MIAMI HERALD OMBUDSMAN: PUBLISHED NOV. 18, 2007

Herald must pay attention to news of Iraq

 

ombudsman@MiamiHerald.com

Most of us wish the Iraq War would just go away. In one way, you might think it slowly has: the pages of The Miami Herald.

The occasion of Veteran's Day last week was a good time to look at The Miami Herald's coverage of the war. While readers will argue over whether the paper's coverage slants for or against the war, I found something different altogether. In reviewing the week ending Thursday, the amount of coverage itself was limited.

The war made the front page only one day, and it was the only real article that had to do with Americans in combat. Some days The Miami Herald runs "War Toll" and other briefs updating military deaths and operations. By Thursday, 3,865 U.S. military personnel had died in Iraq, according to the Associated Press. Think about how many that is for a second. Many more have been maimed or seriously injured for life.

Most of the Iraq-related articles over the seven days were minor or briefs that had to do with peripheral issues such as Guantanamo, a refugee report, problems in military recruiting and a Blackwater conflict of interest. Attacks on Iraqi teachers were on an inside page. A front-page story on immigrants joining the military to become citizens was valuable, but not really a war story. Even the presidential-campaign articles barely mentioned Iraq.

A review of the seven days before that shows a similar pattern, with no Iraq stories on the front page. Indeed, Veteran's Day itself didn't make Page One as a story. While the Sun-Sentinel, for example, had an emotive Page One package on local World War II veterans, The Miami Herald's front page featured the Orange Bowl's last game and Sebastian the Ibis, UM's mascot.

I write this more in sadness than criticism. Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal was correct when he defended the paper's coverage by saying that the recent body count is down, which is good news that The Miami Herald reported in the Page One story last week. News interest, he said, has shifted to other angles on Iraq, but The Miami Herald has kept it in the paper daily, and on Page One roughly once a week since September.

McClatchy, The Miami Herald's parent company, has a bureau in Iraq staffed by an editor and a rotating reporter, plus five Iraqi reporters, Gyllenhaal said, a respectable commitment. World Editor John Yearwood, who has experience reporting from the Middle East, said he looks for stories that go beyond the latest bomb. "We try to find stories that are indicative of a trend, that give readers a complete sense of what is happening on the ground, " he said. All that is good. I just don't think it is enough. But this is why I am more sad than critical: I suspect the coverage reflects the interests of most readers as well.

A poll sponsored in part by The Miami Herald found that two out of three South Florida voters want to pull out of Iraq "as quickly as possible in a safe and orderly manner." To be against the war doesn't mean you don't want to read about it, but signs of fatigue are everywhere. The rows of white tombstones erected in Bayfront Park last weekend by anti-war groups stood mostly alone; few people visited. Movies about the war have done poorly at the box office. "Almost five years into the Iraq War, " columnist Ana Menendez wrote about the father of a killed Marine, "and on most days there's little evidence that this is a country at war. The men and women who return from the fighting are often left to face their demons alone." Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway conducted the poll with Democrat Rob Schroth. He concluded that Floridians "are in a very sour, pessimistic mood." I asked Herald managers if newsstand sales are up or down when Iraq is on the front page. I don't have an answer yet, but as a former publisher, I suspect they go down.

The Miami Herald, like most major regional papers, stresses local, state and regional news as top priorities, which is valuable, too, as a business response to what studies show readers want from their local newspaper. "We want to offer what people can't get elsewhere, " said Gyllenhaal. He said there have been few reader complaints.

National and international news, including about Iraq, is available on TV, radio and the Internet. But the truth is, it isn't. Except for a few select national media, the daily bomb count is about all you get. The paucity of Iraqi news, in part, reflects the perverse success of the Bush administration in sanitizing the war, keeping the pictures of dead soldiers and body bags largely out of view.

The administration never enlisted the country in the war effort, preferring to limit the involvement -- and the real costs -- to the volunteer military. Not even taxes have gone up to pay what a Miami Herald brief said was $1.5 trillion spent so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration has led the government into debt instead. All tof this begs the question about The Miami Herald's responsibility.

The nation is fighting a war, for good or ill. More than 160,000 service people are half a world away and dying for the rest of us. Then there are all the dead Iraqis we led down the garden path. The challenge any reporter or editor has is how to keep readers engaged in that national venture, or misadventure.

There are no clear victories and defeats, no major battles, to report as in World War II. But The Miami Herald must find a way. It is the authoritative news source for South Florida. A hypnotic lull otherwise threatens to overtake all of us.

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    Herald must pay attention to news of Iraq

    Most of us wish the Iraq War would just go away. In one way, you might think it slowly has: the pages of The Miami Herald.

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