Is The Press Emotionally Detached from Iraq?

In his National Journal column today, William Powers questions the Washington press corps' emotional engagement with the war in Iraq, but his point seems a little "Off Message" to us.

Editor’s Note: Paul McLeary reported from Iraq for CJR Daily in January.

In his “Off Message” column in National Journal today, William Powers tackles the once-again hot story of media coverage of the Iraq war. CJR Daily’s Gal Beckerman penned a few insightful columns on this very topic earlier this week, but Powers adds a new wrinkle, questioning the Washington press corps’ emotional engagement with the story.

Along the way, Powers writes that “The problem is not the resources and energy that American media outlets are devoting to Iraq. The commitment is gigantic, and the coverage is consistently good, especially considering the danger that reporters are in. The gap is emotional, and it’s at the Washington end of things,” not the Iraq end.

But is it? We would contend that the “gap,” in so much as it exists, comes into play more in the home offices of American newspapers, which are responsible for sending reporters to Iraq, and running their stories once they file, than with the Washington press corps. More to the point, Powers asks why Iraq isn’t the “Alpha” story at the moment, dominating all other stories in the American media. While the coverage could be expanded (USA Today reported yesterday that there were only 31 journalists embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq — a paltry amount), there are other, more pressing reasons.

First, there’s the length of the conflict. The war has dragged on for over three years now, and with it being so enormously expensive to send reporters to Iraq it’s understandable that full staffs are not always economically feasible. In addition, the logistics and the pace of the war itself make it a hard story to get your arms around. Unlike other wars, the one in Iraq has few major offensives, has no organized and easily identifiable enemy, and has no front line. Action is quick, brutal and random. For the most part, U.S. military commanders aren’t even sure who they’re fighting, or what it is that they want. Even in Vietnam — the most often referenced cousin to Iraq — American forces were most of the time fighting an army with supply lines, a command and control structure and an organized, identifiable leadership core. In Iraq, decentralized groups of fighters pop up intermittently, and answer to a variety of leaders with different philosophies and goals. It is the confused nature of the conflict, and the impossibility of predicting anything with certainty that causes reporters to fumble in the dark, trying to light a candle. No one knows where the next story will arise, or when. It’s all a matter of trying to play catch-up.

In critiquing the Washington press corps’ indifference to the Iraq story, Powers compares it to the level of involvement in the Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton presidency, noting that “When Washington reporters are truly hot on a story, nothing can stop them from playing it large. In the Clinton-Lewinsky period, even when polls showed that much of the public was fed up with the story, the media drumbeat continued. After all, the press argued — persuasively, in my opinion — the president of the United States was in a terrible mess. That implicitly mattered.”

Indeed it did, but all of the heavy hitters of the Washington press corps — print and broadcast — were smack in the middle of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, turning the whole sordid affair into the equivalent of a small-town knitting circle. They were engaged because it was unfolding right in front of their eyes, and it involved people (the president, Vernon Jordan, etc.) with whom they regularly interacted, and about whom they could dig up dirt.

Iraq is a totally new, and totally different challenge, with few antecedents and fewer points of contact with other difficult stories. Blaming the Washington press corps, with its cozy jobs and expensive haircuts, doesn’t do any good; this isn’t their story. It belongs to the dwindling number of reporters and photographers slogging their way through the danger and the uncertainty of Iraq, and to the editors back home who pay the freight — or decide not to.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.