Media new boogeyman of Iraq

By PAMELA HESS, Pentagon correspondent  |  Sept. 27, 2003 at 9:02 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- As Bush administration officials and Pentagon chiefs peddle their $87 billion supplemental bill for Iraq next year - even as President Bush's popularity on the issue wanes -- they have a new enemy in their sites. Not Saddam or Osama, but the media.

As they see it, the problem in Iraq is not so much the almost daily casualties or the pace of rebuilding but the fact that the news media keeps harping on it, at the expense of reporting "good news."

"I understand that breaking news is largely driven by bad news. That's a structural defect of a free press," said L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, at a House Armed Services Committee Hearing Thursday.

The conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington is holding a symposium next week on the very topic. "Is the Bush administration losing control of the situation on the ground, or is the media transforming a military victory into a defeat?" asks a flyer for the Oct. 7 panel discussion.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell talked about the skewed news on Late Night with David Letterman on Thursday.

"It's a troublesome issue that we're all very concerned about," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane at the same hearing. "The American people need to have the (good) information to help balance the daily loss of life."

Keane's point is that the enemy feeds on negative press coverage, in so far as it erodes American support for the operation as casualties mount and costs balloon. Keane said it is up to the media to explain to the American people how staying the course in Iraq is vital to national security. In fact, this is a hotly debated political issue -- that media outlets should not be expected to parrot for the Bush administration.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained at a Senate hearing Wednesday that most reporters don't get out of Baghdad, where things are arguably the worst, to report on areas -- like southeastern and northern Iraq -- that are going much more smoothly.

"The bulk of the journalists are in Baghdad there they have facilities and hotels and connections to their offices," Rumsfeld said. "So we've not had many takers on (the military) embedding program which still exists and is available."

There is more than a grain of truth in what they say. But as a reporter who just returned from two months in Iraq -- half of the time spent "embedded" with the 1st Marine Division, and half as a "unilateral" in Baghdad -- I can say with some authority the issue is far more complicated than the Bush officials suggest.

It is an important debate to have. Coverage out of Iraq is largely negative, and the surprise to me upon arriving there in July was that it wasn't nearly as dangerous as I thought it was going to be. People are on the streets evening and morning, eating at restaurants and doing their shopping. They swim in the Tigris to keep cool. They play soccer.

And at least as far as operations in the south are concerned, I can attest to a nearly constant stream of heartwarming developments -- the engraved bells donated to each new school the U.S. Marines rebuild and open; the young reserve Army sergeant now enthusiastically leading the clean up of a Najaf slaughterhouse; the happy children running out to greet Marines when they walk through downtown Hillah without body armor or rifles because they have worked long and hard to win the trust of the townspeople, and they have succeeded.

There is also bad news: the angry male lawyers who protested when a qualified female lawyer was being sworn in as a judge, preventing this historic appointment; the four car bombings that killed more than 200 people inside of three weeks; the 12 to 20 daily attacks on U.S. troops as they work to secure Iraq or just drive a truck down a road; and the innocent people killed in the American crossfire.

Since returning to Washington, I have been asked multiple times "how Iraq is."

My answer frustrates me as well as the person asking the question. There is no cogent narrative that can sum up the entire country. Iraqis attitudes towards Americans differ based on the Americans they come in contact with; how much they suffered under Saddam's regime; and their level of education and their economic circumstances.

Some of the negative coverage is generated by an older generation of reporters who cut their teeth on the Vietnam war experience. U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid said on Thursday the military is largely to blame for that, as the Vietnam situation was "perverted" because "we didn't really tell the truth." Reporters who endured Vietnam -- where what they saw with their own eyes was regularly denied and spun -- are not inclined to believe the military story today.

The Pentagon's decision to "embed" nearly 700 reporters with combat troops went a long way toward dispelling that. The military has cleaned up its act dramatically over the last 30 years, and nearly all the reporters who traveled with them through the latest -- and exceptionally fast war -- saw their professionalism first hand. They reported the good and the bad, but mostly the good.

When combat operations ended May 1, many reporters peeled off and went "unilateral" -- living on their own in Baghdad and elsewhere to cover the reconstruction effort.

This is where the "media problem" for the United States government began. Where they once had hourly dispatches detailing the travails and victories and drama and even heroics of the American military, they now had life in the big city.

Lawlessness gripped Baghdad and other cities when Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed. Unbelievably destructive looting ensued -- not only were air conditioners and televisions stolen, but pipes and wires were ripped from walls and whole buildings set on fire. The Pentagon admits it was not prepared for that.

Reporters who saw the swift efficiency with which the war was conducted were dumbfounded that such chaos and destructiveness was allowed to occur. This set the tone for everything that followed -- the power outages, the kidnappings and carjackings and crimes, the guns that were everywhere. Reporters live at great personal risk in this environment, and they cover life from the average Iraqis standpoint -- and from their own.

Meanwhile, across the Tigris River from downtown Baghdad, the concertina wire and 15-foot tall cement barriers are up. Saddam's old palaces are now the well-bunkered headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bremer's organization in charge of Iraq.

If the CPA feels that its successes are not getting appropriate media attention, they might ask themselves why.

The CPA has serious concerns about its own safety and goes to great lengths to protect itself. Its staff stays in a single relatively luxurious hotel reserved only for them on a sprawling guarded campus. Staffers work across the street at a convention center or take a private bus a few hundred yards down the road to various palaces. All are protected by no fewer than five checkpoints and searches.

Reporters may not visit the CPA offices without an appointment, a difficult prospect in a country with no telephones. The CPA, of course, has cell phones, but reporters do not. Communications occur over temperamental satellite phones, if a reporter is connected enough to have obtained the correct CPA phone number.

Even with the right numbers, the CPA requires many if not all of its employees to sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them from talking freely to reporters about their work.

At least when I was in Iraq, the CPA had an undermanned and unenthusiastic public affairs staff that filtered all media requests through the overworked military's press desk. The CPA did not have a representative for the press to talk to in person but required the coalition military -- to its great aggravation -- to field the reporters' requests for them.

On my first day in Baghdad, I submitted the required written request for more than a dozen interviews and briefings, knowing many would not be granted. Four weeks later, when I left Baghdad, my requests had never even been formally acknowledged -- although a CPA spokesman confirmed they had been received -- and none were ever acted upon.

Bremer acknowledged the problem Thursday and noted his new communications director had arrived in Baghdad to try to fix some of these problems.

The CPA spokesman Charles Heatley held almost daily press conferences but rarely had concrete or interesting information to back up the sunny assessments of progress in Iraq.

Indeed, a few days after an ethnic clash left eight dead in a Tuz Khormatu, small northern city, Heatley was unable to offer to reporters the good news story that I had learned on my own. The town had come together to compensate the victims, rebuild a shrine destroyed in the incident, and rework the town council to better represent the minority Turkman population.

When reporters asked about the situation, Heatley offered only the standard platitudes that the situation was under investigation and the coalition was doing everything it could to keep the town at peace. He missed a major opportunity to tell an important positive, and most of all, true story. The Iraqis themselves had averted the ethnic tinderbox that was supposed to be Iraq, with an assist from the small U.S. Army contingent there.

The CPA press operation is sometimes even hostile to reporters who do their job. When an L.A. Times reporter dutifully covered the new trash service in Baghdad, she found that many of the crews working in the 120 degree heat included children well under the minimum age of 15. Worse, half their $3 a day pay was being demanded by trash bosses as a kick back for being allowed to work. It wasn't one truck either. She found the same situation on four trucks, and Iraqis were eager to talk to her about it.

Rather than being thanked by the CPA for revealing the corruption so they might correct it, the reporter was told by a press officer they were considering not giving her a promised exclusive interview with water engineers "because of what she did to the trash story." Huh?

Reporters are not blameless either. After covering the violence in Tuz Khormatu, they should have gone back to see what happened next. In their defense, the CPA was counseling people not to visit the town because of the threat of continued violence.

"The media has to be terrified, going back and forth on the roads," Keane acknowledged Thursday, noting the frequent ambushes on the largely unprotected highways, especially into and out of the country.

If the CPA wants the media to cover "good news," it must do a dramatically better job of telling its story. It must have sufficient media officers ready and willing to act quickly on reporters' requests; it must know its story better than the reporters covering it; and it must learn to trust its own people to speak for it. Reporters suspect organizations that tightly control their staffs' contact with the press do so because they fear the truth.

My experience bears that out in reverse. In the three weeks I spent with the 1st Marine Division in Hillah, I was given unfettered access to everything the Marines did and said, even in the top-secret combat operations center. The commander, Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis, implicitly trusted his Marines to speak for him. He was not afraid of what would come out of their mouths. Consequently my experience was overwhelmingly positive -- information-rich, detailed and nuanced -- and my articles reflected that.

Contrast this with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in and around Baghdad. News organizations talked to grumpy, hot soldiers who had less than glowing things to say about Pentagon leadership. The Army cut off reporters' access to them for more than three weeks, until Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez reversed the policy.

A soldier from the 1st Armored Division I met in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel deftly avoided a question about his view of the military situation. Moments later he admitted he had been instructed by his chain of command not to discuss such things with reporters, although he was allowed to chat about sports, his hometown and similarly benign subjects. Is it any wonder we are skeptical of official Army pronouncements?

The three weeks I spent with the Marines were a crash course in media ethics. I was trusted with -- and did not abuse -- top-secret information. And at nearly every meal I had to answer questions on behalf of the entire media industry as to why we focus so heavily on the daily death toll in Iraq.

These Marines, from Gen. Mattis down, understood what Keane talked about Thursday: that the deaths of American soldiers (not a single Marine has been killed by hostile fire since April 12) are statistically small but play into the hands of the enemy, who depend on the daily news report of the grim statistic for psychological victory. They want Iraq to seem lawless and ungovernable and most of all dangerous, so the Americans and the 20,000 other troops will leave.

There is another reason they are dismayed by the media coverage: It gives way too much credit to the enemy. The attacks on U.S. soldiers are relatively "cheap" -- they are remotely detonated bombs or mortar or grenade attacks conducted from far off. They don't require much in the way of expertise or bravery. Each news report of each hostile death -- and there have been 81 since combat operations supposedly ended May 1 -- contributes (the military says unjustly) to their image as a credible fighting force.

However, each death should be big news -- not necessarily as a harbinger of more trouble to come but because each soldier has a family, a story. What is more important than covering the deaths of people who volunteered to fight and went bravely, no matter what their personal feelings about the war itself? Would the American people prefer the media cover up those deaths?

Sanchez himself highlights the casualties at his weekly news briefing.

"Last week we had six killed in action. We had three non-hostile deaths. We also had a total of 41 that were wounded in action," Sanchez announced Friday.

The old news adage, "If it bleeds, it leads," was derisively bandied about at the House hearing Thursday. It is a coarse distillation of a news truth -- that death and destruction more or less trumps everything else when it comes time to set the front page or top of the broadcast.

It does so for many reasons, ratings not least among them. Sex and violence sells, there is no doubt. News is a business, and that cannot be ignored.

However, at least in my case, the focus on death and violence actually reflects an optimistic idealistic worldview. The United States government and military are supposed to be forces for good. And they should be efficient, responsible stewards of tax money. And they should tell the truth at all times.

It is news when it falls short of that ideal. Living up to the ideal should not be remarkable, but standard operating procedure. It is the aberration that makes the front page.

The frustration may come down to a difference in philosophy about the media's role in Iraq: Ought it be a dispassionate reflection of the every day reality of Iraq, which is, in my opinion, better than what news coverage suggests? Or ought it point out the problems that need fixing that the CPA and military are not aware of or acting on? Should it be a voice for the people trying to reconstruct Iraq, or the people in that country who have no voice?

The answer, of course, is both. The White House and Pentagon have bully pulpits and enormous budgets to tell their story. Reporters, however, make their reputations on stories that effect change. When resources force them to pick, the latter will nearly always triumph. In my opinion, that's about the way it should be.

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