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Unfit to Print?

The leisureliness of the Times‘s coverage is especially apparent when compared to that of its top competitor. In recent months, The Washington Post has stood out among US news organizations for its sharp and insightful reporting, in both Washington and Baghdad. Hardly a day goes by that the Post does not publish some revealing story about conflicts within the Bush administration, debates within the intelligence world, Coalition policies in Iraq, and the relations among that country’s ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. During the prison scandal, the Post ran an eye-opening three-part series (“The Road to Abu Ghraib”) on the abuses that had occurred not only in Iraq but also in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Qatar—part of a “worldwide constellation” of secret US detention centers.

When it comes to Iraq, the rivalry between the Times and the Post has become “A Tale of Two Papers,” the one late and lethargic, the other astute and aggressive.

Even the Post, though, has had its problems. In his May 9 column, Michael Getler, the paper’s ombudsman, chided it for being “slow off the mark” on the Abu Ghraib story. As he observed, the US Central Command back on January 16 had disclosed in a news release that an investigation had been opened into reports of detainee abuse at a Coalition detention facility. That same week, CNN reported that there were photos of abuses. It was not until after the story broke on 60 Minutes II, more than three months later, however, that the Post ran with it, Getler wrote.

So, even as the coverage of Iraq has grown sharper, the US press has shied away from showing the full realities on the ground there. This, in turn, reflects some important structural limitations in the approach of American journalists to the war.

2.

In early April, when fighting broke out in Fallujah, US correspondents, regarding the city as too dangerous to enter, embedded themselves with US Marine units encamped there. This practice, popular during the invasion, has been revived amid the surging violence in Iraq. In return for protection by the Marines, embedded correspondents agree to abide by certain ground rules, such as not reporting on US combat deaths. One correspondent, Pamela Constable of The Washington Post, described her experience in an article for the paper’s “Style” section. Along with seven other correspondents, Constable wrote, she hunkered down with a Marine battalion in a deserted factory filled with empty bottles of soda pop. “I quickly became part of an all-American military microcosm,” she wrote. During the day, she could move about only with the Marines. At night, she listened to the “terrifying sounds” of helicopter gunships, high-flying bombers, and insurgent mortar rounds. “After each attack,” she wrote,

I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust—city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse.

The fighters inside the city “remained invisible,” and the local population was “frustratingly beyond our reach,” Constable wrote.

We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags…. Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do.

Al-Jazeera, by contrast, had a correspondent and crew inside the city, and several times a day they were filing dramatic reports of the fighting. According to their accounts, the US bombing was causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzin, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans. So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines.

I don’t mean to single out Constable, who is a fine reporter. Rather, her dispatch captures the problems US journalists as a whole face in Iraq today. First and foremost is security. The recent upsurge in violence has turned much of Iraq into a no-go zone for US news organizations, and American reporters have found it difficult to leave Baghdad (and in some cases their hotels). To try to compensate, US news organizations have relied increasingly on Iraqi journalists, who are able to move about more freely, especially in conflicted areas. Even they, though, have faced growing hostility and threats.2 In covering a volatile place like Fallujah, many US correspondents have chosen to become embedded with the military. One result is severely limited access. As Constable noted, she could see little of what was going on inside the city, had little contact with those fighting the US, and could not determine the impact the fighting was having on local residents. Compounding the problem was her lack of knowledge of Arabic—a handicap shared by all but a handful of US correspondents. As a result, the muezzin chants were “indecipherable.”

Apart from such practical considerations, however, US news organizations in Iraq suffer from a more engrained problem. As American insti-tutions covering an American occupation, they invariably share certain premises and presumptions about the conflict. Even as reporters rush to chronicle Iraqi resentment of the occupation, they still tend to frame the conflict in much the same way that US officials do. Often, American journalists seem embedded with the military not only physically but also mentally.

Consider, for example, a recent NPR interview between Sunday morning host Liane Hansen and Tony Perry, a correspondent in Iraq for the Los Angeles Times. With Fallujah still tense, Perry had decided to embed with a Marine unit that had taken over a decrepit public housing project on the outskirts of town. The Marines had forced out its residents, and Perry described how “spooky” it was to stay in the grimy, trash-strewn apartment amid the ghostlike relics of the family that had been living there. To make up for its takeover of the building, Perry said, the United States was planning to spend a half-million dollars on repairs and reconstruction:

They’re going to build a soccer field for the kids…. They’re going to spruce up a school nearby. So we are trying to make amends by money. I’m never quite sure how great an apology money is when you’ve uprooted people and made them flee from their homes, but the US is going to do the best it can.

As for the people who had lived in the unit in which he was staying, Perry said, the Marines had given them $200 and would give them more when they returned. Feeling guilty, Perry said, he had himself left “a few bucks” under a Mr. Potato Head doll that was still sitting on a TV set. “Did you say you put the money under the Mr. Potato Head doll?” Hansen asked, perking up. Yes, Perry said, explaining that looters would be less likely to find it there.

Where, Hansen asked, had the family gone? “They fled into rural areas,” Perry said. “These are tribal people, so they have connections, extended families. I think they all found ways to live and survive in this environment.” A lot had cars,

so they weren’t thrown down the road and put in some refugee camps. They found places to hunker down. It also took them out of the way of the fighting. Don’t forget that once the Marines moved in, the insurgents were rocketing and mortaring this location, so it got them out of the way, too, for their own safety.

So, in Perry’s telling, the Marines, in driving the family from their home, were actually doing it for their own good. And, happily, the family was able to flee to rural areas and stay with tribal relatives rather than be forced into a refugee camp. What’s more, the Marines—“we,” as Perry put it—were going to “make amends” by sprucing up the area and building a soccer field. Perry, unable to move about the city and talk with Iraqis, could only pass on optimistic, reassuring speculation that those displaced would “live and survive.” Sharing quarters with the Marines, Perry seemed to share their outlook as well.

After listening to that interview, I looked up some of Perry’s stories in the Los Angeles Times. They were markedly solicitous of the Marines. Some headlines: “Goodwill-Hunting Marines Set Their Sights on Refurbishing Mosques”; “Marines on a Mission to Win Friends in Iraq: Armed with Toys and Candy for the Children and Seeds and Farm Tools for the Adults, US Troops Reach Out to Villagers near Fallouja”; “Where There’s Battle, There’s Bravery—and Recognition: Several Marines in Iraq are Candidates for Citations.” None of these articles, by the way, gave any indication that Perry had written them while embedded with the Marines. To alert readers, the articles should perhaps have carried, after the correspondent’s name, a tag like “Embedded with US Forces.” In this respect, though, Perry’s dispatches are not unusual—few American papers use such truth-in-advertising labels.

In Washington, too, a similar form of mental embedding seems to have taken place. On April 29, for instance, The New York Times ran a front-page piece about a Pentagon study on the composition of the insurgent forces inside Iraq. This had been the subject of much debate. Were the insurgents part of an indigenous resistance to the US occupation? Or were they hard-core elements intent on sabotaging any effort to bring democracy to Iraq? The Pentagon’s report claimed they were the latter, and the Times respectfully summarized it. “Hussein’s Agents Behind Attacks, Pentagon Finds,” the headline stated. (Note the choice of words—“finds,” rather than the more objective “claims” or “says.”) According to the Pentagon, the attacks in Fallujah and elsewhere “are organized and often carried out by members of Saddam Hussein’s secret service, who planned for the insurgency even before the fall of Baghdad,” the Times reported. Overall, it added, the Pentagon estimated there were 1,500 to 2,000 “hard-core insurgents, including members of the Iraqi Special Republican Guard who melted away under the American-led offensive….”

The report on the Pentagon study clearly should have included some independent analysis. But the Times, happy with its “scoop,” offered none.

American officials have given seven or eight different reasons for why people are fighting the US,” I was told by Rami Khouri, the executive editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, which is carried as an insert in the International Herald Tribune throughout the Middle East. “They’ve said they’re dead-enders, former Baathists, former army people, Islamic terrorists, people sneaking in from the border with Syria, a bunch of thugs aligned with Moqtada al-Sadr. It’s amazing that a country like Iraq can produce so many different types of people who want to kill Americans. This analysis is something that deeply offends people here. Yet the American press by and large accepts it. They’re way too compliant with the Pentagon and White House views.”

Khouri added: “You don’t need to be in Fallujah to understand Fallujah. The people there don’t like being occupied or dictated to by a foreign power, even if that power is coming to liberate them.”

Such an analysis may be too sche-matic. In May, Newsweek‘s Joshua Hammer got a rare firsthand glimpse of the insurgents when, venturing into Fallujah, he and a photographer were seized by three armed men, who drove them to a house in a back alley for questioning. After convincing his captors that he was a journalist and not a CIA agent, Hammer learned that one of them was a former university student who had originally supported the invasion but turned against the United States after it became an occupying power. As this young man explained it, the Americans were facing two types of adversaries in Fallujah—ordinary Iraqis like himself who opposed the American occupation, and a mix of foreign fighters and hard-line local jihadis with an “inflexible hatred of the West.” As this suggests, the forces arrayed against the United States consist of disparate elements, and this makes generalization difficult.

That Hammer had to be seized at gunpoint to find this out shows just how dangerous Iraq has become for US correspondents. And things have only gotten worse as the fighting has spread to Najaf, Karbala, and other points in the Shiite south. US journalists have generally been unable to see the fighting up close. But, as Khouri suggests, the problem is as much one of attitude as of access.

As the fighting in the south escalated, I spoke with Youssef Ibrahim, one of the few journalists of Arab descent to have worked for a major US news organization. Raised in Egypt, Ibrahim spent twenty-four years with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, many of them covering the Middle East. After working as a consultant for BP, he became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I spoke with him soon after he had arrived in Dubai, where he now writes for Gulf News, among other publications. While he was in New York, Ibrahim told me, he was able to see al-Jazeera only on its Web site; in Dubai, he can watch it live, and, even as we spoke, he said, it was showing daily reports of the heavy fighting in Najaf and Karbala.

There’s nothing of this on CNN, let alone Fox or MSNBC,” he said. “Right now I’m watching a gunfight in Najaf. They’re filming it themselves, without being embedded with American troops. Now they’ve switched to Baghdad—they have [a team] reporting from Sadr City, which has 2.5 million people. If I flip to CNN, they’ll give a report from Baghdad about the day’s goings-on in Iraq, as seen by Americans with a Marine unit. As a professional American reporter, I feel that’s not the way we are trained to do our job.”

Asked if he felt al-Jazeera is balanced, Ibrahim said of course not. “It’s our equivalent of Fox News,” he said, “but it’s our Fox News. It gives me the other side of the story.” Americans rarely get to see the other side.

The confrontation between the US military and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr has been of profound importance for the US occupation. Al-Sadr’s strategy seemed clear—to pro- voke the Americans into attacking the Shiite holy places. If that happened, much of the Muslim world might react. Yet the coverage in the US was thin and uninformative. Consumed by the ongoing Abu Ghraib scandal, US news organizations seemed to have little interest in the fighting and its political ramifications. And what did appear seemed one-sided. On CNN, for instance, I saw the correspondent Jane Arraf, speaking from a US Army base in Najaf, offering assurances that the US military was “acting with surprising restraint.” General Martin Dempsey, the commanding officer of the First Army Division, told Arraf that his troops were engaging in “precise” fire in the city. “We’re going to honor the sanctity of religious sites,” he reassuringly said. There was no one to comment on how local Iraqis saw the fighting.

Similarly, The New York Times‘s coverage of the fighting in the south has relied heavily on US military sources. Stories carrying a “Karbala” dateline seem reported in large part from a US military encampment several miles outside the city. Over and over, the Times quotes US commanders giving precise figures of the number of insurgents killed—an eerie throwback to the body-count days of Vietnam. The photos from Karbala appearing in the Times are mostly of GIs in heroic poses; few show the heavy damage inflicted on the city by the recent fighting.

If US news organizations truly wanted to get inside events in Iraq, there’s a clear step they could take: incorporating more reporting and footage from international news organizations. Al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, and other Arabic-language TV stations have a wide presence on the ground. European outlets like the BBC, the Guardian, The Financial Times, and Le Monde have Arabic-speaking correspondents with close knowledge of the Middle East; Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse have many correspondents stationed in places where US organizations do not. It’s remarkable how little reporting from these organizations makes its way into American news accounts.

In the current climate, of course, any use of Arab or European material—no matter how thoroughly edited and checked—could elicit charges of liberalism and anti-Americanism. The question for American journalists is whether they really want to know what the Iraqis themselves, in all their complexity, are thinking and feeling.

May 27, 2004

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    See “Under Threat: Iraqi Journalists Frequently Face Hazardous Conditions on the Job,” by Joel Campagna and Hani Sabra, Committee to Protect Journalists, at www.cpj.org.

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