The Media Today

Iraq and the limits of anniversary journalism

March 21, 2023
The Martyrs' Monument in Baghdad. Credit: RafeefAlhafedh, Wikimedia Commons.

Last Thursday, Marsin Alshamary, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, visited the Martyr’s Monument in Baghdad. It is a giant dome in two parts, covered in turquoise ceramic tiles, that Saddam Hussein’s regime commissioned to commemorate the victims of the war between Iraq and Iran that spanned most of the 1980s. The monument has since been updated to reflect the lives lost to Saddam’s regime itself and to isis. A giant poster of Saddam hangs at the entrance to the monument’s museum. It labels him a dictator and a tyrant. According to Alshamary, people mostly walked past the poster without pausing. Iraq has a young population, Alshamary noted to me, so many Iraqis have no recollection of Saddam. “It’s twenty years for us,” she said, “but for an average Iraqi it might as well have been two hundred years.”

Alshamary was referring to the twentieth anniversary of the US and allied invasion of Iraq, which falls this week. In theory, Iraq’s media is now much freer than it was under Saddam, but in practice it is heavily politicized and stalked by threats of violence. “It’s been radio silent on the issue of the twentieth anniversary,” Alshamary said, when I asked how the anniversary was playing out in Iraqi media. “We’re distracted by a million other things in this country.” When I put the same question to Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, over the weekend, he told me that he had attended a few conferences in Iraq assessing the legacy of the invasion, and that he’d seen some TV talk-show discussions about it. Suadad al-Salhy, a journalist for Middle East Eye, said that she, too, has seen coverage in Iraqi media and that she has received dozens of requests to talk about the anniversary—though the latter have come from media outside of the country. Al-Salhy told me that she sees the exercise as “pointless.”

Editors in the US clearly don’t feel the same way. Over the past week, headlines have promised reflections on the limits of photojournalism in Iraq, reporting on the hopelessness of modern Iraq, an examination of the “lingering question” of why the US invaded Iraq in the first place, and a soldier’s claim that George W. Bush owes him “a beer, at the least”—and this was just in the New York Times. (The beer headline was subsequently changed.) “I have barely been able to keep up with the articles produced” in US and Western media, Alshamary told me.

No few articles and panels have revisited the complicity of the US media in dragging the country to war. We’ve seen such reckonings before, including on prior anniversaries of the invasion, and they often hit similar key points. Major mainstream outlets—with a few worthy exceptions, not least the team at Knight Ridder, which has since been folded into McClatchy—acted more as lapdogs than as watchdogs of the Bush administration, regurgitating officials’ bogus claims about the international threat posed by Saddam. Too many reporters were overly reliant on unreliable sources in the upper echelons of the US security establishment and the Iraqi exile community. (The name Judith Miller comes up a lot.) Meanwhile, on the opinion side of journalism, a hawkish pro-war consensus formed in support of the war, even at nominally liberal and left-leaning outlets. (The New Republic comes up a lot.)

The value of such introspection is a much more fraught question. Compared with twenty years ago, there seems to be more room for skepticism of war in US media—but the same major outlets that failed so badly on the Iraq story still usually set the media agenda, and, as at least two recent anniversary pieces have listed, the commentators who pushed for the war still mostly sit on lofty media perches. In recent years, some great enterprise reporting has demonstrated clearly that administrations of both parties lie about war, and the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought at least some mainstream-media scrutiny of intelligence being pushed out by the Biden administration (as the administration itself has noted)—but both that war and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan attracted reams of reflexively hawkish coverage, too. Just this month, the media community—well, a corner of it—has been debating whether the Times or Sy Hersh was more credulous in their conflicting recent reporting on the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines. Plus ça change…

To clarify my thoughts, I called Spencer Ackerman, a longtime national-security reporter who worked at the New Republic when the US invaded Iraq (and played his part in its credulous coverage of the case for war) and now writes the newsletter Forever Wars on the publishing platform Ghost. Ackerman framed my “lessons learned” question less as one of credulousness or skepticism toward security officials, and more as one of their centrality to war stories. In the wake of police murders of Black Americans, newsrooms embarked on a process, albeit “mostly unfinished,” of asking whether police sources should be the “default template to build out a story around,” Ackerman told me—but in his field, “there has never been such a debate.” One can sympathize with or criticize the perspective of the CIA or the Pentagon, but it remains “the sun around which the solar system of national-security journalism revolves,” Ackerman said. Using those sources as a default “obscures what the US is actually doing to the people it’s doing it to.”

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When I spoke with Alshamary last week, neither she nor I had seen too much anniversary coverage out of the US written purely or predominantly from the perspective of Iraqis. There had been some, though—and, in recent days, I’ve seen more of it. The Washington Post, for example, reported that Iraqis exposed to US military burn pits—basically, large, often noxious controlled fires of waste—had been completely left out of the recent US discussions on the harms they caused to veterans. CNN published disposable-camera photos taken by “ordinary” Iraqis under the headline: “this is what they want you to see.”

But the shift in perspective that Ackerman is describing would amount to a reset in the way US news outlets approach national-security reporting. Anniversary coverage alone is inadequate—the journalistic equivalent of “throwing a panhandler a quarter when your job was to investigate why there is such overwhelming wealth inequality and poverty all around you,” Ackerman told me. The way out of it, he added, would be more “consistent coverage” of a war that is “kind of over but kind of not,” with some US troops still stationed in Baghdad as “advisers” even after Iraq’s parliament voted to kick them out in 2020.

As Ackerman pointed out to me, budgets for overseas coverage have shrunk in the US; other stories—and other wars—have knocked Iraq down the US news agenda. The best way to mark the legacy of the Iraq War for the press isn’t to talk about it because it’s that time of year again. It would be better to deeply reexamine how we cover all wars, along the lines Ackerman describes.

Alshamary, at least, sees a silver lining in the fact that US coverage of Iraq has waned, outside of the recent anniversary coverage. “The less attention everyone in the world pays Iraq keenly, the more we can get on with our lives as a normal country,” she said. “In the past, we’ve been a country that’s received an extraordinary amount of attention from the world. We’ve been at the center of the news for so long that it’s been quite exhausting.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of leading scientists convened by the United Nations, issued the final installment of its six-part assessment of the state of climate science globally. “The comprehensive review of human knowledge of the climate crisis took hundreds of scientists eight years to compile and runs to thousands of pages,” The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey reports, but it boils down “to one message: act now, or it will be too late.” In a Twitter thread, Karl Mathiesen, a senior climate correspondent for Politico in Europe, examined the placement of the report on the homepages of major news organizations in the US and the UK; some, including The Guardian and the BBC, quickly gave the story top billing, but others were slower or didn’t center the report at all. Joe Lo, of Climate Home, assessed why this might be the case.
  • Also yesterday, the cast of the hit TV series Ted Lasso—including Trent Crimm, a fictional reporter from the show whose (also fictional) ethical lapses I wrote about last year—appeared at the White House press briefing to talk about mental health, a major theme of the show. As Deadline put it, however, their appearance was “nearly derailed” when Simon Ateba, a correspondent for Today News Africa, interjected to protest that he hadn’t been called on to ask a question in seven months. Later, a shouting match erupted between Ateba and other reporters in the room, in what the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association called an “extreme breakdown of decorum.”
  • Abby Grossberg, a Fox News producer who worked on the shows of Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo, sued the company, alleging, among other things, that Fox lawyers coerced her into giving misleading testimony in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against the network, and that Fox has a misogynistic workplace culture. Fox said that it “engaged an independent outside counsel to immediately investigate the concerns raised by Ms. Grossberg, which were made following a critical performance review.”
  • In 2021, Saad Almadi, a US-Saudi dual national living in Florida, was vacationing in Saudi Arabia when he was arrested over old tweets criticizing Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince. Yesterday, Saudi authorities finally freed Almadi, according to his son. US officials, who had pushed for Almadi’s release, did not immediately confirm his freedom, and it wasn’t clear if Almadi would be allowed to return to Florida.
  • And Olivier Dubois, a French journalist who had been held hostage in Mali since 2021, was also released yesterday. Dubois, who was kidnapped and held by a jihadist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, had been the last French hostage held by non-state actors anywhere on earth. Officials in neighboring Niger worked to free Dubois as well as Jeff Woodke, a US aid worker who had been held by militants in that country for six years.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.