main concern. Conservative suspicion that the elite media have contempt for them and their causes is not totally without basis. If Fox News were having this special–or even C-SPAN–I would believe it was motivated by a desire to honor the fallen. When ABC News does it, that rationale is hard to swallow.

Of the controversies Kevin lists, it never really occured to me to question displaying the barbaric attack on the contractors in Fallujah, as it was a breaking news story. I argued in favor of showing the coffins coming home, or at least against the military’s ban of showing them, on both 1st Amendment and democratic grounds. I thought the Nightline plan was exploitative and politically motivated, although certainly within their right to do.

Ironically, Nighline’s genesis almost 25 years ago was sober nightly coverage of the Iran Hostage Crisis. If they had approached this situation in a similar fashion, I think they would have come in for much less flak. Death of Americans in a war is certainly newsworthy. Showing a photograph and read the names of the soldiers who died that day would be a fitting memorial. Presenting them as a sea of faces that blur together is a statement, not a tribute.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kevin Drum says:

    This is almost impossible to discuss because it involves trying to divine motives, but are you really saying that Koppel’s special would be OK if Fox did it, but not if ABC does it? This business about the elite media having contempt for conservative causes really doesn’t hold nearly as much water as conservatives seem to think, and that’s especially true of the war, which was hardly universally condemned.

    Do you seriously think that Koppel’s show is purely a political stunt? It might be, but it really doesn’t strike me that way, and I’m a liberal. I guess I’m figuring I’d know a liberal stunt when I see one….

  2. Paul says:

    Kevin could spin a railroad beam into a pretzel.

  3. Jeremiah says:

    Kevin, you might be too close to it. However, I think this is less political and more monetary. Ultimately, that’s what the network execs are going for.

    However, James, spin this a different way: If FOX decided to air the names of the dead, in honour of them, wouldn’t it be called out by the Liberal press for drumming up support for the war, for being a Bush shill piece? I think it would.

  4. JBEE says:

    In the Iraqi War my outside, uniformative, best casulty estimates are

    Iraqi Continous War_________________________
    American Soldiers war deaths: 850
    Iraqi war deaths Civilian: 13,000 – 15,000*
    Iraqi war deaths Soldiers: 25,000 – 40,000

    In the Gulf War_____________________________
    American Soldiers war deaths: 111
    Iraqi war deaths Civilian: 2,700
    Iraqi war deaths Soldiers: 26,000 – 38,000

    *Including the bombing in the Shock and Awe Campaign.

    Americans war death: 111
    Iraqis war deaths