If this were another kind of war, a conventional war in which two armies faced off along set lines, things might be different. A fight like that is easier to understand, easier to wrap your head around, than complicated counterinsurgency campaigns like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan which involve ancient cultural and tribal equations. But understanding what the military has taken to calling the “human terrain” is what these new wars are all about, and it’s this aspect of the fight that the mainstream media is doing a scattershot job in explaining to the American people.
This raises the question: Does the public care about these stories?
A recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the percentage of news stories devoted to the war has declined since last year, dropping from an average of 15 percent of stories in print and on television in July 2007 to a paltry 3 percent in February. A new Pew survey found that, among those polled, “Iraq was the public’s most closely followed news story in all but five weeks during the first half of 2007,” but “has not been the public’s top weekly story since mid-October.” What’s more, in yet another Pew study concerning news coverage between March 10-16, only 8 percent of those polled named Iraq as the story they’re most closely following, coming in behind the 2008 presidential campaign, the former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer scandal, and the economic crisis. All this means that as much as the press has pulled back from covering the war, the public—the vast majority of which is disconnected from any direct involvement in the war effort—has simply tuned out.
Another question that several soldiers asked was how much education I had to have to be a journalist—most thought you must need a couple of graduate degrees. I’m afraid I burst the bubble of all J-school grads out there when I told them that you don’t need anything except an enormous curiosity, the desire to understand things and explain them. Degrees can’t give you that. The young soldier in Tarmiya who commented on how much I must be making told me that he was writing a novel based on his experiences in Iraq, and asked me how you go about becoming a journalist. I told him to start a blog and write about what he does every day, or get someone back home to contact the editor of his local paper in Georgia, and see if he could write a story a day in the life of a soldier in Iraq. I could tell that actually publishing something in a newspaper seemed incomprehensible to him, and he just kind of shrugged it off, but I hope he does it. Even if only a few hundred people read the story, it’s his story to tell, and it’s important for people to hear it.
The assumptions about how much reporters must earn, and how much education we must have, points to something else: despite all the hype over “citizen journalists” and how the floodgates of access to the public discourse have been opened to anyone with an Internet connection, reporting, writing, and publishing remain something alien to most Americans. I’m not saying that more reporters embedding with infantry units in the thick of the fight will change this—it won’t. I’m simply saying that by getting out there and telling the everyday stories of our soldiers, and just as important, the stories of the Iraqis they come in contact with, we might begin to change the perception that reporters as elite, out of touch with so-called average Americans.
On my way home, I spent a couple of days at Ali al Salem air base in Kuwait, where I had the chance to talk to several more soldiers, either going to Iraq or coming home. One night, I fell into conversation with a soldier headed back to Iraq after going home for R&R. He asked what I did, and I told him. When he was walking away, he turned and said, “Thanks for coming out here to tell our story.” I thanked him for serving, and was left with the thought that reporters shouldn’t have to be thanked for merely doing their job.