BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Is the surge working? President Bush wants to withhold judgment till the fall, but critics in both parties have seen enough and are pressing the White House for answers now. And at the center of the debate, there are numbers, always numbers. ANNOUNCER: U.S. troops continue to die, 29 so far this month, as the sectarian violence they’re policing continues.
MAN: We cannot sustain 160,000 troops indefinitely. PRESIDENT BUSH: He asked for, you know, 20-something thousand troops and I said, if that’s what you need, Commander, that’s what you’ve got. And they just showed up. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was the President on Tuesday. We’re hearing a lot about troop numbers these days, but absent from almost all these discussions are mentions of the role private contractors are playing in the war. In fact, that role is enormous. BOB GARFIELD: Last week, The Los Angeles Times reported that the number of American-funded contractors in Iraq now exceeds the number of U.S. troops there, but that was a rare piece of contractor news.
Deborah Avant is a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine who’s studied the media profile of military contractors, and she says the dearth of coverage is perfectly represented in the pages of The New York Times. DEBORAH AVANT: I found that basically it mentions troops about ten times as often as it mentions contractors, so even though an occasional article might hit the front pages, there’s not this sort of steady flow of information. The press is not capturing changes in the numbers of contractors in the field in Iraq.
When the President wanted to mobilize an additional 20,000 troops, it caused a huge political uproar, but in fact, he had managed to mobilize many more than that by sending contractors to the field way early in the insurgency, and that has continued. BOB GARFIELD: How has it come to pass that this could all have taken place so under the radar of the media? DEBORAH AVANT: I think that one of the difficulties for news organizations has been that they’re sort of set up to cover the Pentagon, on the one hand, and to cover business on the other, and covering contractors falls a bit between the cracks.
Contractors are not as centralized as the Pentagon. They recruit all over the world, and so this is a much more diffuse set of organizations to cover than the military forces.
But it’s also true that periodically press attempts to uncover large amounts of information, for instance, about the number of incidents reported in contractors, you know, using firearms or otherwise potentially breaking the law. The L.A. Times ran into issues where their freedom of information requests were blocked by the contractors arguing that they would uncover sensitive proprietary information if they were to release that kind of data. BOB GARFIELD: The Pentagon, at the beginning of this Iraq War, famously invited journalists to embed with various units, and this was a program that actually goes on to this day.
What about the contractors? Have they been similarly open to journalists and other outsiders coming to see their mission on the ground, or has it been all stonewalling all the time? What’s their position? DEBORAH AVANT: Well, I haven’t done a systematic study of this, but I do know anecdotally that a number of companies have offered to have people come and travel with them, and I know of a few reporters that have taken them up on that offer.
As with the imbeds in the troops, there’s always a possibility that contractors invite reporters to come along on missions where they don’t expect problems to occur, etc., but I certainly don’t have the sense that contractors are stonewalling all the time. BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside for a moment what hasn’t been printed and broadcast, you did a study that looked at, among other things, the reaction of audiences to news about private contractors. Can you tell me more about that? DEBORAH AVANT: Well, what I did was a simple experiment where I had people read simulated press stories of troops dying versus contractors dying, and I found huge differences in how people thought these different forces were motivated.
People generally thought that private contractors were motivated by money and that soldiers were motivated by patriotism, but when it came to their emotional reactions to the stories of either deaths, or their support for the war, I didn’t find any difference at all.
In other words, people were just as outraged or saddened by reading about contractors dying, even foreign contractors dying, as they were reading about soldiers dying. And no matter what article they read, people did not support the war less or more after reading about contractor deaths than troop deaths.
And so, given the fact that people do react similarly to the deaths of contractors and soldiers if, in fact, the number of contractor deaths were added to the number of soldier deaths, and if they were covered to the degree that soldiers’ deaths are covered, that could have, you know, significant impact on how the public views the war in Iraq. BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you one more question, and this may be getting beyond your area of expertise, but as the calls from Congress get louder for the President to scale back our troop levels in Iraq, and as Republicans in the Congress join in those demands, is it possible that the Pentagon will publicly reduce troop strengths, but then form a kind of shadow army of contractors to replace them with, you know, no net decrease in actual armed forces there? DEBORAH AVANT: That’s absolutely possible and, in fact, it’s something that many contractors expect. And I think this is also complicated by the fact that many of these companies recruit from citizens all over the world. And so, it’s not that there will be, you know, the same number of American citizens perhaps in the field, but there will be the same number of people that the U.S. dollars are deploying into the field.
And so, I think it’s very important that the press unearth these stories and that the public find out about the degree to which private forces are substituting for public ones. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Deborah. Thank you so much for joining us.
DEBORAH AVANT: Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Deborah Avant is a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security.