How Lethal is the USA’s Corporate Media? Ask Iraqis.

You really can’t exaggerate how deadly the US media is to people all over the world. The Iraq war provided a stunning illustration that should never be forgotten by anyone with a shred of decency. The media successfully hid the devastating human costs of the war from about 90% of the US public. This is an astonishing outcome in a country like the USA without a dictator to make it happen at gun point.

In 2006, PIPA asked US citizens the following question:

Please just give your impression. About how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war?

The median answer was a staggeringly low 5000 – a credible answer would have been in the hundreds of thousands.

Days ago, I have verified with PIPA that they have not asked the question since 2006. That alone speaks volumes about the very high tolerance for mass murder in the political culture. Why wouldn't outfits like PIPA have come under tremendous pressure to keep asking? PIPA pointed me to an Associated Press survey that was done one year later (February of 2007) that produced even more damning results. That survey asked US citizens the following question:

Just your best guess, how many Iraqi civilians have died in Iraq since the war began there in March, 2003?

Note that AP’s question was broader than PIPA’s. AP’s question also specified “civilians” as opposed to combatants, but AP said “have died” instead of “have been killed”. Saying "have been killed", as PIPA did, may have led respondents limit their estimate to bystanders killed in violent incidents and exclude people who died because of other war related destruction. Recall that by 2007, over 4 million Iraqis had become refugees: just over two million fled Iraq and the rest were internally displaced. The UK independent reported in 2007 that throughout Iraq “The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50 to 70 per cent in the past four years and 80 per cent lack adequate sanitation.”

With these facts in mind, consider the results to AP’s survey question in 2007:

8%…..1,000 or less
24%…1,001 to 5,000
20%…5,001 to 10,000
21%..10,001 to 50,000
11%..50,001 to 100,000
6%….100,001 to 250,000
5%….More than 250,000
4%… Don't know/Not sure

Fifty two percent of the respondents estimated 10,000 civilian deaths or less as of 2007. Iraq Body Count (IBC), which tallied only civilian deaths, and only deaths from violence it must be stressed, by using media reports plus some hospital and morgue data, counted about 60,000 civilian deaths by the start of 2007. Though shocking enough, the use of IBC’s figures grossly understates how misinformed the US public is about the human cost of the war.

There were two studies published in highly regarded scientific journals that estimated a death toll up until the end of june 2006. One, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in January of 2008, which was done by the Iraqi government and the WHO, found 151,000 Iraqi deaths from violence by end of June, 2006. The other, published in the Lancet, found 600,000 deaths from violence over the same period. One of the authors of the NEJM study confirmed that their results correlate to 400,000 deaths from all causes (not just violence). The corresponding number in the Lancet study was 650,000.[1]

To sum that up, by the middle of 2006 there were 400,000 – 650,000 war related Iraqi deaths according to the most credible estimates. There were higher estimates but I am confining myself here to the studies published in scientific journals. Remember, these numbers include both combatants and civilians; deaths from violence and from other causes. Today the total number Iraqi war related deaths can be reasonably estimated to be about 1 million.

Assume (outrageously) that Iraq Body Count’s methods captured all the civilians killed in violent incidents. Assume (much more plausibly) that non-violent, war related deaths were overwhelmingly of civilians. With those assumptions, adding IBC’s tally for civilian deaths at the start of 2007 to the non-violent deaths from the NEJM and Lancet studies yields 110,000—310,000 civilian deaths. That would have been a conservative estimate for Iraqi civilian deaths when AP did its survey in 2007. Only 11 percent of the people who answered AP’s question responded with an estimate in that range.

Apologists for the US corporate media could point out that it did report the facts that I've mentioned. That’s true, so how do we explain that the facts were not known by about 90% of the US public?

Quite simply, reporting and debate about the human costs of the Iraq war was far too infrequent to inform 90% of the US public. The most important facts are buried under power friendly reporting of both the liberal and Fox News variety.

According to the PIPA survey I mentioned above, as of 2006, 18% of the US public believed WMD had been found in Iraq, 40% believed that “Iraq had a major program for developing” WMD just prior to the war, and 42% believed that there was “clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda”. Pro-war lies were propagated so relentlessly that many lies were believed by significant numbers of people years after they had been exposed.

Dictatorships insist that lies stand completely unchallenged. In capitalist democracies, they may be challenged provided it is done very ineffectively.
It is worth noting that the corporate media does not seem any better in Canada. For example, a 2007 poll found that "84 percent of Canadians believed Canada played a positive role on the world stage”. Yves Engler (in books I reviewed here and here) has diligently exposed Canada’s extremely destructive foreign policy.

Opinion polls often show that the US public is far from being putty in the hands of the corporate media. Consider, for example, this piece by FAIR about what the US public thinks about health care reform. People can, and often do, reject elite propaganda, especially when it conflicts with what they observe in their own lives. However, when it comes to knowing what their government is doing abroad, the public is far more dependent on the media.

When any kind of “humanitarian intervention” by powerful states is proposed, nobody should forget that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths and millions of refugees were effectively hidden by the corporate media. [2]

Corrected on Feb 17. NEJM study mentioned above was first publised in January 2008.


[1] The NEJM study did not publish an estimate for war related deaths from all causes. However, it did publish death rates from which such an estimate could be calculated. A figure of approximately 400,000 was calculated by Les Roberts, lead author of the Lancet study, when the NEJM came out. In March, 2008, Mohamed Ali, lead author of NEJM study, confirmed that the calculation was accurate.

[2] In its 2013 World Report (covering events of 2012) Human Rights Watch breezily reported that the “United States has a vibrant civil society and media that enjoys strong constitutional protections”.

Provided the private media and government collaborate to hide massive crimes, as is the case in powerful rich states, prominent human rights groups and NGOs like Reporters without Borders will give them high marks for press freedom.  

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