2,000 Dead: Milestone...Or Not?

Tuesday's news that military deaths in Iraq had reached 2,000 is by now well known. Perhaps less known is that a Pentagon spokesperson suggested that reporters not treat the event as a "milestone." But, as anyone who read the papers or saw the network news broadcasts, the media did not heed such advice.

Editor & Publisher noted Tuesday that the director of the American-led multinational force's combined press center, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, had sent an e-mail to reporters in which he "called on the media not to consider the 2,000 number as some kind of milestone."

From Boylan's e-mail:

"I ask that when you report on the events, take a moment to think about the effects on the families and those serving in Iraq. The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone. It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives."

E&P followed up on the story yesterday, reporting that "Going against the expressed wishes of the Pentagon, several top U.S. newspapers treated the tragic arrival of the 2,000th American military death in Iraq as a major milestone Wednesday. The New York Times even used that officially disapproved phrase in a headline at the top of a page. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post all carried special features."

All the network newscasts marked the 2,000th death as a "major milestone" as well. ABC's "World News Tonight" led with the news, calling it "a terrible milestone" and included a report from Martha Raddatz during which service members reflected on the deaths of their comrades. WNT also ran a story from Barbara Pinto on the effect of military deaths in Iraq on a small town in Ohio.

The CBS "Evening News" also noted the number, describing it as "the sad marker that we all dreaded, but knew was coming." Anchor Bob Schieffer told viewers that in place of its "Fallen Heroes," a segment on service members who have been killed in Iraq, the broadcast was instead highlighting a story with correspondent David Martin about the effect of military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan on rural America, specifically, the effect of one soldier's death in a small town in Georgia.

NBC "Nightly News" also featured a piece on the number, describing it as "a kind of benchmark" and a "tragic milestone." Correspondent Mike Taibbi's piece focused on the Senate's moment of silence and several senators' floor statements related to the news. The broadcast also featured a "progress report" from Richard Engel in Baghdad on the situation in Iraq following voters' approval of the referendum on the country's new constitution.

Media coverage of the death toll among service members in Iraq tends to generate controversy. In April 2004, ABC News' "Nightline's" broadcast that consisted of the names and pictures of service members who died in Iraq, stirred up a heap of it. And while yesterday's news will likely not gain similar attention, some people are clearly irked by it. Following the Washington Post's coverage of the 2,000th military death, Josh White, one of the authors of the paper's story was presented with this question during yesterday's live chat:

Emerson, NJ: My son died in Iraq. Why is there so much emphasis on the number and not on the individual's sacrifice and the individual's life, service and family. Why is 2,000 more important than 1461 or 1 or 536 or any number?

Josh White: First, let me offer my heartfelt condolences on your loss. And you're absolutely right, every loss is important, and the number 2,000 is no more or less important or relevant than every other soldier, marine, airman, or sailor who is lost. We are doing our best to focus on each individual's sacrifice, and the impact of each tragedy. We saw 2,000 as an opportunity to look at the toll on America and to remind people that each and every one of those people died in service to this country.

In terms of the networks coverage of the 2,000th death, we'd have to agree with White. The networks used the news as an opportunity to examine how the deaths of American service members were affecting the country, some reports focusing on individuals and small communities. Addressing the issue because the number reached 2,000 does not imply that the 2,000th death is any more (or less) significant than the 1,999th or the second. The argument that it does would render talk of military deaths at any time as unwarranted. The toll is an account of where things stand, and it offers an appropriate time as any to acknowledge the effects of the war.

So what do you think? Does marking the death toll devalue the loss of individual service members who died before then? Or is it an appropriate opportunity for the media to acknowledge the death of service members? And further, is it appropriate for the Pentagon to request that the media not cover the news in a particular way? Should the media have observed the request?