WHAT WAS the most important news out of Iraq last week?
That depends on what you consider "important." Do you see the war against radical Islam and Ba'athist fascism as the most urgent conflict of our time? Do you believe that replacing tyranny with democratic self-government is ultimately the only antidote to the poison that has made the Middle East so dangerous and violent? If so, you'll have no trouble identifying the most significant development in Iraq last week: the landslide victory of the new Iraqi Constitution.
The announcement on Oct. 25 that the first genuinely democratic national charter in Arab history had been approved by 79 percent of Iraqis was a major piece of good news. It confirmed the courage of Iraq's people and their hunger for freedom and decent governance. It advanced the US campaign to democratize a country that for 25 years had been misruled by a mass-murdering sociopath. It underscored the decision by Iraq's Sunnis, who had boycotted the parliamentary elections in January, to pursue their goals through ballots, not bullets. And it dealt a humiliating blow to the bombers and beheaders -- to the likes of Islamist butcher Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who earlier this year declared "a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy" and threatened to kill anyone who took part in the elections.
No question: If you think that defeating Islamofascism, extending liberty, and transforming the Middle East are important, it's safe to say you saw the ratification of the new constitution as the Iraqi news story of the week.
But that isn't how the mainstream media saw it.
Consider The Washington Post. On the morning after the results of the Iraqi referendum were announced, the Post's front page was dominated by a photograph, stretched across four columns, of three daughters at the funeral of their father, Lieutenant Colonel Leon James II, who had died from injuries suffered during a Sept. 26 bombing in Baghdad. Two accompanying stories, both above the fold, were headlined "Military Has Lost 2,000 in Iraq" and "Bigger, Stronger, Homemade Bombs Now to Blame for Half of US Deaths." A nearby graphic -- "The Toll" -- divided the 2,000 deaths by type of military service -- active duty, National Guard, and Reserves.
From Page 1, the stories jumped to a two-page spread inside, where they were illustrated with more photographs, a series of drawings depicting roadside attacks, and a large US map showing where each fallen soldier was from. On a third inside page, meanwhile, another story was headlined "2,000th Death Marked by Silence and a Vow." It began: "Washington marked the 2,000th American fatality of the Iraq war with a moment of silence in the Senate, the reading of the names of the fallen from the House floor, new protests, and a solemn vow from President Bush not to 'rest or tire until the war on terror is won.'" Two photos appeared alongside, one of Bush and another of antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan. And to give the body count a local focus, there was yet another story ("War's Toll Leaves Baltimore in Mourning") plus four pictures of troops killed in Iraq.
The Post didn't ignore the Iraqi election results. A story appeared on Page A13 ("Sunnis Failed to Defeat Iraq Constitution"), along with a map breaking down the vote by province. But like other leading newspapers, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, it devoted vastly more attention to the 2,000-death "milestone," a statistic with no unique significance apart from the fact that it ends in round numbers.
Every death in Iraq is heartbreaking. The 2,000th fatality was neither more nor less meaningful than the 1,999 that preceded it. But if anything makes the death toll remarkable, it is how historically low it is. Considering what the war has accomplished so far -- the destruction of the region's bloodiest dictatorship, the liberation of 25 million Iraqis, the emergence of democratic politics, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the abandonment by Libya of its nuclear weapons program -- it is hard to disagree with Norman Podhoretz, who notes in the current Commentary that these achievements have been "purchased at an astonishingly low cost in American blood when measured by the standards of every other war we have ever fought."
But that isn't a message Big Media cares to emphasize. Hostile to the war and to the administration conducting it, the nation's leading news outlets harp on the negative and pessimistic, consistently underplaying all that is going right in Iraq. Their fixation on the number of troops who have died outweighs their interest in the cause for which those fallen heroes fought -- a cause that advanced with the ratification of the new constitution.
Poll after poll confirms the public's low level of confidence in mainstream media news. Gallup recently measured that confidence at 28 percent, an all-time low. Why such mistrust? The media's slanted coverage of Iraq provides a pretty good clue.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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