NEW YORK -- Afghanistan and Iraq aren't hot-button campaign issues anymore. The price tags of the two wars, in the trillions, gets less attention than deficit debates. And in recent months, top foreign correspondents have been more likely to be en route to countries taking part in the Arab Spring, like Egypt and Libya.
So it's easy to forget, when surfing the internet and flipping through channels, that nearly 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq and twice that many are in Afghanistan; August even marked the deadliest month of the Afghan war for U.S. troops. But as the national media kicks into 9/11 overdrive -- complete with commemorative magazine covers, network documentary specials, where-were-you remembrances, and second thoughts from recovering hawks -- the war-torn countries are once again in the spotlight.
“Right now, because of the anniversary, the two wars are definitely in focus,” said NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who recently teamed up with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow for a three-hour documentary, “Day of Destruction, Decade of War.” Engel, who's spent most of the past decade in war zones, said he believes NBC's still reporting "extensively" on Afghanistan. But the network, he acknowledged, has "covered the Iraq war more episodically the last year."
The most notable episode last year was NBC's live coverage of Engel riding along with the last convoy of "combat" troops into Kuwait. And yet the "end of combat operations in Iraq" story ranked as only the 20th biggest evening news story across the broadcast networks last year, according to television analyst Andrew Tyndall. That's less than half as much coverage as Toyota's 2010 gas pedal recall and a far cry from the war's media-saturated early days. In 2003, the same network newscasts provided over 40 times more coverage of Iraq than last year.
Back in 2003 and 2004, Iraq was also a major presidential campaign story -- something that hasn't been the case during the next two cycles.
Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism broke down 2008 coverage into numerous sub-stories and ranked Iraq as the 11th most-covered campaign story, sitting nine spots behind the Reverend Wright saga. Afghanistan didn't crack the top 25 last time around. So far during this election, journalists and debate moderators haven't been grilling 2012 candidates much on Iraq and Afghanistan, making the “forever war” look like the forgotten war.
“Iraq and even Afghanistan doesn’t get much front page play, doesn’t get much play on the evening news, doesn’t get much, if any, primetime documentaries,” said Dan Rather, anchor and managing editor of HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports” and former anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” “This shouldn’t be, as long as we have young Americans in peril fighting wars we signed off on.”
"It's really unconscionable to have the nation fighting two major wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and have the dearth of coverage we now have," Rather said later.
Of course, wars aren't only expensive for the military. News executives couldn't have predicted on Sept. 10, 2001 just how large a chunk of their budgets would be depleted from covering a decade of war.
As U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan in October 2001, the media followed. In 2003, when President Bush shifted the country’s focus from rooting out al Qaeda in Afghanistan to invading Iraq -- a country with no ties to the 9/11 attacks -- the media followed again. (Many high-profile pundits and top Washington journalists even helped promote the administration’s bogus rationale for war along the way.) And when President Obama escalated the supposedly "good" war in Afghanistan six years later, correspondents packed their bags and left Baghdad for Kabul.
All that traveling, along with filling a bureau with security personnel, support staff and Iraqi journalists, doesn't come cheap. Tony Maddox, managing director of CNN International, said that when coverage of the Iraq war was at its peak, the network had an operation of about 40-50 people on the ground. “The bill was huge,” he said. “It ran into millions of dollars.”
Despite the large investment, Maddox said that CNN got a lot in return by producing stories for a 24-hour domestic network, CNN International, HLN and CNN.com.
“For the broadcast networks the model is different -- they still have the same shows they always had,” Maddox said, referring to their having less programming hours for news each day. “The extensive investment in Iraq coverage would impact the bottom line. I do not know how each company dealt with that, but as a viewer I see less of a presence overseas.”
Veteran correspondents who've spent much of the past decade covering Iraq and Afghanistan say the wars still merit coverage, but they also acknowledge the financial strain on news organizations and the need to find compelling angles to interest a war-weary public.
After 9/11, Martha Raddatz, the senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, made so many trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq that preparation became routine. “It’s easier for me to pack to go to Iraq or Afghanistan than it is for California,” she said.
But after reporting 20 times from Iraq, she hasn't made a single stop this year. "That tells you something," she said.
Clearly, Raddatz has no problem heading off for a war zone. But what's harder for her -- and for other foreign correspondents -- is generating interest from editors and executive producers back home. “You can’t do a story on a convoy going out every day,” she acknowledged. "We’ve done that story for 10 years.” So Raddatz has, at times, had to find unique ways get airtime from Afghanistan, such as embedding on a F-15 combat mission.
Raddatz said she understands war fatigue, but she still doesn’t want the public to forget. “Maybe because I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said, “I’m going to be the first to say, 'There are real human beings over there.'”
Engel said he’d “love to have correspondents telling stories about Iraq every day,” but points out that the mission has changed, with U.S. troops primarily training Iraqis and sticking close to bases in preparation for the withdrawal. “It hasn’t been an active war front,” he said.
Jane Arraf, who covers Iraq for Al Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor and previously did so for CNN and NBC News, says that the number of journalists stationed in Baghdad is clearly dwindling. Arraf should know, considering that several journalists who've had their passports stamped in Iraq many times describe her as the longest-serving foreign correspondent in the country. “It’s a bit depressing,” she said. “A lot of the major networks don’t keep correspondents there.”
Yet even Arraf acknowledges that it's tough to compete for airtime with revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. While Arraf will appear live in Baghdad on Sept. 11 this year, she's spending the time before the anniversary covering the Arab Spring. Speaking via Skype from Cairo, she said that the Iraq war “doesn’t make for the most compelling television, but it’s still vitally important and endlessly fascinating because it’s not over yet.”
“We still don’t know which way that country’s going to go,” she said.
But we do know that most U.S. troops are leaving by a Dec. 31 deadline (although the exact number departing remains in flux).
Engel said he's spoken to journalists heading back to Iraq before the end of the year, and that he may return himself. Journalists are likely to use the opportunity, he said, to look back on what has been accomplished in Iraq, examine whether the country can be held together and discuss whether the U.S. mission was a success or failure.
Still, there won't be any V-E Day burst of celebration in the streets -- and journalists trekking to Iraq to cover the drawdown of U.S. military involvement are unlikely to come back with TV-friendly images that show any clear resolution to the nearly nine years of fighting.
“I think there will be renewed interest because it’s an easy milestone," Arraf said. "It’s the end of an era. It is the end of a chapter. It probably won’t be the end of U.S. troops in Iraq. But, again, I think even some editors are expecting that there will be some huge event, some marking that date to recognize the import of it. There won’t be, really."