"Five years later, the United States remains at war in Iraq, but there are days when it would be hard to tell from a quick look at television news, newspapers and the Internet," observes New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña. "Media attention on Iraq began to wane after the first months of fighting, but as recently as the middle of last year, it was still the most-covered topic. Since then, Iraq coverage by major American news sources has plummeted, to about one-fifth of what it was last summer, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism."
The past week saw a dramatic escalation in violence in Iraq and rising civilian deaths, prompting analysts to warn that "Iraqis may be about to witness a new phase in the cycle of violence ... intra-Shi'ite bloodletting that could tear Iraq apart and more deeply embroil U.S. forces." But even these developments have barely cast a media ripple.
The Iraq war has also been losing ground for attention on the internet, according to a recent report which shows that "the war in Iraq continues to decline in search interest, down 120 percent over the past three and a half years," while interest turns to topics such as Paris Hilton, Ashley Alexandra Dupre, Heath Ledger and the latest YouTube video.
Not surprisingly, public knowledge of what is actually happening in Iraq has suffered as well. "Public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August," reported a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Only 28 percent of respondents correctly said that about 4,000 Americans have died in the war. Most thought the number was closer to 2,000 or 3,000.
A total of 4,503 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (a figure that does not include employees of private military contractors), while studies of the number of Iraqis who have died have produced estimates ranging from 400,000 to more than a million. 31,187 US soldiers have been wounded overseas. The Pentagon says an additional 9,984 have been injured, and 27,890 have been evacuated after falling ill on the battlefield. Nearly 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have gone to the Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment; 250,000 have filed a disability claim with the VA.
Behind each of these numbers, of course, there is a human story. Combined, they tell us that the war in Iraq is one of the most pressing problems confronting the United States. Tragically, the beginning of the fifth year of this war appears to have brought us back where we started in terms of public scrutiny, with a cowed media and distracted citizens either blindly following the spin coming from the White House, or worse, simply ignoring one of the most important issues of our day.
Sheldon Rampton is research director at the Center for Media and Democracy and the co-author, with John Stauber, of books including Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq and The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq.