How The Media Get Iraq Wrong

Eric Johnson, a civil affairs officer in the Marine Reserves, has a withering analysis of WaPo’s coverage of the Iraq War entitled, “How Media Get Iraq Wrong.”

Soldiers and Marines point to the slow, steady progress in almost all areas of Iraqi life and wonder why they don’t get much notice — or in many cases, any notice at all. Part of the explanation is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. Chandrasekaran’s crew generates a relentlessly negative stream of articles from Iraq. Last week, he had a Pulitzer-bait series called “Promises Unkept: The U.S. Occupation of Iraq.”

The grizzled foreign-desk veteran — who until 2000 was covering dot-com companies — now sits in judgment over a world-shaking issue, in a court whose rulings echo throughout the media landscape. He finds the Bush administration guilty. Such a surprise. Before major combat operations were over, Chandrasekaran was already quoting Iraqis proclaiming the U.S. operation a failure.

Reading his dispatches from April 2003, you can already see his meta-narrative take shape: Basically, that the Americans are clumsy fools who don’t know what they’re doing, and Iraqis hate them. This meta-narrative informs his coverage and the coverage of the reporters he supervises, who rotate in and out of Iraq.

This is a dirty little secret of the press: reporters, even senior ones, typically have little expertise in the area they’re covering. This is especially true of military and foreign affairs.

Update: Will Collier noted the essay on CommentaryPage several days ago and writes that the essay has been reproduced in full in the NY Post. Actually, it has cropped substantially. The original version makes the point about parachute journalism more directly:

Part of the explanation is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. He spent most of his career on the metro and technology beats, and has only four years of foreign reporting, two of which are in Iraq. The 31-year-old now runs a news operation that can literally change the world, heading a bureau that is the source for much of the news out of Iraq.

Very few newspapers have full-time international reporters at all these days, relying on stringers of varying quality, as well as wire services such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse, also of varying quality. The Post’s reporting is delivered intravenously into the bloodstream of Official Washington, and thus a front-page article out of Iraq can have major repercussions in policy-making.

This effect is magnified because of the Post’s influence on what other news organizations report. While its national clout lags behind the New York Times, many reporters look to the Post for cues on how to approach a story. The Post interprets events, and the herd of independent minds bleat their approval and start tapping on their keyboards with their hooves.

This is certainly a bit overstated. Pam Constable has done some superb reporting from Afghanistan, for example. But the foreign desk is generally viewed as something one must endure to establish bonafides so one can get positioned to cover Capitol Hill and the White House.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    I would disagree about the cause being the lack of seasoned foreign reporters. The BBC has solid credentials in that department and their coverage is even more negative than the WaPo. Everybody sees the news from their own biased perspective, and that includes Eric Johnson. How about a discussion of the movie “Control Room?” I have no doubt that the Al Jazeera staff believe everything they say about Iraq, because their weltanschauung does not mirror ours.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    So Chandrasekharan has only a year’s more experience with Iraqi affairs than the typical CPA staffer? 😉