The U.S. Army propaganda about who the insurgency was — that they were dead-enders and it was over, a bunch of criminals — was very effective, and that was essentially what was written for a long time. So I think that, in many ways, there was an enormous amount of press self-censorship early on, for about almost the first year of the invasion.
If you look back at how things were reported in that first year, it was pretty close to the way the U.S. government wanted it to be presented, which is, “It’s not so bad, it’s coming along, we’ve got a few criminals but we’re handling them,” when, in fact, what was going on was the Eighty-second Airborne in Fallujah was doing what aggressive, elite units always do, which is create a lot of enemies.
By September or October of 2003, the Eighty-second had already killed at least forty people around Fallujah, probably more like one hundred, some of them even local police, a lot of them kids, all of them from a tribal area. You just knew things were going to go badly.
[In Najaf, August 2004], me and Ivan Watson [of NPR] found ourselves at the top of a tower. We found two American soldiers, very, very young soldiers — they were snipers — at the top room of the tower, and they invited us to eat the MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. And we were very happy because we didn’t eat anything, like only eggs and potatoes all of these days, because there is no food in the city. And we ate with them and started chatting with them, and myself personally, I had like a friendship with them, and one of them called me to come and hold the sniper machine and look through the sniper zoom and look to the [Imam Ali] Shrine, because I wanted to look at it. And we were like joking about the situation until the moment when suddenly we heard the voice coming from the shrine for the prayers. At that time the two soldiers were back in position. They were furious, and I said, “What’s wrong?” They said, “The sound — it means something,” and I said, “What?” They said, “It does mean that they’re calling their soldiers to come kill us, isn’t that right?” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s prayer calls.” It seems like these soldiers didn’t know that these are prayer calls, because it’s long, long prayer calls — it’s prayers they do for the martyrs. And they thought that this was something like a call to start fighting.
Iraq wasn’t a country that was fact-checkable, right? It wasn’t a country where there were a lot of facts. And it wasn’t a country that anybody knew anything about, so your problem wasn’t selling the story. It was convincing touchy magazines to run things. I had a story on insurgents killed because the magazine couldn’t fact-check it [the story eventually appeared in Harper’s, which had not commissioned it]. American magazines have been beaten up very badly by various scandals, and they just couldn’t take a risk. If you said this is a group of insurgents that I’m with, they’re not a bunch of former Baathists, they’re fighting for kind of tribal, nationalistic reasons — that was the opposite of what was being written in the press in the fall of 2003. The majority of the articles were that they were a group of Baathists, they’re dead-enders, they’re criminals, they’re disgruntled Sunnis who want to take over the country again. The insurgency was over, the insurgency would soon be over. And I was saying, “No, actually, this is an expression of a minority that’s scared and doesn’t feel that it’s going to participate in the future of the country. It’s very tribal; it has to do with the cultural context.” And it’s very hard to prove that.