Sunday, February 06, 2005

The headlines you probably missed


Republicans capitalized on one of those priceless made-for-television moments this week when they raised purple ink-stained fingers at the President's State-of-the-Union address to show solidarity with the voters in Iraq. Yes, it was a feel-good week in the U-S-A. Unless, that is, you followed the news closely.

I say closely because Iraq has quickly dropped off most front pages and the top of most newscasts. Curious. Because little, if anything, has changed. Deep inside my Boston Globe this morning (lower Page 11) I found this Associated Press story.

"A string of insurgent attacks across Iraq yesterday killed at least 33 Iraqis and three members of the US military, in one of the bloodiest days since the country's election a week ago." Interesting language ... "one of the bloodiest days." There have, after all, been just seven.

Above this story, also on Page 11, ran the headline, "Many votes cast along ethnic, religious lines ... Polarization of Iraqis feared." Translation: Civil war may not be far away as voters turn toward parties representing reliigious/nationalistic interests. Or, to add a bit of interpretation, we are celebrating an election in Iraq that will bring to power parties aligned with the very government in Iran about which rumblings of "pre-emptive strike" -- the next war -- are beginning to emerge. My Globe packages such stories under the boldfaced headline, "Iraq in Transition." And here I thought it was a war!

Whatever you call it, I couldn't find a single article on Iraq on Sunday's front page. There, the only thing approaching war news was blowout coverage of the Super Bowl, which is one battle during which most of us can root unabashedly for both sides. We're all Americans, right?

As Frank Rich of The New York Times predicted the day of the Iraqi election, the administration has once again succeeded in declaring that it has seen "the light at the end of the tunnel" in Iraq, a light those of us who lived through the Vietnam era know perpetually recedes like a mirage in the desert. For now, at least, the war -- make that "Iraq in Transition" -- has largely vanished, pushed aside by the President's valiant efforts to save the dying Social Security system, protect American kids from an innocuous lesbian cartoon couple, and cut the budget on the back of public assistance appropriations that in reality won't buy a cup of coffee in the context of his $80 billion request to wage peace in Iraq.

I wonder if this charade of daily news judgment has anything to do with the decline in trust or audience in traditional news media.

Let me assure you that I'm not among the deserters. Rather than turning my back on the news, I've simply turned the page. I realize that this administration has bullied much news of interest off the cover -- you know, the page where the most important stories are supposed to be showcased. So I start my morning reading inside, looking for articles or tidbits in columns or reviews that can clue me in to what is really going on.

Last week my treasure hunt inside the paper unearthed a report, on page A-something of my New York Times of yet another round of systematic torture by U.S. troops in Iraq rooted out by an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information request. (Ho-hum. How many days until the Super Bowl?)

And yesterday I stumbled across a piece of news I flat-out missed in Thursday's New York Times. (Apparently some Times reporters missed it too because I keep reading about a 60 percent turnout during the Iraqi elections). Columnist Greg Mitchell, whose work I found on the Poynter Institute website at, noted how quickly news organizations had embraced as truth the assertion that 8 million Iraqis had voted and pointed out that The Times, among others, had begun to question this assertion.

Writes Mitchell: "In a rare reference to an actual vote tabulation, The New York Times on Thursday reports that in the 'diverse' city of Mosul ... the overall turnout seems slightly above 10 percent, or 'somewhat more than 50,000 of Mosul's 500,000 estimated eligible voters.'

He noted, of course, that this is a Sunni city, where turnout was lowest, but also pointed out that the media had inflated voter turnout in early reports from war zones in other countries.

I don't mean to be elitist, but if you and I missed The Times skepticism, how many Americans do you think were watching by the time a few reporters began digging for the truth?

Occasionally, of course, personal experience intrudes on the judgments of those bringing us the news; sometimes it even arrives at our breakfast table before the gatekeepers interpretation of events. This week, my wife Kathy got a call from her mother, who, along with her father, is a lifelong Republican. They live in a small city in Texas, where my father-in-law has withered to a shell of his once-strapping self, a victim of Alzheimer's disease. He is a Navy veteran, World War II era, so when the time came for him to be institutionalized, he moved in October to the Alzheimer's unit of a nearby Veterans Administration hospital. Now, the psychiatrist told my mother in law, they are kicking him out. The family has two months to find a nursing home, and the money to pay for it.

The psychiatrist cautiously told Kathy why, too: The 10,000 injured U.S. soldiers in Iraq are overwhelming the Veterans' Administration, asked to operate its hospitals without additional resources (that $80 billion apparently doesn't have those injured defending our country in mind). The agency's solution has been to begin systematically moving out veterans from other eras whose injuries cannot be directly linked to their service. An acquaintance, a doctor of a Boston-area VA hospital confirms that the same is happening across the system. Patients who can't prove their injuries or disabilities are linked directly to service are getting pink slips, which doesn't look good for Alzheimer's patients, even in a country with collective amnesia when it comes to waging wars.

I'm hoping this story will make the news soon, too, that in a few days, I can open my Globe or Times to find a Veterans Administration expose -- somewhere next to the department store ads on Page 14.


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