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May 26, 2004

The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow.

The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. The press has every reason to keep reporting aggressively on the investigation of Abu Ghraib. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?

Today the New York Times declared itself amiss on the weapons of mass destruction story. One of the striking things about its editorial summarizing the verdict against its own coverage was a failure to mention the many critics of that coverage who thought the Times had been fooled. Did they not have a point?

After all, the statement today was in reply to those critics: yep, we were fooled. To me it is a sign of strength for the Times to do this. And maybe it’s a strength the press should be tapping more often. Correcting mistakes is one thing. Examining your judgment and finding it faulty over a range of stories is another. And that’s what critics of the Times coverage had been doing over many months. In a sense, the editor’s note is the Times joining the party.

Judgment in journalism is becoming a day-to-day political issue, put there in the arena with everything else we argue about. And lately the bias charges have been getting more serious as the stakes rise in Iraq and the November election. The Washington columnist and pundit Morton Kondracke recently argued that “Congress, Media Could Talk U.S. Into Iraq Defeat.” His parallel—and I have seen others draw it—was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, to him a military victory for the U.S that was spun a different way at home.

“The U.S. media reported the episode as a U.S. defeat, helping convince the American establishment that the war was unwinnable,” Kondracke wrote. Bias in the news triggered a failure of nerve. “There is a real danger that Iraq could become like Vietnam—a self-inflicted defeat.” He criticized the press for being “obsessed with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal” when “the decapitation of Nicholas Berg was a front-page story for just one day.” (See PressThink on the Berg video story.)

More than most pundits, Kondracke’s views consist in what already like-minded people in the Washington establishment are already thinking and saying. (Opinion-wise, he wants not to be first.) And there is no doubt that his column speaks for a body of opinion on the right and among supporters of the war in Iraq. (See Roger Simon, The New Reactionaries, and Glenn Reynolds, calling Kondracke’s “A MUST-READ WARNING.”)

The charge is pretty serious, and routinely stated in some quarters. The press, in league with others, is losing the war for us, wants the war to be lost, is unwittingly causing the U.S. to lose the war, or is trying to lose it but hasn’t— yet.

Meanwhile, Editor and Publisher reported Tuesday that Military Reporters and Editors, the association of war correspondents and other military journalists, “is shooting back at those who have criticized newspapers for printing the Iraq prison abuse photos and other negative images of the Iraq War, claiming that such critiques are misguided and dangerous.”

Shooting back? Dave Moniz, MRE president and a military writer for USA Today, gave a pretty mild statement. “Name-calling and finger-pointing isn’t productive,” he said. Sig Christenson, vice president and a long time military reporter at the San Antonio Express-News, came with the heavier charges. “People are filtering this through their political views,” Christenson argued. “People ought to be thinking about what is the truth.” There is a “real danger when people deny the truth,” he added. “This is the same dynamic that went on in Nazi Germany.”

Which some might see as name-calling, or at least a glaring lack of proportion. But Christenson had another warning, according to E & P. He said the “backlash” that is building against the press has already hurt its relationship with the Pentagon and people in the military. Things had improved in 2003 after reporters were embedded with American soldiers in Iraq. Here Vietnam was a reference point as well, but in a different way.

“We will be right back where we were after Vietnam; we will have a horrifically bad relationship,” Christenson said about the press relations with the Pentagon. “Embedding broke the ice. People in the military realized that we are pretty decent people. That was a watershed moment.”

Christenson, who has spent a pair of three-month tours in Iraq since the war began, said those who blame the Post and other newspapers for publishing photos—instead of questioning the military’s actions in Iraq—risk crippling the press’s power at a time when the nation is polarized.

Well, yes. At a time when the nation is polarized there might well be those who support “crippling the press’s power,” or at least reducing it a lot, hemming it in. Rightly or wrongly, they think it destructive. I dock points for the Nazi comparison, but I give Christenson points for recognizing that not only Truth, but the power of the press is at issue in the coverage of Iraq today— and not only the potential crippling of press power, but also the proper uses of it.

I think the press has every reason to keep reporting aggressively on the investigation of Abu Ghraib. As a use of press power, it is fully legitimate, since the scandal really is a scandal. It involves massive problems of accountability in the military. Congress is outraged, and actively inquiring into those problems. And the photographs of Americans abusing Iraqis cannot help but affect Iraqi and world opinion. It’s a big story, and not primarily because the press has played it big. The events themselves are shattering.

But in making this judgment, and supporting the press, I become one of those people Christenson talked derisively about— “filtering this through their political views.” On Tuesday, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post did the same thing when he took notice of the criticisms. (“Enough already! We get it. How many more pictures do we have to see?”) He said he had talked to journalists about revealing more and more from Abu Ghraib, and they agreed: “It’s excruciating stuff, and everyone recognizes it’s hurting the country, but it’s a painful story that must be told.”

Kurtz has an argument: it’s hurting the country, but the pain is necessary. That’s a conclusion I agree with it, but only if it gets called by its right name— for this is a political judgment, a weighing of harms and benefits. Not at all necessary, Kurtz said, “is the media running the same pictures over and over until they become video wallpaper.”

The test should be whether the photos and stories add new information to the saga of Abu Ghraib and other prison camps. If not, we’re guilty of regurgitation. But for now, at least, new and ugly material continues to surface.

In a Sunday column (May 23) Post ombudsman Michael Getler ran this comment from a reader angry about the prison abuse coverage:

With all due respect this isn’t reporting, it’s cheerleading for failure and smacks of blatant support for the lefty spin that Iraq is a quagmire. It looks like piling on. There are problems, of course, but most of the “on the brink” comes from the major media here and in Europe and doesn’t reflect ‘ground truth’ in Iraq, which is that a lot of progress has been and is being made in spite of the high-profile attacks and the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal.

“The view that things are better than the press makes them out to be has been expressed by the Bush administration and supporters of the war for more than a year,” Getler wrote, granting that “there are, undoubtedly, some positive developments that may not have been reported.” Then he gave his reply to the main charge:

But it seems to me that events on the ground have confirmed the thrust and credibility of the reporting on this conflict and that the press generally has been more reliable than official statements as a guide to what is happening. My view is that both this country and Iraq are at a critical juncture in a huge, costly and controversial undertaking and that readers who view the work of reporters covering this for major U.S. news organizations as “lefty spin” are fooling themselves.

This combines truth as a defense (events unfolded to confirm our reporting) with comparative credibility (we’re more reliable than U.S. officials) with political argument (“my view is…”) So Getler has three ways of concluding that the critics are wrong. Except that he granted one way they might be right, pointing to “some positive developments that may not have been reported,” about which he said nothing.

On May 4, around the time of Nightline’s show on “The Fallen” (see my post on it) Mark Jurkowitz, media writer for the Boston Globe, made note of a “new kind of ethical dilemma” emerging: “Is the media’s focus on the casualties incurred in a controversial war during an election year an act of journalism or politics?”

But this isn’t really an ethical dilemma (what will it be today, boys, some journalism or some politics?) so much as a dispute over the proper terms of press think. Retired Air Force lieutenant general Tad Oelstrum, director of the national security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is quoted in the Globe. He disputes the way Jurkowitz framed the question: “You can’t separate journalism and politics.” But then:

Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said that focusing on the casualty count is also a journalistic obligation. “It’s a very important part of the coverage,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s political. It’s reality.”

The ethical dilemma I see is right there in Bosley’s statement. I know what he meant, of course: we’re not trying to achieve partisan ends with our coverage, we’re trying to tell you what happened. But one outcome of this style of argument is the message to bias critics: we stand for the reality principle, you stand for a political principle. Sorry, but the news is about reality, and that’s why you are dissatisfied with it.

The dilemma: Is it better to defend the contents of the front page by saying reality is responsible for what appears on it, by pointing to the “danger when people deny the truth,” by telling critics that they’re “filtering this through their political views” while journalists do their duty as truthtellers, by the simple imperative that “new information” must come to light, by warning critics not to become Nazis?

Or… is it wiser for journalists (more honest, and better for them in the long run) to engage in political argument when they explain their decisions and uphold the rights of a free press? After all, it is a political argument to warn the country about souring relations between the press and the military. That’s not good for anyone, so let’s try to prevent it, Sig Christenson was saying. And it’s a political judgment Kurtz made when he said: the news is hurting the country but it’s necessary—on balance—for the country to face the ugly facts from Abu Ghraib.

Michael Getler said to readers: my view of the war is that it’s going badly at the most critical time. With this argument—a reasoned but contestable claim—he justifies the grim and skeptical reporting found in the news pages of the Washington Post. He didn’t, but Getler easily could have cited the growing list of Republicans and once-hawkish supporters of the war who have abandoned ship. (Eric Alterman wrote a sharp Nation column on that.) “Even some of the president’s friends say….,” a style of persuasion common in journalism, is also political argument, since it suggests an alliance of the reasonable around the case at hand.

When it came time to defend his televised toll of soldiers killed in Iraq, Ted Koppel didn’t say: “we did it because the truth is they’re dead.” He said on the air that night: “I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way.” That was making an argument: what I am opposed to is… (He added that he did not oppose the war.)

It’s a curious thing: Mort Kondracke, who believes the press may yet lose the war for us, writes: “There is plenty of bad news— but there is also much good, and it is being almost completely ignored.” Michael Getler, who thinks the press is doing its proper job, kind of agrees: “There are, undoubtedly, some positive developments that may not have been reported.” The coincidence is trying to tell us something, but Kondracke and Getler have the wrong language for it.

What I’m missing from the news coverage I consume is not “positive” stories or the cheery news out of Iraq— it’s the re-building story in its totality, good, bad and middling. We need to sever that narrative… what are we doing to re-build Iraq, what are the Iraqi’s doing, how is it going, how can we tell?… from the call for more “positive” stories to balance out The Negative. These are fruitless terms in which to debate press coverage. They should be junked.

For there is hardly a journalist alive who believes you have any right to good news, and calling for it is unlikely to get you a serious hearing, anywhere in the press. (The publisher’s office is another story.) On the other hand, to give the public, including outside critics, a more serious hearing is an important project in journalism today. The press is slowly becoming more transparent, more likely to explain itself; and the mea culpa from the editors in New York is the latest sign of that.

The news from Iraq is not too negative; it’s too narrow. Bit by bit, and for reasons probably sound at the time, the press allowed its coverage from Iraq to develop as a military story, in which the “security situation” is the base line reality, and threats of violence—or if not violence, tensions that could fracture the society—overshadow other things going on. Second place in that narrative goes to the jockeying for political control and influence in the “new” Iraq, especially among the known factions.

Both are essential. Both are truth. But smart journalists could have recognized before the war began that these two stories, responsibly reported, would not be enough to inform Americans about what’s going on in the country their own country invaded, promising to re-build it after the fall of Saddam. (A moral promise implicating all of us.) The re-building of Iraq is complicated, sprawling, thick with life— and a difficult thing to inform us about, especially given the language barrier. It is far less dramatic than a bombing, way more elusive than a briefing.

The entire population of Iraq is a player in the re-building story, not just the political class or clergy. And to get the story requires close attention to changes in daily life—normal life—all around the country, including the repair of public infrastructure and the recovery of institutions that make normalcy possible. Then there’s the story of bottom-up democracy, the building of which was promised to Iraq, and to the soliders who fought to free Iraq. Tom Friedman of the New York Times (Nov. 30, 2003):

This war is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan. The primary focus of U.S. forces in Iraq today is erecting a decent, legitimate, tolerant, pluralistic representative government from the ground up. I don’t know if we can pull this off. We got off to an unnecessarily bad start. But it is one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad and it is a moral and strategic imperative that we give it our best shot.

From the ground up. That is the only way to tell the re-building and democracy building stories. It would take an exhaustive study to prove it, but I have my own news consumption to measure by. The press that I spend several hours a day with has kept me reasonably up to date on the security situation in Iraq. It has told me what it can about the political players and factions as the future government takes shape.

From absorbing the news over the last year I learned something about the prosecution of the ongoing war, and a lot about the scandal in the military because of Abu Ghraib. I know a great deal about the politics of the war back in Washington, and among the Bush team. But I have almost no clear picture of daily life and the struggle for normalcy in Iraq after it fell to ruin under Saddam and during the war. Depite spot coverage here and there, including Iraqi-in-the-street stories, I don’t know from my own press where the re-building effort actually stands, including:

Do most Iraqi’s have health care, some, almost none? (See this list of claims from the CPA. Accountability journalism, anyone?) How about electricity, running water, sanitation? Do you know, and did you learn it from the mainstream media? Jeff Jarvis on May 15 wrote: “Iraq assignment desk: The rebuilding beat.”

If I were in charge of a bureau of reporters in Iraq — are you listening NY Times, Washington Post, FoxNews, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters, BBC? — I would assign one reporter, just one, to the rebuilding beat.

There are plenty of reporters — hell, every reporter in the country — assigned to the police beat, the blood-and-guts beat, the who-shot-whom today beat. When I worked in Chicago and San Francisco and New York, we had one or two reporters in the cop shop covering all that. We had hundreds of reporters covering the rest of life.

I see no reporters covering the rest of life in Iraq.

And who is? Readers of Buzzmachine know the answer to that, because Jarvis has been a diligent tracker of Iraqi blogs. “The stories would be easy to get,” he wrote, “all you have to do is read a few of the Iraqi weblogs. Read Zeyad or read Omar on the new economy.” And he quotes one Mohammed, just an Iraqi with a weblog, with a scene from daily life:

The coalition forces here invited all the kids-and their parents-in the neighborhood for a special festival, the kids were given paints and brushes and a definite area of the wall was assigned for each kid to paint on whatever he likes and to sign his painting with his/her name. I leave it for you to imagine how this hateful wall looked like after this festival. It became a fascinating huge painting that gives a feeling of brotherhood and friendship.

These paintings eliminated all the psychological walls between the folks and the coalition here. At the end of the festival, gifts were given to each kid; toys, clothes, candies… You can’t imagine how happy the kids were when they stood proudly pointing at their paintings; flowers, birds, hands shaking and the flags of Iraq and the coalition countries, and then pointing to their names; Zahra, Mohammed, Sajjad, Fatima… together with phrases like; yes for peace, Saddam has fallen and many others.

No one can watch this without having tears filling his eyes and I feel sorry that I couldn’t take pictures for this carnival, as I wasn’t there when it happened, but the people there told me the whole story.

It’s not that such stories haven’t appeared in the press, or been heard on NPR, or seen on the evening news. They have, when there is space between explosions and announcements. And it’s not that we need uplifting stories of daily life to balance the negative news about violence and hatred. The press can be criticized for neglecting the re-building story, but this does not mean: give us more good news. There may well be discouraging news at hand, a failure to re-build that needs telling. Corruption in the re-building story? Highly possible.

But without a steady focus on daily life I cannot answer the question that news from Iraq is supposed to help me with: how to judge the job my government is doing, how to hold president Bush accountable to what he said he would do. As Peter Levine has written, in paraphrase of a view he says is widely held: “A citizen’s main responsibility is to decide whether the Bush Administration has done a good job so far, and to vote accordingly this November.”

Journalists believe that. It’s not only an argument they accept; it’s a premise they build into news coverage. The news should inform citizens, journalists believe, and the core of that responsibility is to inform the citizen’s vote. If the mainstream press has a “theory” of democracy, widley shared among its members, this is it: stay informed, vote wisely, and democracy works.

For this purpose the news from Baghdad is not too negative. It is too narrow. The truth about Iraq after Saddam needed three legs to stand on, and it only got two: the military and security story, the jockeying for power and influence. There ought to have been, from the start, at least a partial preoccupation with re-building Iraq, the recovery of daily life, including the development of measures to chart progress, a task well within the reach of the American press.

On the whole that narrative went missing. It was not inevitable this would happen, but if it did happen, the omission might yet be corrected, or at the very least reflected on when the ombudsmen of the nation sit down and read their mail, or pen their Sunday columns. Did American journalists give the re-building and democracy-building story their best shot? And if they didn’t, is there yet time to make a new judgment, put forward a better argument, and set things right in the news from Iraq?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

new @ PressThink: From Wen Ho Lee to Judy Miller: The Transparency Era at the New York Times (May 28.)

Listen here to my radio interview about this post on NPR’s On the Media, with host Brooke Gladstone, May 28. (Or read the transcript.)

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now a lot of conservative media critics would agree with you, because I think they would assume that’s where a lot of the good news is. But don’t reporters risk, you know, going with military guards to staged hospital openings or soccer games or Barbie distribution sites, and are these stories newsworthy?

JAY ROSEN: Absolutely not. The only way to find out whether life is better in Iraq is to do independent, skeptical, even investigative reporting. But I also think that it might be good, occasionally, for the press to find something in what their critics are saying that makes sense, and I think the neglect of the rebuilding story is a piece of the right’s critique of the media that is real. Why not take it?

See this online talk with readers by the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for foreign news, Phil Bennett, who visited Baghdad and returned with his impressions: “For a foreigner, it’s entering the looking glass. Even though I read this coverage everyday, I was surprised by the profound menace that accompanies almost every step across the city. Kidnappings and attacks on foreign civilians have driven almost everyone into a bunker, into armored vehicles, behind the wire. Of course this is potentially disastrous for our journalism. So we are searching for ways not to lose contact with the heart of the story — still the Iraqi experience — without risking the lives of our correspondents.” (June 1, 2004)

Z Magazine’s Brian Dominck at UTS: “Reason #184,045 to support independent media: What the hell is going on with the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq?” Dominick points to examples of Dahr Jamail’s work in The New Standard, reporting on the shoddy reconstruction effort in Iraq. See, for example, “Electricity Production in Iraq Remains Below Pre-War Levels.”

Chris Allbritton, journalist, blogger and now a stringer with Time magazine and others, is in Baghdad, reporting back to his blog. From a post called Dear Friends: (May 29, 2004)

To those who think that reporters aren’t supporting the war effort enough and “refuse” to report good news, well, here’s a shocker: There isn’t much good news to report. The security situation is growing worse. The power is still bad (three hours on, three hours off, or so.) Major U.S. contractors are bypassing Iraqi companies, leading to growing resentment. What kinda sorta good news there is is being pretty well covered.. Most of the “good news” they release has to do with passing out free soccer balls to kids. Is this what should be reported when U.S. troops and Iraqis are dying every day?

Allbritton’s post explains why it’s so difficult to do “normal” reporting—indeed, to get very much work done in a day—under conditions in Iraq not only dangerous and life-threatening, but also exhausting, filled with unknowns. And there is anti-Americanism to deal with.

I’m going to be following Chris’s reporting because I feel he is my eyes and ears there. In a different way, so is John Burns of the New York Times, whom I wrote about recently. It’s my relationship to Chris that is different (I can talk to him) and this is how the Web is changing journalism. So I wrote about these two—Burns of the Times, Allbritton from Blogistan by way of the AP—in this post.

Jeff Jarvis replies to Allbritton: “Because of all the limits he lists, don’t we need to acknowledge that we are not getting good reporting from Iraq? I don’t care about the reasons and excuses of which there are plenty. Let’s just take a cold, hard look at the quality of the reporting and see whether we’re getting the whole story.”

Be on the alert for this amazingly detailed analysis of the reporter’s predicament and the likely sources of bias in mainstream journalism from USS Clueless. It begins: “This is an experimental medium, and I’m going to try an experiment today. I was inspired by an article about press bias, written by Jay Rosen, and I started making notes, and filling in some parts while leaving others more sketchy. Five hours later just the notes were 4000 words long, so I decided not to expand it any further…” Here’s one cherry-picked insight, but there are many more:

The argument would be that a reporter who abandoned detachment and tried to actively interfere in events would poison the well for all other reporters in future and make it more difficult for them to gain access in similar situations, and that any evil prevented in that one case would have to be counterbalanced by the greater evil of seriously reducing the ability of all reporters everywhere to gather critical information in performance of their mission…. If reporters abandon that detachment, the system fails.

Notes On Press Bias, USS Clueless. Very interesting post, as part of it is: geek does press think.

Columnist Michael Barone says the news from Iraq is too negative: “Roosevelt did not have to deal with one problem Bush faces today. And that is that today’s press works to put the worst possible face on the war.”

Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard, reacting to this Pew survey of journalists and their opinions:

With the evidence of liberal dominance so overwhelming, a leading press critic is now calling for more ideological diversity in the media. Tom Rosenstiel, who helped design the Pew poll and who runs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says it’s necessary not to think just of diversity that makes newsrooms “look like America,” but to create a press corps that “thinks like America.”

See also Kevin Drum’s reply to Barnes (and the comments following): “The press bashes whoever’s in power, Democrat or Republican, and they cover drama, whether it’s in Baghdad or Burbank. For better or worse, that’s the main bias of the news industry, not ideology.”

Matthew Yglesias: Think Again: The Return of the ‘Stab In the Back.’

Some commentators on the right seem to have decided that the real enemies aren’t the ones they read about it the papers, but the people who write them… The political purpose of the theory isn’t hard to grasp. The groundwork is being laid for a new version of the “stab in the back” myth that helped destroy Weimar Germany. No matter how far south things go in Iraq, the blame will be laid not at the feet of the president who initiated and conducted the war, but rather on those who had the temerity to note that it wasn’t working. Rather than the critics having been proven right, or so the story goes, the critics are to blame for the failure of the very policy they were criticizing. It’s an ugly tactic…

From the Boston Globe: “Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, attributed the disclosure to a Times culture that is more aware of credibility problems. ‘In the post-Blair era, they are a lot more sensitive to those questions and issues,’ he said.”

The practical political philosopher Peter Levine: Why do we care about press coverage of Iraq?

For an example of “bottom up” reporting from Iraq, listen to Fear and Anger, a radio series by Inside Out Documentaries and WBUR. It is almost exclusively Iraqi voices, which makes it part of the rebuilding story.

Michael Moran, columnist for MSNBC (May 25): Media takes heat from administration over Iraq: “From seemingly casual asides in remarks by President Bush to outright attacks and boycotts orchestrated by Bush administration allies, a strong subtext is being transmitted with the normally optimistic line of the day — that the media is undermining support for the war.”

Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News columnist: “We decided to search photo wire service archives for the past month, looking for images of U.S. soldiers engaged in helping Iraqis instead of shooting at them. We were startled to discover that the photo accompanying this text was the only image of its kind that moved on the wires in recent weeks. This newspaper’s photo department told me that if news photographers aren’t shooting those pictures, it’s because media back home aren’t interested in those stories. Which justifies the reader complaints we’ve been hearing, does it not?” (June 1, 2004)

Harrowing does not begin to describe this tale of a Washington Post reporter who was almost killed when a passing car started shooting at his SUV. (June 8, 2004)

On June 14 (nineteen days after this post was published), the New York Times ran a front page account by James Glanz out of Baghdad: “In Race to Give Power to Iraqis, Electricity Lags.” It began:

“Tripped up by problems ranging from sabotage to its reliance on by-the-book engineering, the United States has failed by a wide margin to meet its long-stated goal of reviving Iraq’s electricity output for the start of the searing summer. The American-led occupation missed its goal by as much as 30 percent, starving air-conditioners, lights, factories and oil pumps. That has damaged the occupation’s efforts to foster stability and good will among a populace already traumatized by the failure to guarantee their security.”

So that’s accountability journalism on the re-building Iraq beat, more or less as I argued for. (In this piece and in an interview with On the Media here.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 26, 2004 3:27 PM