Rummy’s Compassionate Side Comes Out

The Secretary of Defense, it turns out, really just feels sorry for those confused reporters working in Iraq.

After all this time, it turns out that Donald Rumsfeld actually feels sorry for all those befuddled reporters in Iraq.

In a speech yesterday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Rumsfeld explained that he just really feels bad for the ink-stained wretches out there covering the war, and he doesn’t blame them for getting it all wrong.

“For starters,” he said, “it must be jarring for reporters to leave the United States, arrive in a country that is so different, where they have to worry about their personal safety, and then being rushed to a scene of a bomb — car bomb — or a shooting, and have little opportunity to see the rest of the country.”

We’re glad someone finally understands that reporters, transplanted to a different country, are just confused. The Secretary of Defense seems to intuitively understand that all that negative coverage of massive civilian death tolls, daily bombings, kidnappings and beheadings is the result of reporters taken aback by being “in a country that is so different” from the strip malls back home in New York and California and Kentucky and Indiana.

It’s about time somebody said it, and we’re glad it’s the Secretary of Defense who finally recognized — publicly - that all the relentlessly grim coverage day after day after day comes not from the actual facts on the ground, but instead is a result of legions of war reporters on unfamiliar ground, wandering around, scratching their heads and thinking, “WTF ???

It was almost — but not quite — enough to make us forget the fact that Rumsfeld was dead wrong when he described those reporters as having “little opportunity to see the rest of the country.”

If that were true, we would never have seen stories from the violent front lines of Fallujah, from the mountainous, Kurdish-controlled north, or from the more recent battles near the Syrian border — all parts of the country that have been superbly-covered by both embedded and freelance reporters.

Rumsfeld’s second point: The press on hand seldom outlines some of the true success stories to be found in Iraq. Unfortunately, the secretary doesn’t choose his examples wisely. His prime exhibit of good news on the march: “A vital and engaged [Iraqi] media is emerging, with some 100 newspapers in Iraq now, 72 radio stations, 44 television stations, incredible number of cell phones, which is an entirely new thing in that country….”

While we here at CJR Daily are obviously first in line to applaud the stirrings of a free an open media in Iraq, there is the little matter of recent revelations that the Pentagon pays off Iraqi journalists to write positive stories, and has under contract a private PR firm to place other positive stories about the American occupation in the Iraqi media. To be sure, not all stories in the Iraqi media are planted. But it seems to speak to a larger tone-deafness that Rumsfeld would trot these figures out right after the administration was caught redhanded manipulating the fledgling press that he is extolling.

As Christopher “win at any cost” Hitchens wrote yesterday in Slate, the pay-to-play issue is “much more of a disgrace and a scandal than anyone seems so far to have said,” because it “helps discredit free media in Iraq at a time when that profession is very new and very hazardous (and one of the unarguable moral gains of the original intervention).”

We couldn’t agree more.

And no amount of cute rhetorical devices change the reality of what is happening both on the killing grounds and in the novice newsrooms of Iraq.

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