Global Policy Forum

Iraq and the Media


By Rory O'Conner*

MaximsNews Network
April 11, 2006

"That day... after... tens of thousands of Americans (and literally countless Iraqis) have perished needlessly -- and with the Green Zone being hastily evacuated just before being overrun by onrushing insurgents -- and our ambassador clinging desperately to the skids of the last helicopter out of Baghdad."

It's good news, bad news time again. By now the pattern is blatantly obvious: as the war in Iraq worsens, so too does the war on journalists. While still clinging to the tired canard that most reporters are too liberal to tell the truth – the "real" story – about Iraq, the Bush Administration and its allied conservative commentators also impugn the journalists' motives and question their patriotism. "It begins to look like you're invested in America's defeat," says radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, in a typical distillation of the meme.

You've heard before – and you'll hear again and again – the armchair analysts' claim that reporters in Iraq (where Ingraham has spent a total of eight days) deliberately ignore positive stories – the "good news" of nation building, democratization and development – and relentlessly focus on the "bad news" of death and destruction. Our leading newspapers have already issued mea culpas apologizing for their inaccurate cheerleading for the war, and our network news presidents are on record as having "failed the American people" with their blind acceptance of the false rationales offered for starting it.

So it's a sad reflection on our highly partisan, shoot-first-and-ask-no-questions-later media environment that there's still even a debate over claims that reporters are biased against the war. Yet last month, with violence in the country reaching new levels, a new round of whack-a-media began, reaching its nadir with despicable personal attacks on Christian Science Monitor correspondent (and recently freed hostage) Jill Carroll.

Have the media declared war on the war? Or have the Bush Administration and its support team of pontificating pundits instead declared war on the media? Is the U.S. media biased against the war, or too supportive of it? Had the press reported different facts, would the war have unfolded differently? These and related questions were the subjects of a recent, regrettably all-male (some things never change!) Reuters Newsmakers panel discussion entitled, "Iraq: is the Media Telling the True Story?"

James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal's site, commenced by proclaiming, "the culture of the American newsroom grew out of Vietnam and Watergate," adding that "journalists always fight the last war, and are following the Vietnam script" in their Iraq reporting, and see their role as "exposing foolishness and knavery." (Instead, Taranto posited, they should be exploring Cindy Sheehan's "fringe political beliefs.")

New York Times "International Writer-at-Large" Roger Cohen countered by pointing out that "errors have landed the U.S. in a very bad situation, and you don't need to have an ax to grind to point that out." Cohen also decried America's polarized politics, saying that as a result, "The problems of twenty-six million Iraqis get lost in the war over the war in the U.S."

Lieutenant Colonel Steven A. Boylan, former Director of the Combined Press Information Center in Iraq, surprisingly said that in his view there are very few journalists reporting from Iraq with a "specific agenda" and that the "good news, bad news" debate was really "opinion-based." Still, Boylan said, "the complete story isn't being told." To the Lieutenant Colonel, the complete story would include more reporting on schools and water purification plants that are being built – but he also noted that drastic cutbacks in the number of reporters in Iraq have had a dramatic effect, as the media is "forced to do more with less."

Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad offered a different perspective: we're not being told the "complete story" about the war because that story is "so bad now" with "daily massacres and a civil war raging," that the full truth about the horrors of the U.S. occupation is actually being downplayed by the media. "It's not about water plants!" he concluded in exasperation. The other representative of the Arab media, Al Hayat political editor Zaki Chehab, echoed those comments. "You can't drink the water, there's little electricity, the roads are worse than ever," Chehab said. "So what kind of good news should I talk about?"

Each panelist who had actually set foot in Iraq (Taranto was the sole exception) agreed with Chehab's conclusion that "Security is the most important issue above all else," and that the situation has deteriorated to the point where it is difficult to perform even the most basic and routine journalistic endeavors. Reuters Iraq Bureau Chief Alistair MacDonald, who oversees a staff of seventy, cited the frequent death threats his staff has received, and admitted that the "risk is now so large I don't even want to send people out."

Abdul-Ahad added, "No one likes journalists in Iraq at the moment – not the insurgents, not the government – and surely not the Americans!" And equally surely not the likes of right wingnuts like Ingraham, John Podhoretz, Hugh Hewitt, and Don Imus, who, from the insulated safety of their plush perches, insult and assault practicing journalists who are literally risking their lives on the ground in Iraq – a fact alluded to by Times man Cohen, who noted the "lack of nuance" among critics of the media reporting from Iraq, and said it may be due to the fact that "they've never set foot there." Nuance, said Cohen, comes from "putting your feet on the ground – otherwise there is no intelligent debate possible."

Ultimately, of course, America's armchair analysts have as little interest in intelligent debate as they do in reporting "the real news" or "complete story" from Iraq. They serve only as polemicists and partisan political operatives, willing to say or do almost anything to advance a political agenda at the expense of all else — including, apparently, basic decency and truth.

The "complete story" of Iraq, as one Iraqi blogger at the Reuters panel pointed out, would inevitably include the perspectives of the vast majority of Iraqis (87% in the latest poll) who feel that ending the US occupation of their country would remove a major cause of the conflict there – as well as those of the majority of Americans who now agree with them.

So it's good news, bad news time again, I'm afraid. First, the good news: the U.S. occupation of Iraq will end one day. Now, the bad news: That day may sadly still be far in the distance, after not just two thousand but tens of thousands of Americans (and literally countless Iraqis) have perished needlessly, and with the Green Zone being hastily evacuated just before being overrun by onrushing insurgents, and our ambassador clinging desperately to the skids of the last helicopter out of Baghdad. How's that for fighting the last war?

About the Author: Rory O'Connor is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. He is also president and co-founder of the international media firm Globalvision, Inc, and The Global Center, an affiliated non-profit educational foundation.

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