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Medialens's dishonest smear campaign  
Posted by ALP on October 3 2007, 17:45 » Uploaded 03/10/07 18:48  

Since early 2006 the website Medialens (not to be confused with Media Hell) has been running a smear campaign against Iraq Body Count (IBC). This has involved a mixture of ineptitude, dishonesty and the occasional fit of hysteria - eg the claim that IBC were "actively aiding and abetting in war crimes". Their latest "alert" (the fifth devoted to smearing IBC) contains the same mixture, with extra bile.

Here's a particularly contemptible lie from Medialens:

In the past, IBC’s response to the suggestion that violence prevents journalists from capturing many deaths has been, in effect, 'Prove it!' (Medialens alert, 3/10/07)

There is no excuse for this. Medialens know that IBC have always stated that "many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war." This IBC statement has been quoted several times on the Medialens website, so they can't claim ignorance.

The whole Medialens "alert" is a mixture of distortions and insinuations. For example, they mention Marc Herold's "Afghan Victim Memorial Project that inspired John Sloboda to set up IBC", and quote Herold saying (of his own study's figures): "probably a vast underestimate". They then comment:

There is no reason to believe that the application of the same methodology in Iraq is generating very different results.

Medialens show their sloppiness here. IBC use the same approach as Herold, but they don't use the same methodology. And there is reason to believe the approach in Iraq is generating different results than in Afghanistan. But Medialens wouldn't know the reasons because on this issue they rarely get beyond a lazy, inept level of "analysis".

It's also curious that Medialens omit to mention the other critics of the Lancet 2006 study (it's now quite a long list of people with expertise in the field, including Jon Pedersen of the UNDP Iraq study, demographer Beth Osborne Daponte etc, not to mention highly critical pieces about the Lancet study in the journals Science and Nature).

If Medialens presented these other critics and their criticisms alongside IBC's criticisms, a completely different picture would emerge - with IBC being shown in good company. But the purpose of the Medialens "alert" is not to inform their readers about criticisms of the Lancet study - it's to smear IBC with dirty tricks of rhetoric.

Gavin Esler said Medialens have "no credibility" and that they are "deceitful". I rarely agree with Esler, but this latest "alert" from Medialens provides plenty of evidence in support of his remarks.

COMMENTS Post comment


Comment 01 – gwinnie October 03 2007, 19:00

What's Medialens???

Comment 02 – ALP October 03 2007, 19:23

They pass themselves off as a "compassionate" media criticism website, but many on the left (including me) think they're the Dominican Inquisition redux. They'd be burning people at the stake if it were legal to do so. And IBC would be the first to be roasted - for the good of humanity, you understand.

George Monbiot (the Guardian columnist and activist) wrote the following to Medialens: "Rather than offering a clear, objective analysis of why the media works the way it does, who pulls the strings, how journalists are manipulated, knowingly or otherwise, you appear to have decided instead to use your platform merely to attack those who do not accept your narrow and particular doctrine [...] As a result, you are in danger of reproducing the very problems you criticise. You appear to me to be confronting one form of bias and intolerance with another."[...]

Comment 03 – g33kThug October 03 2007, 19:43

Not forgetting that Michael Williams, Independent on Sunday deputy editor, described them as: "a curmudgeonly lot of puritans, miseries, killjoys, Stalinists and glooms".

While Adam Curtis thought that their analysis of his series The Century of The Self was nothing more than them: "stamping their little feet" and "trying to whip up an attack of the clones".

And Roger Alton, Observer editor, just calls them "c*nts".

I rarely agree with these people (apart from Curtis who I rarely disagree with) but these "alerts" seem to suggest that these mainstream media types are sometimes capable of getting it right.

Comment 04 – sonny October 03 2007, 19:58

I like how Media Lens suggest IBC is not "qualified" to evaluate the Lancet study, and conclude that it's not accurate.

Yet somehow Media Lens (and Zamparini, and Just Foreign Policy etc. etc.) are qualified to evaluate the Lancet study and conclude that it's correct.

Maybe if IBC came to the same conclusions that Media Lens wants, IBC would suddenly become "qualified".

What a joke.

Comment 05 – Raoul Djukanovic October 03 2007, 20:24

ALP wrote:

Medialens know that IBC have always stated that "many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war."

Two observations:

i) IBC have dropped that line from their website. After I wrote to them about this (although not necessarily because of my comments or anyone else's they may or may not have received), they recently added a line saying:

"Gaps in recording and reporting suggest that even our highest totals to date may be missing many civilian deaths from violence"

ii) The Media Lens alert also says:

"IBC has never, to our knowledge, accepted that their own count is "probably a vast underestimate" of the total death toll"

My breath is taken.

Comment 06 – g33kThug October 03 2007, 23:53

You're lucky they only took your breath Raoul - they've stolen Zamparini's heart:

Thanks for yet another great alert
Posted by gabriele on October 3, 2007, 5:30 pm

As always, your work is informative, compassionate, inspiring and not alienating at all.

As Howard Zinn said, "there is no magical panacea, only persistence." And you are an inspiring model of compassionate persistence.

Thank you


Thanks for yet another great alert

Comment 07 – Neil October 04 2007, 01:31

Yeah! those guys at Medialens! What a bunch of Stalinist wankers! The thing that makes them such a bunch of cunts is how they're so rude, insulting, and what is that phrase that I found reading lots of message boards? Oh yeah! ad hominem! they're like so ad hominem!

Fuck me! those guys make me breathless, like so many of my mates on the left!

Comment 08 – Woofles October 04 2007, 10:29

You can breathe easy Raoul.

IBC co-founder John Sloboda said in a BBC intveriew:

"They [IBC critics] are asking us to put on our website, 'IBC, a vast undercount', and we're not going to do that. There is no evidence that this claim is true."[...]

As for Monbiot, ALP. He later sent to this to the Gruesome Twosome at Media Lens:

"I know we've had disagreements in the past, but I wanted to send you a note of appreciation for your work. Your persistence seems to be paying off: it's clear that many of the country's most prominent journalists are aware of Medialens, read your bulletins and, perhaps, are beginning to feel the pressure. If, as I think you have, you have begun to force people working for newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right, and worry about being held to account for the untruths they disseminate, then you have already performed a major service to democracy. I feel you have begun to open up a public debate on media bias, which has been a closed book in the United Kingdom for a long time. As you would be the first to point out, this does not solve the problem of the corporate control of the media, but it does sow embarrasment in the ranks of the enemy, while reminding your readers of the need to seek alternative sources of information.

"Your columns in the New Statesman have been effective in reaching a wider readership, and I'm glad the Guardian gave you a platform: have you tried to persuade the BBC to let you on? I'm thinking in particular of Radio 4's programme The Message.
With my best wishes, George Monbiot" (Feb 2, 2005)

Comment 09 – BBJE October 04 2007, 11:15

I have it on good authority that George was being largely ironic in that "nice" quote (the giveaway: "a major service to democracy"), but Medialens are so puffed up with self-admiration, they'd never notice. George probably thought that if he wrote something ostensibly nice, they'd get off his back. Some hope.

Comment 10 – Raoul Djukanovic October 04 2007, 11:55

Woofles quotes John Sloboda as saying:

"There is no evidence that this claim is true."

If (s)he begs to differ, where's the irrefutable evidence (hint: hunches don't count, whether they're gut feelings or not)?

In any case, the Media Lens quote says "probably", which is what "many if not most" referred to.

"A vast undercount" would assume we actually knew what the total was, in which case all this blether would be merely hot air. But we don't, so it isn't.

And the editors of Media Lens have already been very explicit in saying that not lying is morally on a par with shopping Jews to the S.S. Or something... (see link).

As for George Monbiot, I notice they still refuse to respond to his request, a la Rusbridger, to spell out how journalists are supposed to fund themselves if advertising is immoral. If it's by begging for charity, like good renunciates, they should say so outright.

But it might derail the attempt to "prove" it's evil ego that stops fig leaves like George from denying themselves access to a large audience. After all, telling people what's happening in the world is far less important than telling them why they don't hear what's happening...

Purit(y/anism) rave on!

"It's sometimes acceptable to subordinate honesty to concern for others."

Comment 11 – Woofles October 04 2007, 16:35

Sonny says:

"I like how Media Lens suggest IBC is not "qualified" to evaluate the Lancet study, and conclude that it's not accurate.

Yet somehow Media Lens (and Zamparini, and Just Foreign Policy etc. etc.) are qualified to evaluate the Lancet study and conclude that it's correct.

Maybe if IBC came to the same conclusions that Media Lens wants, IBC would suddenly become "qualified".

What a joke."

Commenting on the basis of the best available science is very different to challenging the best available science. Anyone can do the first - Monbiot does it all the time with regards to the IPCC. But doing the second is something else - that's what Martin Durkin attempted, disastrously, on climate change. The scientific method - training, peer-review, publishing, conferences - exists for a reason.

Comment 12 – Stephen October 04 2007, 18:24

There was an interview on NPR radio with the managing director of ORB and co-author of the poll that estimated 1.2 million Iraqi deaths since the invasion. He said that one in two of the deaths in the ORB survey were caused by gunshot, and that gunshot killings are very rarely, if ever, recorded.

NPR interview: Survey Puts Iraqi War Dead Above One Million

Comment 13 – sonny October 04 2007, 23:19

Woofles, defending sophistry with sophistry.

Judging one study the "best available science", while consigning other studies that are inconvenient to the memory hole (as ALP points out) is not merely "commenting", as you put it. It's making a value judgment about the accuracy or credibility of various estimates, something which, if they weren't hypocrites, Media Lens would realize they are not "qualified" to do.

But Media Lens is also not just asserting that their selectively favored "science" is the "best available science". They have judged it as correct and promote it as such, another call they would realize they are not "qualified" to make if they weren't hypocrites.

Jon Pedersen and Beth Daponte, as ALP mentions, don't seem to think Lancet is correct, or has "revealed" anything factual about Iraq. Why are Media Lens "qualified" to reject those opinions and judge others (such as those very objective opinions of Guru Roberts) correct? What makes Media Lens qualified to judge which "experts" are right and which are wrong?

If they weren't hypocrites just using sophistry to selectively smear IBC yet again, they'd realize that they have no such qualification and they'd shut up. Since that seems quite unlikely for some reason, perhaps they could instead make a series of Alerts castigating themselves for making so many pronouncements and judgments on this topic which they aren't qualified to make.

Comment 14 – sonny October 04 2007, 23:48

Stephen, ORB gives the following:

"According to its findings, nearly one in two households in Baghdad had lost at least one member to war- related violence, and 22% of households nationwide had suffered at least one death. It said 48% of the victims were shot to death and 20% died as a result of car bombs, with other explosions and military bombardments blamed for most of the other fatalities."

IBC seems to have a bit higher proportion of gunfire deaths. This would suggest gunfire is not "very rarely, if ever, recorded", or at least no more so than any other kind. Apparently car bombs are just as rarely, or even more rarely, recorded. That may seem a bit odd. An automobile exploding on a public street and killing people might seem like something that's hard not to notice. But one can not argue with "science".

ORB covers about 50 months. 20% of 1.2 million is about 240,000 deaths from car bombs. That's about 4,800 deaths from car bombs every month. I don't think there have been any months where more than maybe 800 were recorded killed in car bombs. That would mean that about 4,000 people are killed every month in top secret car bombings in Iraq.

But then some months would have to be much higher than 4,000 and some much lower. 2003 didn't seem to have a lot of car bombings, for example (unless 2003 had a disproportionately high number of these apparently very common top secret variety).

One might begin to suspect that ORB's estimate is rather wildly incorrect, but highly qualified experts such as Gabriele Zamparini and Media Lens have already evaluated its scientific merits and judged it highly credible, which pretty much settles the question.

Comment 15 – Stephen October 05 2007, 13:23

Not "top secret", sonny, just not reported.

Killings reported by the media may well decrease as violence increases. You're clearly knowledgeable about the issues, so do you know whether IBC addresses that possibility somewhere?

And how can IBC be so sure that: "The death toll could be twice our number, but it could not possibly be 10 times higher."?


Comment 16 – Raoul Djukanovic October 05 2007, 20:55

Stephen - do you seriously imagine that number of deaths from car bombings would go unreported?

How do you imagine that the news of these incidents would so consistently escape detection in such volumes?

Simply saying reporting may decrease as violence increases is absurd. The more big bombs there are, the more people will write about them, assuming they hear about them, which in cases of hundreds of deaths is most likely most of the time.

I've no doubt there are plenty of deaths going unreported every day. But your certainty that this number is likely to be up to 10 times the reported toll seems to depend entirely on your hunches (and the simple existence of a big number to compare the IBC tally to).

That's not a basis for concluding anything much, let alone one on which to attack IBC for tallying reported deaths and refusing to be cowed by hysterical smear campaigns that (as one of the Davids openly stated to you) have subordinated truth tellling to lying "for the good of the Iraqis" (or whatever nonsense they claim as justification for their self-deluding self-promotion in the name of selflessness).

None of which is to say there's no need for a structural critique of media reporting, I hasten to add.

Comment 17 – sonny October 06 2007, 00:41

"just not reported"

Stephen, I know of this great bridge that just went on sale. You should act fast.

Comment 18 – Stephen October 06 2007, 13:04

Thank you, Raoul & sonny. I asked two questions:

1. Does IBC address the possibility that killings reported by the media decrease as the level of violence increases?

2. How can IBC be so sure that: "The death toll could be twice our number, but it could not possibly be 10 times higher."?

I'm not surprised you're having difficulty answering these, but thanks for trying.

Comment 19 – Peter October 06 2007, 13:24

I'm always suspicious of questions which begin (as Stephen's does): "Does X address the possibility that...".

It implies there's an obligation to "address" all "possibilities". It's "possible" that every epidemiological method is unsuited for conflict situations and yields incorrect results. But epidemiologists don't "address" this possibility - they (hopefully) address the specific indications that something is wrong.

Comment 20 – Raoul Djukanovic October 06 2007, 14:11


Not only have you failed to answer either of my direct questions to you, you've not actually addressed any to me any until now. In response to yours:

1) Yes. They say "Gaps in recording and reporting suggest that even our highest totals to date may be missing many civilian deaths from violence". If you can prove that these gaps get bigger as the levels of violence increase, please do so, and take it up with IBC.

2) I can't speak for IBC (not having anything to do with them beyond having exchanged emails and message board posts with a couple of their volunteers). Speaking for myself, I'd say that for it to possibly be 10 times higher, somebody would have to be able to answer the sorts of specific questions I asked you, which you blithely sidestep as if they're not actually the point.

IBC tallies reported civilian deaths from violence. This is bound to be a lower toll than the total number of Iraqis to die since 2003. Somewhere in the middle of these two figures (the upper boundary of which we don't know) lies the number attributable to the war. We can say with certainty it exceeds the IBC tally. Everything else is conjecture, even the peer-reviewed work of "world's leading epidemiologists".

So why the smear campaign against IBC (which you seem to endorse)?

Comment 21 – Woofles October 06 2007, 17:03

Raoul, this is nice. Stephen asked:

"1. Does IBC address the possibility that killings reported by the media decrease as the level of violence increases?"

You replied:

"Yes. They say 'Gaps in recording and reporting suggest that even our highest totals to date may be missing many civilian deaths from violence'."

So that's a "Yes" to a completely different question, then.

Maybe it would be helpful if Stephen asked instead: 'Does IBC address the possibility that there are gaps in recording and reporting suggesting that even their highest totals to date may be missing many civilian deaths?'

Comment 22 – Raoul Djukanovic October 06 2007, 20:43

Don't make me laugh, Woofles. Why not "prove" to me that the "possibility" is more than a debating point?

Hint: you can't, which is why you're making "wise" cracks instead, without even bothering to specify what sort of "addressing" you have in mind (assuming you're actually endorsing Stephen's question and not just slapping your thigh).

Hence my quotation of the statement IBC +does+ make. If you find it unsatisfactory, take it up with them.

Comment 23 – Woofles October 07 2007, 10:10


"Don't make me laugh, Woofles. Why not "prove" to me that the "possibility" is more than a debating point?"

You answered 'Yes' to a different question - shifting to another issue doesn't change that.

But you can seriously suggest it might be a mere "debating point" that reporting of deaths goes down when violence goes up, when it's a recognised phenomenon studied in detail by leading analysts like Patrick Ball, Ziad Obermeyer et al... Let's face it, you just don't know very much about epidemiology. Don't blame you, not many people do.

Comment 24 – Peter October 07 2007, 10:29

You're wrong, Woofles, if you mean to imply that the "recognised phenomenon" (ie reporting going down when violence goes up) is some kind of law that necessarily applies in all or most cases. One of the problems here is that tentative (and mostly unvalidated) findings by one or two researchers are presented as being the universal truth, whilst findings from researchers whose views don't support the "truth" are ignored. Gilbert Burnham was reported as saying that nothing is "standard" in epidemiological studies in conflict zones, as so few such studies have been conducted.

Comment 25 – Raoul Djukanovic October 07 2007, 10:44

But you can seriously suggest it might be a mere "debating poin t" that reporting of deaths goes down when violence goes up, when it's a recognised phenomenon studied in detail by leading analysts like Patrick Ball, Ziad Obermeyer et al... Let's face it, you just don't know very much about epidemiology. Don't blame you, not many people do.

I thought we were talking about media reports, Woofles, and whether or not they recorded fewer deaths as violence became more widespread. That's called journalism, or the lack of it. Not epidemiology.

Why are you so loath to "address" the "possibilies" in the questions I pose above? It seems clear that you can't possibly do so credibly, with or without reference to a study of reporting of deaths in Guatemala (where journalists almost certainly expended considerably fewer words and digits on reporting of all kinds between 1960 and 1996 than they have in Iraq over the past four-and-a-half years).

It seems highly unlikely that there are dozens of unreported large-scale killings every month. Or hundreds and thousands of small-scale ones.

Yet on the off chance that there are, what are you suggesting IBC does about it? And why aren't you busy talking to them about that instead of peddling ML smears (and the implied invitation to recant in public and repent in non-existence)?

Unless you've got any evidence to quantify the numbers of dead they don't tally (which you haven't), I can't see what more they can say beyond their existing concession that gaps in reporting will mean their tally may be missing "many civilian deaths from violence".

So it's not shifting to another issue to quote this statement. As you'd agree, if you were being honest.

Comment 26 – Stephen October 07 2007, 13:31

Intriguing to see what pops up in response to two simple questions. Peter's sophistry, in particular, was impressive. And Raoul leapt into the fray, only to answer a different question and then scattergun some of his own.

So, in conclusion:

1. Does IBC address the possibility that killings reported by the media decrease as the level of violence increases?

Answer: Apparently not.

2. How can IBC be so sure that: "The death toll could be twice our number, but it could not possibly be 10 times higher."?

Answer: They can't be so sure.

[Stephen, please see my note about posting under multiple identities. Thanks - Board admin.]

Comment 27 – sonny October 07 2007, 14:58

Raoul sees through this pretty well. There is not much evidence for this theory (certainly not as a universal or "norm").

Woofles cites two sources, one which says nothing about this. All we know of this Obermeyer thing is that he has supposedly done some unpublished paper of which he says "our estimates of violent war deaths, based on nationally representative surveys, are substantially higher than those commonly cited for most of the 13 countries we study."

Since nobody can read this paper, it's not possible to conclude anything. (And I would certainly not trust the description of Roberts and Burnham, given their track record for describing other data). But it doesn't seem to address this theory Woofles is interested in anyway.

So we're back to Patrick Ball's Guatemala again as the sole source for all this important theory that IBC has some obligation to address. I've read the relevant paper by Ball, and what it claims to establish for Guatemala alone may be more than it can reliably claim (and certainly what others like ML claim for it). It certainly does not establish any universal for war zones or conflicts generally.

If one actually reads it, what is called "press" consists exclusively of an analysis of 13 Guatemalan newspapers (of which 5 provided almost all of their "press" numbers). There's no news wires, no international sources, no other Guatemalan sources but those which contribute to what is called "press". The most it could address is what these 13 Guatemalan papers did or didn't cover. But then there's also a problem of how thorough was this analysis, or how exactly the reporting of a death was defined in analyzing those 13 papers. This was not clear to me. The report is about "State Violence", killings by the state. So was it only considered that a death was reported in "press" if one of these papers identified specific deaths *and* attributed them to the State? If a paper reported that 50 bodies were found somewhere, without identifying any perpetrator, does that count, or not? What about reporting of aggregated totals? Questions like this abound wrt "press", and would be relevant to how comparable any of this might be to other media-based methods, let alone in different conflicts decades later and on the other side of the globe.

Aside from that, there's also the issue of the comparison source in the Ball thing that is being assumed the "true" death toll by which to assess the supposed failings of "press". This seems to be a problem with all of these type of analysis from Roberts, Ball, ML. If they find some disparity between "press" (or some undefined "commonly cited" number), and some other source they like (such as an allegedly "nationally representative survey"), they simply assume that whatever disparity exists rests with the failings of "press". Actually, it just shows there's a disparity between two sources and that there are failings in one, the other, or both. So the premise is wrong to begin with.

Ball's source for the "true" death toll by which "press" (13 Guatemalan newspapers) is being compared has its own issues. First, the source does not cover the whole period. It only covers a small period of a few years around the early 1980s. If the source covered the whole period (1960-1996) they may find different relationships going on. Ball's "press" is very high in many periods not covered by the "true" source, in some years not much lower than what the "true" source showed for they "high" years. Does that mean violence was low in all those periods, or what? There could be other years where violence was just as high and "press" was also high, but the "true" source couldn't tell you because it doesn't exist except for a few of the years around the early 1980's.

Then, can this source reliably provide the "true" numbers by which to compare "press" in the first place, as is being assumed? It says this source was based on data collected by "popular organizations" who did interviews many years after the fact. Of this it says that "Typically, during the collection of testimonies, a surviving witness might provide the names of one or two victims, perhaps close relatives, while estimating the number of other neighbors in the community without giving their names."

This does not strike me as a very solid way to arrive at total numbers. Details of things get hazy a decade after the fact, and they're asking witnesses to "estimate" anonymous victims in their neighborhoods. How reliable would such "estimates" be in the first place, and how could such a method avoid double or triple-counting or worse among various of these estimates by different witnesses? Was there only one designated "witness" for every community? And biases of these "popular organizations" and the witnesses can factor in heavily here too, when the question is how many killings to blame on the State.

And, the "highest violence" period which the "true" source pinpoints around 1982 had shifted to primarily killings in indigenous Mayan communities in the mountain regions of Guatemala, whereas other periods of the war seem to have more in urban areas. In Guatemala, these have been rather isolated and separate communities from those in the mostly white urban centers. It may be that a lot of the apparent disparity in "press" has little to do with a generalized issue of "violence going up" as it does with these particular urban-based Guatemalan newspapers having never reported much (killings or otherwise) about what goes on with the Mayans out in the mountains. Ball's paper also talks a bit about this issue. So it's not clear if "violence going up" is even the main issue, or the direct cause of any given disparity.

But none of these issues matter. For a "world's leading epidemiologist" (or his mindless followers) this is all one needs to consider it a universal that "as violence goes up, reporting goes down", or to put forth ludicrous quackery such as "5% completeness is the norm of newspaper reporting in times of war".

Comment 28 – sonny October 07 2007, 15:44

How can IBC be so sure that we don't all live in a Matrix controlled by space aliens, and there really is no Iraq war, and they're just counting holograms, thereby aiding and abetting the imperial designs of the aliens?

Answer: They can't be so sure.

Shame on them.



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