The Attack on the Press in Iraq, Part Two

The debate over the quality of reporting from Iraq has gained new currency this week, but as usual, critics ignore the realities on the ground for reporters in the crosshairs.

It was one of the last questions yesterday at another of the town hall meetings that President Bush has been filling his schedule with lately — this one in West Virginia. A woman stood up and first let Bush know that, like almost every other questioner before her, she too had the leader of the free world in her prayers: “I want to let you know that every service at our church you are, by name, lifted up in prayer, and you and your staff and all of our leaders.”

Then she asked, “from the bottom of [her] heart,” for the president to help her understand why “it seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good. They just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed, or they just want to focus on how they don’t agree with you and what you’re doing, when they don’t even probably know how you’re doing what you’re doing anyway.”

And the crowd went wild. Her accusation-posed-as-question, at least among the hundreds in the audience who regularly pray for Bush, was met with a standing ovation.

If Karl Rove were lurking in the wings, he probably made this mental note to himself: “Keep attacking.”

Given the stream of disparaging comments about the press over the past few days — from the president, from the vice president, from Donald Rumsfeld — this seems to have become strategy.

The attack, as far as we can tell, has two discernable forms. Let’s hold them up to the light for a moment.

The first is one Bush himself has drawn on repeatedly. It goes like this: the media, by covering the violence, is actually a catalyst for the violence. It’s a preposterous claim, we think, but that doesn’t stop the president from making it. Listen to Bush at his press conference Tuesday, addressing the press directly about its coverage of violence: “I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t talk about it. I’m certainly not being — you know, please don’t take that as criticism. But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy’s capability to affect the debate, and they know that; they’re capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.” (Emphasis added.)

There is a whole world-view exposed here — one that sees the media wittingly or unwittingly in cahoots with the enemy. The qualifier, “I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t talk about it,” is quickly followed with the assertion that terrorists blow up people because they know their acts will be captured on television. No media, no blowing up people, so stop covering the bombings. (Remember, this is the man who joked or seriously suggested (pick one) to Tony Blair that Al Jazeera be bombed — what happened to that story?)

The other form of criticism, the one that has gained more currency, is the complaint that the reports of car bombs, IEDs, and reprisal killings should be balanced more with more positive developments in Iraq — to borrow the West Virginia woman’s words, the “reconstruction, the medical things going on,” or, to borrow Bush’s words, “footage of children playing or shops opening and people resuming their normal lives.”

Well, USA Today has an article that offers a sobering reminder of all the significant reasons why “it seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good.”

First of all, as our own Paul McLeary noted here a few weeks ago, there really aren’t all that many journalists left in Iraq and those who have stayed need to rush off to the most immediate stories first, leaving little time to do the kind of textured human interest pieces that might give more nuance to the coverage of the country as a whole. John Burns, bureau chief of the New York Times is quoted as saying: “Have we undercovered the good news? We probably have. But there’s nothing willful about it. I would enter a plea of mitigation that we are overstretched.” CNN’s Nic Robertson adds, “There is an awful lot of what might be construed as bad news here. But it is the dominant information. It’s the prevailing information.”

In addition to being “overstretched,” reporters in Iraq face an incredible amount of danger. As a new Reporters Without Borders study released on Monday has it, 86 journalists and news assistants have been killed in Iraq since the initial invasion three years ago and 38 have been kidnapped (compare this to the 63 journalists killed over a 22-year period of war in Vietnam).

It’s difficult for journalists to even venture out into the streets, let alone look for positive stories in the market places and soccer fields of the country. Also, if you’re a journalist constantly aware that your life is in danger, it’s not hard to understand why you might consistently characterize the situation in Iraq as “bad.”

Another, more challenging (and interesting) explanation for why the glass always looks half empty in Iraq came from Michael Massing on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer yesterday. The one-time executive editor of CJR suggested that the problem might be the inadequacy of the journalistic form as we know it to really capture a complex reality like Iraq. Here’s what he said: “I think our major media are locked into traditional ways of telling the story: number of people that died, attacks, and so on. And all of that is, of course, important. But the texture of what’s there…you don’t get that so much in our papers. They’re boxed into traditional ways of telling the stories.”

He recommended that a reporter be assigned to write a regular column from Iraq that would try to answer questions like, ” ‘What’s it like? What are you hearing on the street?’ You can often communicate much more that way than in the traditional political type of story.”

It’s a point well-taken. As it has with other complex stories, traditional journalism might indeed have met its match in a conflict like Iraq’s, which contains so many layers, some contradictory, some illusory. Maybe it is time to think of another, more ambitious way to tell this story.

We’re left with this nagging feeling, however, that the overwhelming reason why we see so much “bad news” coming out of Iraq is that, in spite of a halting start-and-stop sort of progress toward democratic institutions, things are not going well on the ground. (As the New York Times noted last week, both the number of insurgents, the number of foreign terrorists and the daily number of attacks by those groups more than tripled from February, 2004 to February of this year. And during that period, both oil and electricity production in Iraq have dwindled, as has household fuel availability. Which is why Bagdhad is darker than it was two years ago.)

We’ll leave you with an example of the kind of story Massing longs for, but be warned: It isn’t encouraging. It comes from ABC News and it goes like this: The other day: in search of a “good story,” Jake Tapper visited the set of a popular sitcom, “Me and Layla” filming in the streets of Baghdad and starring the “Iraqi Danny Devito.” Tapper was going to focus on the head of the entertainment company producing the show, a man named Hamid, in an attempt to highlight those “who are trying to make the Iraqi people laugh.” Just as the ABC crew was taping a segment showing the sitcom being filmed, Tapper captured the director running to take an urgent phone call. Hamid, the man who had greenlighted “Me and Layla” and arranged for ABC to do the story, had just been assassinated.

What did Tapper learn?:

“It just goes to show, even when you are trying to do a story about comedy in Iraq, tragedy inevitably intervenes.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.