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The Press: The Enemy Within

During his years at CBS, Fenton writes, he took pride in finding important stories:

That was my job, my fun, my life—until the megacorporations that have taken over the major American television news companies squeezed the life out of foreign news reporting.

Of the many people in the business he spoke with while researching his book, he writes, “almost everyone” agreed that the networks “are doing an inadequate job reporting world news.” Among the exceptions were Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather, none of whom, he writes, “seemed to share my intensity of concern at the lack of foreign news and context on their shows.” Fenton writes angrily about the immense sums the anchors were pulling down while their bureaus were being shuttered. Noting Tom Brokaw’s plans to retire as anchor and do more investigative reporting, he asks, “What was stopping him from sending his correspondents out to do that for the last fifteen years or so?” (The answer is hinted at in Fenton’s brief acknowledgment that foreign stories cost twice as much to produce as domestic ones.)

In Fenton’s view, the press has grown so lax that “anyone with the merest enterprise can have a field day cherry-picking gigantic unreported stories.” He quotes Seymour Hersh as saying he couldn’t believe all the overlooked stories he was able to report on simply because The New Yorker allowed him to write what he wanted. Fenton lists some major stories that remain neglected, including the influence of Saudi money on US policies toward the Middle East, the links between the big oil companies and the White House, and the largely ignored dark side of Kurdish activities in Iraq.

Nowhere has the news media’s ignorant performance been more egregious than in its handling of the Kurds,” he writes, “a catalogue of sorry incompetence and dangerous misinformation that continues to this day.” He mentions the murderous feuds between the two Kurdish strongmen Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, and the “tribulations and suffering” of minorities like the Turcomans and Assyrian Christians living under the “strong arm of Kurdish rule.” The Kurds have always been cast as good guys, and no American news organization, he writes, “wants to burden us with such complex and challenging details. You never know what might happen—viewers might switch to another channel.”


Iraq remains by far the most important story for the US press, showing its strengths as well as its many weaknesses—especially the way in which political realities shape, define, and ultimately limit what Americans see and read. The nation’s principal news organizations deserve praise for remaining committed to covering the war in the face of lethal risks, huge costs, and public apathy. Normally The Washington Post has four correspondents in the country, backed by more than two dozen Iraqis, as well as three armored cars costing $100,000. The New York Times bureau costs $1.5 million a year to maintain. And many excellent reports have resulted. In June, for instance, The Wall Street Journal ran a revealing front-page story by Farnaz Fassihi about how the violence between Muslim groups in Iraq had destroyed a longtime friendship between two Baghdad neighbors, one Sunni and the other Shiite. In October, in The Washington Post, Steven Fainaru described how Kurdish political parties were repatriating thousands of Kurds in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, setting off fighting between Kurdish settlers and local Arabs. And in The New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise described how the growing chaos in Iraq was eroding the living standards of middle-class Iraqis, turning their frustration “into hopelessness.”

Just a few months before, at the start of the year, however, the tone of the coverage was very different. President Bush, fresh from his reelection, was enjoying broad public support, and he was making the most of Iraq’s January 30 election, which was widely proclaimed a success. The anti-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority only added to the impression of the growing success of Bush’s foreign policy. Journalists rushed to praise his leadership and sagacity. “What Bush Got Right,” Newsweek declared on its March 14 cover. Recent developments in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East had “vindicated” the President, the magazine declared. “Across New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—and probably Europe and Asia as well—people are nervously asking themselves a question: ‘Could he possibly have been right?’ The short answer is yes.” Another article, headlined “Condi’s Clout Offensive,” hailed the new secretary of state, noting how she “has rushed onto the world stage with force and style, and with the fair wind of the Arab Democratic Spring at her back.” Rounding out the package was “To the Front,” a look at US soldiers who, having lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, “are doing the unthinkable: Going back into battle.”

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was daily celebrating Iraq’s strides toward democracy. On April 6, for instance, after the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was selected as Iraq’s new president, Blitzer asked Robin Wright of The Washington Post and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution about him and his two deputies. Blitzer, addressing Wright, said, “They’re all pretty moderate and they’re pretty pro-American, is that fair?”

Absolutely,” said Wright. “These are people who have been educated in the West, have had contacts with Western countries, particularly in the United States….”

Blitzer: Your sense is this is about as good, Ken Pollack, as the US, as the Bush administration, as the American public could have hoped for, at least as a start for this new Iraqi democracy.

Pollack: Absolutely. I think the Bush administration has to be pleased with the personnel.

Such leading questions provide a good example of Blitzer’s interviewing style, which seems designed to make sure his guests say nothing remotely spontaneous; the exchange also makes clear the deference that CNN, and the press as a whole, showed President Bush just after his reelection, during the first months of the year. Throughout this period, violence continued to plague Iraq, but stories about it were mostly consigned to the inside pages. US soldiers continued to die, but this news was mostly relegated to the “crawl” along the bottom of the cable news shows.

Then, in April, insurgent attacks began to increase, and Bush’s popularity began to slide. As oil prices rose and the Plame leak investigation got more attention, political space for tougher reporting began to open up. The stories about assassinations and ambushes that had earlier been buried began appearing on the front page, and Wolf Blitzer, newly emboldened, began questioning his guests about US exit strategies.

By late October, when the two-thousandth US serviceman died, the news was splashed across the nation’s front pages. “2,000 Dead: As Iraq Tours Stretch On, a Grim Mark,” declared The New York Times. As the Times‘s Katharine Seelye pointed out a few days later, this milestone received far more press attention than had the earlier one of one thousand, in April 2004.


Still, there remained firm limits on what could be reported out of Iraq. Especially taboo were frank accounts of the actions of US troops in the field—particularly when those actions resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

On the same day The Times ran its front-page story about the two thousand war dead, for instance, it ran another piece on page A12 about the rising toll of Iraqi civilians. Since the US military does not issue figures on this subject, Sabrina Tavernise relied on Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit Web site that keeps a record of casualty figures from news accounts. The site, she wrote, placed the number of dead civilians since the start of the US invasion at between 26,690 and 30,051. (Even the higher number was probably too low, the article noted, since many deaths do not find their way into news reports.) The Times deserves credit simply for running this story—for acknowledging that, as high a price as American soldiers have paid in the war, the one paid by Iraqi civilians has been much higher. Remarkably, though, in discussing the cause of those deaths, the article mentioned only insurgents. Not once did it raise the possibility that some of those deaths might have come at the hands of the “Coalition.”

This is typical. A survey of the Times‘s coverage of Iraq in the month of October shows that, while regularly reporting civilian deaths caused by the insurgents, it rarely mentioned those inflicted by Americans; when it did, it was usually deep inside the paper, and heavily qualified. Thus, on October 18 the Times ran a brief article at the bottom of page A11 headlined “Scores Are Killed by American Airstrikes in Sunni Insurgent Stronghold West of Baghdad.” Citing military sources, the article noted in its lead that the air strikes had been launched “against insurgents” in the embattled city of Ramadi, “killing as many as 70 people.” A US Army colonel was cited as saying that a group of insurgents in four cars had been spotted “trying to roll artillery shells into a large crater in eastern Ramadi that had been caused when a roadside bomb exploded the day before, killing five US and two Iraqi soldiers.” At that point, according to the Times, “an F-15 fighter plane dropped a guided bomb on the area, killing all 20 men on the ground.” The Times went on to report the colonel’s claim that “no civilians had been killed in the strikes.” In one sentence, the article noted that Reuters, “citing hospital officials in Ramadi,” had reported “that civilians had been killed.” It did not elaborate. Instead, it went on to mention other incidents in Ramadi in which US helicopters and fighter planes had killed “insurgents.”

The AP told a very different story. The “group of insurgents” that the military claimed had been hit by the F-15 was actually “a group of around two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of the US military vehicle” that had been attacked the previous day, the AP reported.

The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the location of the blast that killed the Americans. F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided bomb, killing 20 people, described by the statement as “terrorists.”

But several witnesses and one local leader said the people were civilians who had gathered to gawk at the wreckage of the US vehicle or pick pieces off of it—as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit.

The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 people, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and several witnesses who refused to give their names….

Readers of the Times learned none of these details.

This is not an isolated case. Regularly reading the paper’s Iraq coverage during the last few months, I have found very little mention of civilians dying at the hands of US forces. No doubt the violence on Iraq’s streets keeps reporters from going to these sites to interview witnesses, but Times stories seldom notify readers that its reporters were unable to question witnesses to civilian casualties because of the danger they would face in going to the site of the attack. Yet the paper regularly publishes official military claims about dead insurgents without any independent confirmation. After both General Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld declared in 2003 that “we don’t do body counts,” the US military has quietly begun doing just that. And the Times generally relays those counts without questioning them.

In any discussion of civilian casualties, it is important to distinguish between the insurgents, who deliberately target civilians, and the US military, which does not—which, in fact, goes out of its way to avoid them.6 Nonetheless, all indications point to a very high toll at the hands of the US. As seems to have been the case in Ramadi, many of the deaths have resulted from aerial bombardment. Since the start of the invasion, the United States has dropped 50,000 bombs on Iraq.7 About 30,000 were dropped during the five weeks of the war proper. Though most of the 50,000 bombs have been aimed at military targets, they have undoubtedly caused much “collateral damage,” and claimed an untold number of civilian lives.

But according to Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, the toll from ground actions is probably much higher. Garlasco speaks with special authority; before he joined Human Rights Watch, in mid-April 2003, he worked for the Pentagon, helping to select targets for the air war in Iraq. During the ground war, he says, the military’s use of cluster bombs was especially lethal. In just a few days of fighting in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, Human Rights Watch found that cluster bombs killed or injured more than five hundred civilians.

Since the end of the ground war, Garlasco says, many civilians have been killed in crossfire between US and insurgent forces. Others have been shot by US military convoys; soldiers in Humvees, seeking to avoid being hit by suicide bombers, not infrequently fire on cars that get too close, and many turn out to have civilians inside. According to Garlasco, private security contractors kill many civilians; they tend to be “loosey-goosey” in their approach, he says, “opening fire if people don’t get out of the way quickly enough.”

Probably the biggest source of civilian casualties, though, is Coalition checkpoints. These can go up anywhere at any time, and though they are supposed to be well marked, they are in practice often hard to detect, especially at night, and US soldiers—understandably wary of suicide bombers—often shoot first and ask questions later. Many innocent Iraqis have died in the process.8

Such killings came into public view in March, when the car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, rushing to the Baghdad airport after her release from captivity, was fired on by US troops; she was badly wounded and the Italian intelligence officer accompanying her was killed. Three days after the incident, The New York Times ran a revealing front-page story headlined “US Checkpoints Raise Ire in Iraq.” Next to the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, John Burns wrote,

no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.

US and Iraqi officials said they had no figures on such casualties, Burns reported,

but any Westerner working in Iraq comes across numerous accounts of apparently innocent deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers who drew American fire, often in circumstances that have left the Iraqis puzzled, wondering what, if anything, they did wrong.

Many, he said, “tell of being fired on with little or no warning.”

Burns’s account showed that it was possible to write such stories despite the pervasive violence, and despite the lack of official figures. While few such stories have appeared in this country, they are common abroad. “If you go to the Middle East, that’s all you hear about—the US killing civilians,” Marc Garlasco observes. “It’s on the news all the time.”

In this country, one can catch glimpses of this reality in documentaries like the recently released Occupation: Dreamland, in which directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, drawing on the six weeks they spent with an Army unit stationed outside Fallujah, show how the best-intentioned soldiers, faced with a hostile population speaking a strange language and worshiping an alien God, can routinely resort to actions designed to intimidate and humiliate. One can also find glimpses in The New York Times Magazine, which has been much bolder than the daily New York Times. In May, Peter Maass, writing in the Times Magazine, described how Iraqi commando units, trained by US counterinsurgency experts, are fighting a “dirty war” in which beatings, torture, and even executions are routine. And in October, Dexter Filkins, also in the Times Magazine, described the sobering case of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, a West Point graduate who, under constant attacks in a volatile Sunni area, approved rough tactics against the local population, including forcing local Iraqi men to jump into a canal as punishment. One died as a result.

Only by reading and watching such accounts is it possible to fathom the depths of Iraqi hatred for the United States. It’s not the simple fact of occupation that’s at work, but the way that occupation is being carried out, and the daily indignities, humiliations, and deaths that accompany it. If reports of such actions appeared more frequently in the press, they could help raise questions about the strategy the US is pursuing in Iraq and encourage discussion of whether there’s a better way to deploy US troops.

Why are such reports so rare? The simple lack of language skills is one reason. Captain Zachary Miller, who commanded a company of US troops in eastern Baghdad in 2004 and who is now studying at the Kennedy School of Government, told me that of the fifty or so Western journalists who went out on patrol with his troops, hardly any spoke Arabic, and few bothered to bring interpreters. As a result, they were totally dependent on Miller and his fellow soldiers. “Normally, the reporters didn’t ask questions of the Iraqis,” he said. “They asked me.”

In addition, many US journalists feel queasy about quoting eyewitnesses who offer information that runs counter to statements put out by the US military. Journalists don’t like writing stories in which an Iraqi civilian’s word is pitted against that of a US officer, regardless of how much evidence there is to back up the civilian’s claims. The many tough pieces in the press about abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret detention facilities usually have official US sources and so are less open to challenge.

Even more important, though, I believe, are political realities. The abuses that US troops routinely commit in the field, and their responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American press as too sensitive for most Americans to see or read about. When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced as an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many US journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. These subjects remain off-limits.

Of course, if the situation in Iraq were further to unravel, or if President Bush were to become more unpopular, the boundaries of the acceptable might expand further, and subjects such as these might begin appearing on our front pages. It’s regrettable, though, that editors and reporters have to wait for such developments. Of all the internal problems confronting the press, the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling.

On November 8, I turned on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 to see how the host was doing in his new job. It was Election Day, and I was hoping to find some analysis of the results. Instead, I found Cooper leading a discussion on a new sex survey conducted by Men’s Fitness and Shape magazines. I learned that 82 percent of men think they’re good or excellent in bed, and that New Yorkers report they have more sex than the residents of any other state. At that moment, New Orleans and Katrina seemed to be in a galaxy far, far away.

—November 16, 2005

—This is the second of two articles.


The Enemy Within’: An Exchange February 9, 2006

  1. 6

    See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq,” October 3, 2005.

  2. 7

    See the NPR show This American Life, “What’s in a Number?” October 28, 2005.

  3. 8

    Human Rights Watch has issued many reports about the civilian victims of US military actions, including “Civilian Deaths/Checkpoints,” October 2003, in which it observed that “the individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this report reveal a pattern by US forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force.”

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