European Coverage of the Iraq War

The folks over at Atlantic Review quote an assessment of the Globalist: the American media shows "an increasing unwillingness to tell hard truths when it really matters." The Globalist was writing in 2005 — now, I’d say the tendency is increasing.

Still, having followed coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan in the German, French, and American press, I’d say that reports about the Iraq war in the European press are notably more detailed and more unvarnished than in the U.S. press. A few examples among dozens I could cite. A report like CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s — on the vicious battle for Haifa Street in Baghdad — was not broadcast on American television because the producer deemed it "too graphic for an evening news audience." I’ve seen more graphic reports on mainstream European TV stations. In December, the German magazine Stern (if I recally correctly) featured a long article about an American soldier who was grievously burned in Iraq, complete with several large color photos of his reconstructed body and face. This morning, I heard, on German public radio, a voice from a recent American anti-war rally in which a mother talked about taking delivery of the body of her son, "with some of its parts missing, and burned to charcoal." I doubt that soundbite made the television news in the U.S.

Of course, you find reports of war casualties in the American media. However, compared to Europe, there are fewer of them, and they almost never show graphic pictures of dead civilians or mutilated or burned soldiers. One exception was the CNN special Combat Hospital. It’s the sort of gritty, bare-bones documentary that is a staple of the European media. It was, however, hailed as a ‘special event’ by CNN. For whatever reason — "good taste," timidity, or prudery — American media do not display to the American public the full human cost of American military engagements. In particular, they shy away from pictures or videos of corpses or severely wounded people. If you want a gritty, no-holds-barred view of life in Iraq, you’ll have to turn outside of the mainstream, to people like Nir Rosen.

This difference in coverage may be an underestimated factor in explaining the divergent attitudes to war in Europe and the USA. The average European is quite concerned about what’s going on in Iraq because he or she routinely watches graphic, blood-spattered news coverage of the aftermath of bombings and battles, and hears interviews with ordinary Iraqis, who describe in detail the perils and miseries of everyday life. I think it’s safe to say that European journalists view it as central to their mission to give their publics an unvarnished and brutally realistic picture of what war means. You can find this coverage on the evening news; you don’t have to seek it out in specialist journals. (It also helps that European journalists tend to have better access and more "intercultural competence" than American journalists).

Until recently, Americans displayed much less urgent attention to the war. This often made the statements of American officials and people in "man in the street" interviews seem callous. The European might have been thinking: "If those people are seeing the same images of death and mutilation that I’m seeing, and hearing the same detailed, first-person Iraqi accounts of grief, frustration and terror, why don’t they care more?"

The answer is, they weren’t seeing the same images. Whether they would have cared more is another question entirely…

4 thoughts on “European Coverage of the Iraq War

  1. We haven’t even seen photographs of flag-draped coffins of American soldiers returning from Iraq – the government has forbidden photographers to take pictures of them. But I think it’s more than that – for some reason, we in the U.S. have an extraordinary ability to watch fictional mayhem in excruciating detail, but when it happens in real life, we don’t want to see it on television or in the newspapers. This is true not only of Iraq war coverage. Last year in my area a policeman was killed by some fleeing bank robbers. The photo on the front page of my local newspaper showed the scene, and apparently (I couldn’t see it) the policeman’s body with something covering it. This photograph led to an extraordinary deluge of angry letters to the newspaper about how it was desecrating the memory of the slain policeman. People decried the editors for displaying a dead body in such a callous fashion. Now, I personally could not even find the covered body in the photograph, but other people, perhaps those who knew where it was placed, could. What would European newspapers or television do in a similar situation about a local policeman killed by bank robbers? Would they show the body or refuse to?

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  2. Not long ago, German Joys dealt extensively with Anti-Americanism – now, while writing on the European press’ detailed coverage of North America’s failing to counter Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq, that idea is not mentioned even once. I won’t deny that the USA has other interests in the region as well, however, nowadays only 10% of its fuel imports come from there – after having exhausted all other alternatives, USA does the right thing in the end.

    Though Anti-Americanism possibly is not the only explanation here, I feel that cognitive dissonance is an issue. Eventually, we all fancy different poisons: German media’s frankness on Iraq issues is contrasted with its refusal to accept, much less mention, that a third of our Muslim youth is prone to violent fundamentalism.

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  3. As a viewer of German news, I’m not at all sure that your impressions about the differences between US and European coverage of the war in Iraq are correct. I find that German news reports are often no less „squeemish“ than their American counterparts. But, accepting for the sake of argument that European news does take a more „unvarnished“ view of the conflict, it is quite possible that, in this war of images, European television journalists are engaging in much the same sort of thing that Palestinians have in the wake Israeli air-strikes or what Saddam did during the first Gulf War: use the images of civilian suffering as instruments of propaganda against the war. Obviously, the argument runs both ways.

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