The Good News

The clamor for ‘positive’ stories didn’t fit the reality of Iraq

Anthony Shadid
The Washington Post

When I hear this term “good news” [that the press allegedly fails to report], I think of the Arab world I used to cover in 1995, official news agencies, writing about the accomplishments of President Mubarak. I mean, it was despicable. This was good news in their eyes. I just don’t understand the distinction [between “good” stories and “bad” ones]. I mean, what Iraq is today and what they envisioned it being before the invasion of 2003 — How else do you chronicle that except through the deterioration of the country? It’s not a success story, and to call it a success story is propagandistic at this point.

Patrick Graham
Freelance Writer

A friend of mine who was working for a British paper kept getting a lot of pressure to write “good-news” stories. I can remember him saying, “I’ve written a good-news story in Hillah; I hope they print it before Hillah blows up.”

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post

You’ve got journalists saying to the embassy there, “So tell us about the reconstruction projects you’re doing, tell us about the great things you’re doing so we can write about it and show this side of the story.” You’ve got public information officers saying, “Sure, we’ll take you there, but you can’t say where it is, and you can’t name anybody, and you can’t take any pictures, because if we point out the location of this, it could be a target for the insurgency, and if we name people, they could be subject to retribution.” Is that really progress when you can’t go and report basic facts of something because they’re too worried it’s going to be attacked?

Dan Murphy
The Christian Science Monitor

Good news? My first inclination is to say, “What fucking good news?” The violence and criminality of Iraq has only grown in the three years that I’ve been here. And there is not an honest metric that shows anything but that. That’s the big story. If the Jets and the Sharks were ruling the streets of Manhattan after dark, that’s the big story, not whether or not the municipality painted a few schools. Now, we have covered in great length and detail, and I’m talking about the press in general, all sorts of stuff that’s been done, whether it’s been power plants that have been redone, water plants that have been rebuilt. Of course, after a while the Americans didn’t want you to go see stuff they’d rebuilt because if it gets publicized, it’s more likely to get blown up sooner. Reconstruction has failed because there is a war on. And I’m not aware of any single war in human history in which basic living conditions of citizens living in the war zone improved before the war ended.

Yousif Mohamed Basil
Time (CNN)

As an Iraqi, living inside Iraq, I cannot hear good news, and even if there is good news, you cannot hear it with the noises of explosions and the noises of the terrorists and the noises of American military operations. It’s very difficult to hear a lot of things. It’s very difficult to practice a lot of rights. It’s very difficult to practice freedom. It’s very difficult to do a lot of things. So, there’s no good news about Iraq. There’s no good news at all.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The Guardian, Getty Images

So this debate accusing the media of not conveying the good news is such a — I mean do those people know what we are digging through when we go to Iraq? Just flying into Baghdad, driving, just doing the simplest, the basic, simple things, just being in Baghdad, existing in Baghdad is one of the most dangerous things you can do in your life, let alone covering it. So the effort we put into writing a story, any simple story, is enormous. And none of us, I don’t know any journalist who accepts taking such a risk just to manipulate the truth or write the bad news because you have this hidden agenda. People are getting killed on a sectarian basis. People are leaving their neighborhoods. Militias are roaming the streets; despots are functioning in Iraq. People are getting kidnapped; people are getting killed. Everyone’s getting killed: barbers, bakers, professors, officers, insurgents, Americans — everyone’s getting killed. So what are you going to write?

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
They would spend ridiculous amounts of money on painting schools and, you know, hire some fancy contractor to paint the schools as opposed to giving some Iraqis the job. So there were a lot of complications with the reconstruction. Everyone was trying to make a buck or two off this thing — and it was wrong! It was wrong! It didn’t work! All these theories [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld had about this leaner, meaner military that subcontracts everything — it just didn’t work. It was a failure. You can say that objectively.

Caroline Hawley

I’ll never forget going to a school that was supposedly rehabilitated. And there was the adviser of the Education Ministry and he was in tears because of the shoddy job that had been done. It was basically a paint job had been done in the school; it hadn’t really been renovated. The toilets didn’t work, and this was the school that we had been taken to for showcasing the reconstruction at the beginning of the school year. And it was clear that the contract to redo the school had passed through many hands, and a very cheap job had been done at the end.

Andrew Lee Butters
Freelance Writer

I think a good question is how accurate a picture of Iraq Americans actually want. When I came home to the United States in fall 2004, around the time of the elections, people would ask me about Iraq at every party or event. I remember being at a Republican election-night party in Delaware, because my uncle was running for governor of Delaware, and people just asked me about Iraq. They couldn’t understand and were just very surprised to hear me say that things weren’t actually going very well. Somehow they would see these explosions and just think that it’s okay when things just blew up all the time. Somehow — as these bombings keep going on — there was a flourishing civil society going on? A society that just ignores these things? Much responsibility is placed on the press, what they’re doing and what they’re not doing. But I think the American public shared a certain amount of responsibility by shutting its eyes.

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times

What has struck me about the criticism about us, about the press in this war, is, number one, how virulent it is, absolutely take-no-prisoners, the “you’re not an American and I hope you die” sort of criticism. But it’s being made by people who aren’t there and who claim some kind of superior knowledge even though they’re not there. I remember when I was in Fallujah, I was with a company of soldiers when the Marines invaded Fallujah to take it back from the insurgents in November 2004. We went into that city on foot. I was with those guys for eight days, and a quarter of the unit was killed or wounded, I mean it was an absolute bloodbath. But I was there, and on one or two occasions I was able to hook up my satellite phone and I downloaded some stuff, hoping to get some stuff from my office in New York. I remember there were people sending e-mails to me in the United States telling me that I was out of my mind about what I was seeing and that I was wrong. Maybe I was wrong, but I mean how would somebody in Minnesota who is sitting at their computer screen … but anyway, that’s the world that we live in.

Farnaz Fassihi
The Wall Street Journal
[In September 2004, an e-mail about living and reporting in a deteriorating Iraq that Fassihi had written and sent to friends started to circulate widely on the Internet. Then, in February 2006, as she was leaving that country, she wrote a first-person piece for the Journal about trying to live and work in Baghdad as the war closed in.]

When I wrote my first-person departure piece, I got thirty-six pages of e-mail. The response was overwhelming. And I couldn’t believe that people would say, “We had no idea.”

It still gets to me that people say, “It’s that bad in Iraq? We had no idea.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, you had no idea? How can you think that? By your own admission you’re a Journal subscriber for thirty years. Have you been reading my stories? What do you mean?” I think it just doesn’t grab them the same way. For three years we’ve been writing this. I don’t know why people respond to first-person pieces with, “Is it really that bad?”

Jon Lee Anderson
The New Yorker
I remember — September 2004, I think it was. Everybody was commenting on Farnaz Fassihi’s e-mail, in which she expressed just what it was like to report in Iraq, sort of no-holds barred, and I happened to be on book tour in the United States following that, and everybody was talking about it — all the editors. And I think it made a lot of people stop and think, “Well, how come everybody’s so surprised about this? We thought they knew.”

I am in a lot of my pieces where it seemed necessary to be so, where if things happened to me or I witnessed them, they’re in the pieces — but that isn’t necessarily the case for a lot of newspaper reporters. They’re more confined to reporting what their assigned news assignment or the perceived news of the day is. And I think that particularly made a lot of newspaper reporters stop and think, “Well, why is everybody so surprised?”

John Burns
The New York Times

I thought that [Farnaz Fassihi’s] e-mail was very damaging and, frankly, untrue. And it was untrue even of Farnaz’s own journalism because she was a brave and resourceful reporter herself. But it encouraged the view that there was nothing that could be done usefully and that we were locked up in our compound. And it just wasn’t true.

Those people who are looking for a way to discredit us — I think more from the left than the right, actually — people who think this war was fatally conceived and was doomed to failure of course have an interest in representing the press as having undercovered all the things that have gone wrong. And those people latched on to [Farnaz’s] e-mail in the aftermath to say, “Well, of course, we’re not in a position to tell the truth about Iraq.” It’s simply not true.

When this crops up in my e-mail, as it does often enough, from people who haven’t taken the trouble to read The New York Times, saying, “You never cover this, you never cover that,” I think, “Look, first, if you read the paper, you’ll find that we do cover these things. And secondly, come on out here and spend a few days with us and see how difficult this is. How we do actually go out and take enormous risks.” My problem with our staff is not getting them to go out. It’s cautioning them that if we’re going to stay in business, if we’re going to stay alive, we have to be pretty shrewd about the risks that we take.

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times

There’s a constant everyday temptation to answer the question whether this gigantic, unbelievably ambitious undertaking that is the constructing of a democracy in Iraq is going to succeed or fail. And I know I ask myself that question every day when I’m there: Is it failing or is it succeeding? I always ask myself that question, and it certainly informs everything I do: Where’s it headed? Is it going down or is it going up? But I would say that I think that’s something that we should always be thinking about, and I think it’s something that I hope our readers think about a lot as well. But I’d also say that we’re not, and we shouldn’t be expected to be in the business of predicting how things are going. And there’s a temptation to do that, and there are recriminations or criticisms that we’ve faced because we’ve not done that. “Why didn’t you tell us that this was going to fail?” etcetera, etcetera. So I guess I would say — and I don’t care, you don’t even have to print this — that our job is, first, to report what happens, and what happened that day, why and how and all that. But it’s not really our job to guess what’s going to come next, and I think that in the sort of supercharged atmosphere that we’re in over this war, because it’s been so polarizing, there is a temptation and an expectation by many people that we do that, and I think it’s important that we don’t. And I don’t think it’s appropriate. It’s not appropriate that people would expect that we would, you know?

Alissa Rubin
Los Angeles Times

There’s this constant balancing act between being credulous and being cynical, and you don’t want to be either one. You want to have sort of the appropriate level of skepticism. Lead the reader helpfully through the maze. Create a narrative that they can find compelling. All in roughly a thousand words. Day in, day out, you don’t always do it right.

We tend not to be analytic. We tell a story and we don’t step back and ask ourselves, “Okay, well if this is true, then what does it mean for the big picture?” We tend to be very good at telling the story we see before us. Very accurate, often. But then, what does that mean for the likelihood of success of what the Americans were trying to do in Iraq? I think we didn’t step back and think hard enough about that soon enough. And it’s not an individual failure. It’s almost a cultural aspect of American reporting that is in some ways a strength and in some ways a weakness. We have this idea that we’re supposed to be objective. So it’s on one hand, on the other hand. These people say this, these people say that. But if that’s the only way you report it, sometimes you don’t serve the reader because you haven’t helped guide them about which one might actually be true.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.