Bombs Away


The story of Iraq is usually told at ground level: roadside bombs, U.S. raids on insurgent hideouts, and pipeline explosions. But well after the big blasts of the war’s first nights two years ago, the U.S. bombing of Iraq has gone on with relatively little attention from the media.

From last May through February, U.S. warplanes flew 13,000 missions and dropped about 490 bombs and missiles weighing a combined 265,800 pounds. That’s not much compared to the 41,000 coalition missions flown during the first month of the war in March and April 2003, but in those early days there was an organized Iraqi military with air defense installations and regime headquarters. Those are gone, but the number of bombings rose sharply twice last year, jumping from 13 in May to 127 in August, and from 50 bombings a month in September and October to more than 100 in November, according to numbers obtained from military officials by the Voice. The bombing has since decreased substantially.

The press often noted warplanes in action, from the November ’04 Falluja assault to the warplane that hit the wrong target near Mosul in January, killing at least five innocents. But press descriptions of big days of bombing—like November 10, when 12,000 pounds of ordnance rained down—weren’t very elaborate. And while the military reported its bombing runs, the details went only so far: Of an August 25 operation that involved 22 bombs weighing 500 pounds apiece, Centcom said merely that the bombardment was for “close air support.”

We don’t know what all this hardware is hitting, partly because journalists in hot spots like Falluja were busy avoiding death and reporting on the fighting they saw, not what warplanes were doing. And when the press did report on bombing day-to-day, it was hard to detect the overall increase in bombing that occurred last fall—a trend that, like the growing total of U.S. dead, says something about the state of the war.

One reason for this gap in reporting is there are apparently no embedded reporters with air force units or on navy aircraft carriers to notice trends in bombing. That is not a matter of policy, a Centcom officer tells the Voice: The media show little interest in working with those units. For cash-constrained news operations covering the massive story of the Iraq war, air combat is admittedly a tiny piece of the picture. But the bombs are still falling.

The pope watch

With John Paul II in a Rome hospital last week, the press looked for small gestures—a wave, a smile—to detect how he was feeling. That’s often the best the media can do in the tight-lipped world of the Vatican.

“The reality is the Vatican church is different from Capitol Hill—its structure is different, its constituency is different. They don’t have as much of an immediate need to talk to people,” says Ian Fisher of The New York Times. He began on the Vatican beat only last September, but even some reporters who have been there for 10 to 20 years still don’t have deep sources “because it’s such a dense institution.”

John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter says it’s possible to develop sources (“There’s no secret handshake,” he jokes), but it takes time that many Vatican reporters lack because they handle other beats as well. Reporters also have to wade through Vatican statements that are almost exclusively in Italian and laden with heavy theological lingo.

So do you have to be Catholic to do the gig well? Both Fisher and Allen say no: The AP’s Victor Simpson, who is Jewish, is considered one of the best on the beat. But being Catholic can help, Allen notes, “simply because you’ve grown up in all of that.”

His last laugh

No matter what you thought of the New York Press‘s “52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope,” the backlash was both painful and amusing. There was Congressman Anthony Weiner telling people to gather up and trash copies of the paper, and Catholic League president Bill Donohue dubbing the Press‘s advertisers “all male and female perverts, AC/DC, switch-hitting, pineapple upside-down cake, fruity-tooty people.” The fact that the leader of the outraged mob was Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd “Lowdown” Grove was also a gem.

Absent from the hubbub was any explanation for why the Press ran the piece. Jeff Koyen, who resigned as Press editor in the furor, tells the Voice: “I went with it because I thought it was funny and I thought it was interesting and it was something that I thought needed to be done because no one else will touch the pope and someone needs to touch the pope because he is a political figure.”

All papers, great and small

The Times‘ impressive 15th-floor reception room offers spectacular views, cases full of awards, and walls lined with bookcases. These contain impressively bound tomes by folks like Winston Churchill, but there also are such diverse picks as Lou Sahadi’s Super Steelers, a collection of writings on sexual deviance, and a box set of the works of James Herriot.

Up in smoke

Last year, a survey by AARP’s magazine found that an overwhelming 72 percent of respondents backed the medicinal use of marijuana. While the results are available on its website, AARP: The Magazine never printed the survey results. The Drug Policy Alliance says this might be because of “attacks from a so-called ‘media watchdog’ organization and fanatical anti-drug groups.” The watchdog in question is Accuracy in Media, which late last year accused AARP of “pushing so-called ‘medical marijuana’ on America’s elderly citizens” and asserted that an AARP magazine features editor “is an admitted drug abuser.” But Steve Sloan, the AARP magazine’s chief editor, says the poll got so much play in the media that it was an old story by the time the magazine would have printed it. He denies there was political pressure.

Uh-oh, a Unabomber letter

The history of the Lilliput troupe, a dwarf family who survived the Holocaust, is strange enough. What’s stranger is that Theodore Kaczynski has written to The New York Review of Books about its recent article on the troupe. And the NYRB intends to print it.