The “Good News” Chorus Sings On

The First Lady takes a shot at the press, harping on a silly argument.

We’re not sure who this is a criticism of — Laura Bush, or more generally, the people who complain about the lack of “good news” coming out of Iraq, without bothering to provide evidence to back up their claims that the press is ignoring all that good news. So let’s just start from the top.

ThinkProgress flagged an interview MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell conducted with first lady Laura Bush this morning, where she asked the first lady about a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that shows only two in ten Americans approve of the job that her husband is doing on Iraq.

The first lady responded with a swipe at the media saying, “I do know that there are a lot of good things that are happening that aren’t covered. And I think that the drum beat in the country from the media, from the only way people know what is happening unless they happened to have a loved one deployed there, is discouraging.”

O’Donnell then quoted the first lady as saying that she hopes that there is “more balanced coverage by the media.” She also said “I understand why the polls are what they are because of the coverage we see every day in Iraq.”

So you see, the president’s poll numbers aren’t bad because his administration has bungled the occupation of Iraq, but rather because the media has reported the carnage that his failed policies have created.

There’s a reason the press dwells on the constant stream of car bombings, mass kidnappings, suicide bombings, the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi government, and the daily discovery of mutilated bodies dumped on the streets of Baghdad: These things are, in part, the reality of life in Baghdad, and to a lesser extent, cities like Karbala and Mosul — the population centers of Iraq. In other words, imagine that New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. were engulfed by an endless cycle of bloody violence, and people were complaining that the media was focusing their energies there, while ignoring a new irrigation project in Kansas.

Of course there’s more happening in Iraq than car bombs and sectarian murder — children are going to school, couples are getting married, having children. But the job of a journalist, in Iraq or anywhere else, is not to write about the 99 percent of things that function as they should. How do these “good news” stories in Iraq stack up against 70 civilians getting blown up in back-to-back car bomb attacks, furthering the spiral of civilian casualties?

Beyond that, as I noted last January while embedded with a Marine unit in Iraq, a lot of small, “good news” stories go unreported every day in Iraq because the security situation just doesn’t allow reporters to go out — unaccompanied by the military — to get them. More to the point, as Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran noted in his excellent book about Iraq, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” there were times during his two years in country when a reporter would request to go with the military to a newly opened power plant or school, but the military would turn the request down, saying that if the project got too much press, the insurgents would attack it.

When people complain that the media focuses too much on the violence in Iraq, they seem to be suggesting that the violence isn’t as pervasive as the press makes it out to be. But the Iraq Study Group report found that the truth of the matter is that the level of violence in Iraq has actually been underreported. “The standard for recording attacks,” the report says, “acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack … A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence.”

So, Mrs. Bush, where is all the outrage about the media underreporting the violence?

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