ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Information gap fuels anti-Americanism
It's no wonder polls in Latin America show a dramatic increase in anti-Americanism since the war with Iraq, or that so many in the United States can't understand why. If you look at the information we get about world events, it often looks like we live in two different worlds.
While the front pages in the United States show the latest suicide bombings in Baghdad, and describe in gruesome detail the crimes of fundamentalist madmen who blow themselves up in the midst of women and children, in Latin America -- as in much of the rest of the world -- people see and hear just as gruesome stories about Iraqi civilians allegedly killed by U.S. and British soldiers.
And, as amazing as it may seem in the age of the Internet and CNN, each side often fails to even mention what the other half of the world is reading or watching. There is a huge information divide, and it's not going away.
Last week, Latin American newspapers across the political spectrum carried big headlines about reports from two British research groups stating that the U.S.-led war with Iraq has cost nearly 25,000 civilian lives in that country.
The survey, by the Oxford Research Group and a pacifist group named Iraq Body Count, said an average of 34 civilians a day have been dying in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
The U.S.-led coalition forces caused 37 percent of these deaths -- including about 7,000 during the invasion. Street crime resulting from the breakdown of law and order claimed another 35 percent, and 22 percent died from insurgent attacks, the report said.
"Almost 25,000 civilians died since the start of the conflict, according to an independent investigation," read the headline in Argentina's influential daily La Nacion. "Death toll reaches 25,000" was the headline in Reforma, Mexico's leading newspaper. "The United States killed four times as many civilians as insurgents in Iraq," read the headline in Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil's biggest newspapers.
Similarly, virtually all British dailies carried the story in full on July 20. The Independent ran a 1,000-word article under the headline, "Iraq conflict claims 34 civilian lives each day as 'anarchy' beckons," while The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and most regional papers carried a news agencies' report or their own staff-written stories.
But in the U.S. press, the Iraq Body Count report got short shrift. From a search in in the Nexis-Lexis database, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were among the few to carry staff-written stories on the report. The Washington Post mentioned it in passing, in the last paragraph of a story on the Iraq war, accompanied by a chart on civilian casualties.
Most other U.S. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Herald didn't carry the story in their print editions. Most U.S. papers run almost daily tallies of the U.S. troop casualty toll, but only sporadically refer to Iraqi casualties.
The rise of anti-Americanism in the region should come as no surprise, given the often slanted stories that many Latin Americans read. A 2004 poll by Latinobarometro in 18 Latin American countries showed that only 6 percent of Argentines, 9 percent of Mexicans, 13 percent of Brazilians, 16 percent of Chileans, 26 percent of Peruvians and 33 percent of Colombians think the United States is doing a good job managing world conflicts.
My conclusion: It's time to close the information gap. One step in that direction would be for U.S. media to report Iraqi civilian casualty estimates more often, alongside the U.S. troop casualty rates.
And Latin American media should start painting the Iraqi "insurgents" for what they are: terrorists who, unlike the U.S.-led coalition forces, kill civilians on purpose, as part of the same deranged ideology that leads them to kill civilians in New York, Madrid or London.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.