Media Aren’t the Enemy in Iraq
Neocon extraordinaire Max Boot hammers hard the notion that defeatist reporting from a hostile media is to blame for our problems in Iraq:
Whatever the shortcomings of some reporting, there has been a lot of first-rate coverage by a heroic corps of correspondents that has persevered in the face of terrible danger. (At least 109 journalists have been killed and many others wounded or kidnapped, making this the deadliest conflict on record for the Fourth Estate.) I am thinking of reporters such as John Burns, Dexter Filkins and Michael Gordon of the New York Times; Greg Jaffe and Michael Philips of the Wall Street Journal; Tom Ricks of the Washington Post; Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times and former Times reporter John Daniszewski; Sean Naylor of Army Times; Bing West and Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly; and George Packer of the New Yorker. They’ve risked their necks to get the truth — and not, as Rumsfeld suggested, by flying over Iraq.
If you wanted to figure out what was happening over the last four years, you would have been infinitely better off paying attention to their writing than to what the president or his top generals were saying. If we fail to achieve our goals in Iraq — which the administration defines as a “unified, stable, democratic and secure nation” — it won’t be the fault of the ink-stained wretches or even their blow-dried TV counterparts. To argue otherwise deflects blame from those who deserve it, in the upper echelons of the administration and the armed forces. Perhaps that’s the point.
Phil Carter, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq as an Army Reserve captain, more-or-less agrees.
The typical daily dispatch from Iraq covers the news of the day — whether it’s some intrigue in the Maliki government, a firefight in Baghdad, or a massive attack somewhere else. It is Baghdad-centric, because many of the reporters are based in Baghdad, and also because that’s the main front in the war. To some extent, this daily reporting misses the larger context of Iraq — the fact that many Iraqis go to work, school, the market, etc., and live their daily lives but for the interruptions of spectacular violence. And by and large, the media ignores many of the “good deeds” done at the micro-level by U.S. forces, such as the opening of a new school or the delivery of a new generator, because it rates those events as not newsworthy. And so, if there is a difference between the Iraq I knew and the Iraq in the news, it is the complexity and contradiction presented by these multiple stories going on simultaneously. One gets a lot of press; the other one does not.
However, Boot is absolutely right to say that this criticism only applies at the most superficial level of coverage — what gets aired on Headline News or put out in the daily wire story. If you read the longer, deeper, more nuanced pieces from the journalists he cites, you will see a much richer picture of Iraq emerge. And I would argue that these pieces do a much better job of reporting the truth from Iraq than any official reporting I’ve read. Journalists like George Packer, Anthony Shadid, Tom Ricks, Greg Jaffe, Pam Hess, and their many colleagues, have been to Iraq on many occasions over the last few years, and they’ve really seen the arc of the war. They see long-term trends which short-timers like me (who are only in-country for one 12-month tour) miss; they also notice change from unit to unit, and the relative effectiveness of different units’ strategies. That type of reporting is absolutely critical, and we’ve been fortunate to have such reporters who are willing to risk their necks to get the story.
That’s quite right. While there has been some occasional bad reporting from the wire services, who are able to produce the incredible volume of stories that they do through over-reliance on poorly vetted stringers, the military beat reporters have done an excellent job of covering the war.
That said, Phil’s caveat is an important one. While most policy bloggers and their readers are news junkies and therefore partake in much of the better reporting, the average citizen gets their information either through the evening newscasts or intentionally biased sources (talk radio and the like). That’s not the fault of the major news outlets, of course, let alone their reporters. Still, mass opinion is still feed by the “if it bleeds, it ledes” ethic of the news business.