The Coalition Media Center, at the Saliyah military base in Doha, Qatar, seems designed to be as annoying and inconvenient as possible for reporters. To get there from the center of town, you have to take a half-hour ride through a baking, barren expanse of desert. At the gate, you have to submit your electronic equipment to a K-9 search, your bags to inspection, and your body to an X-ray scan. You then have to wait under the scorching sun for a military escort, who, after checking your credentials, takes you to the press bus. When the bus is full, you’re driven the two hundred yards to the media center. The bus lets you off in a concrete courtyard surrounded by a seven-foot-high wall topped by barbed wire. If you stand on a ledge and look out, you’ll see two rows of identical warehouse-like buildings—the offices of General Tommy Franks and the US Central Command.
Journalists, though, never get inside these buildings, for they’re restricted to the windowless media center, which is sixty feet long, brightly lit, and heavily air-conditioned. Inside the front door is a large space with long counters at which reporters for second-tier news organizations work. Extending out from this area are three corridors housing the offices of the TV networks, wire services, and major newspapers. Along the back wall is the door to the UK press office. Knock on it and moments later an officer in fatigues will appear and field your request. By contrast, the door to the US office, to the right of the main entrance, opens onto an empty corridor, and if you knock on it no one will answer. Instead, you have to phone the office and leave your request with the officer on duty. If you’re lucky, someone will come out and speak with you.
During the war, many of the reporters crammed into the center would dial the US number, seeking to check facts, get some background information, or ferret out a bit of news. Usually, they’d be disappointed. Getting confirmation for even the most basic facts filed by reporters in the field would often prove difficult. Occasionally, a senior press officer would emerge to speak with a reporter, and within minutes a ravenous mob would surround him, desperately seeking to shake loose something even remotely newsworthy.
The daily briefings were even less helpful. Held in a large conference hall with the now-famous $250,000 stage set, the briefings were normally conducted by Vincent Brooks, a tall, erect, one-star general who is impeccably polite, unflappable, and remarkably uninformative. Each briefing would begin with a few choice videos—black-and-white clips of “precision-guided” missiles unfailingly hitting their targets, and color shots of American troops distributing aid to grateful Iraqis. No matter what was taking place inside Iraq, Brooks would insist that the coalition remained “on plan” and that morale remained “sky high.” Sometimes the general offered outright misinformation. When, for instance, the Palestine Hotel was hit by a US tank shell, which killed two journalists and wounded several others, Brooks asserted that US forces had come under fire from the hotel. This was denied by the journalists on the scene, and the commander of the unit that fired the shell, in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, made no mention of being fired on from the hotel. Still, Colin Powell, citing no evidence, later repeated the claim that “our forces responded to hos-tile fire, appearing to come from” the hotel.
The Coalition Media Center is managed by Jim Wilkinson, a fresh-faced, thirty-two-year-old Texan and a protégé of Bush’s adviser Karen Hughes. Wilkinson made his mark during the 2000 presidential election when he spoke on behalf of GOP activists protesting the Florida ballot recount. To run the media center in Doha, Wilkinson, a member of the naval reserve, appeared in the same beige fatigues as the career officers working under him. Nonetheless, the center had all the earmarks of a political campaign, with press officers always “on message.” Many journalists, accustomed to the smoothly purring Bush political machine, were struck by the heavy-handedness of the Doha operation. A week into the war, journalists began writing their own “media pieces,” as they called them, com-paring the briefings to the infamous “Five O’Clock Follies” of the Vietnam War.
Rarely, though, did those stories examine how well the press, radio, and television themselves were doing, and that was unfortunate. For, with more than seven hundred registered journalists, the Coalition Media Center offered a superb opportunity for observing how reporters of different nations approached the war, and for understanding the many shortcomings in their coverage.
So stingy is Centcom with information that, at the daily briefings, the questions asked were often more revealing than the answers given. Those posed by European and Arab journalists tended to be more pointed and probing than those from the Americans. The Europeans and Arabs would ask about the accuracy of US missiles, the use of weapons containing depleted uranium, the extent of civilian casualties. The Americans would ask questions such as: “Why hasn’t Iraqi broadcasting been taken out?” “Is Iraq using weapons prohibited by the UN?” “Can you offer more details on the rescue of Jessica Lynch?” One US network correspondent told me that she was worried that, if she pushed too hard at the briefings, she would no longer be called on. Jim Wilkinson was known to rebuke reporters whose copy he deemed insufficiently supportive of the war; he darkly warned one correspondent that he was on a “list” along with two other reporters at his paper.
After each briefing, correspondents for the major satellite networks would stand up in back and give a live report before a camera. Sometimes I took a seat nearby and listened. The British correspondents invariably included some analysis in their reports. After one briefing, for instance, James Forlong of Sky News observed that Tommy Franks had left the briefing to his “fourth in command” (i.e., Brooks), and that “very little detail had been provided.” Referring to a question about a friendly-fire incident, Forlong noted that Brooks had little to say other than that the incident was “under investigation.” CNN’s Tom Mintier, by contrast, would faithfully recite Brooks’s main points, often with signs of approval. “They showed some amazing footage of a raid on a palace,” he said when introducing a clip that had been shown at the briefing, one of many that CNN aired.
Such differences in style were apparent in the broadcasts themselves. Switching stations in my hotel, I often found myself drawn to the BBC. With two hundred reporters, producers, and technicians in the field, its largest deployment ever, the network offered no-nonsense anchors, tenacious correspondents, perceptive features, and a host of commentators steeped in knowledge of the Middle East, in contrast to the retired generals and colonels we saw on American TV. Reporters were not afraid to challenge the coalition’s claims. When an anchor asked Paul Adams, a BBC defense correspondent, whether Iraqi fighters were using “quasi-terrorist tactics”—a common Centcom charge—he said it was more appropriate to speak of “asymmetrical warfare,” i.e., the use of unconventional tactics by forces that were badly outgunned. At the same time, the BBC presented many stories about the horrors of Saddam’s rule. In one chilling piece, it had an interview with an Iraqi woman in London whose family members had been murdered, raped, or tortured by the regime.
At times, the BBC seemed relatively slow and ponderous. When the tape of Saddam’s appearance in the streets of Baghdad was shown on al-Jazeera, the BBC took ten minutes longer than other networks to air it. A feature about Günter Grass and his visceral hatred for America seemed to be repeated endlessly. All in all, though, the BBC maintained a consistent standard of skepticism toward all sides. “We’re very conscious that our audience is not just a coalition audience but an international one,” Jonathan Marcus, a correspondent for BBC Radio, told me. “Tone, style, and terminology are all employed with that very much in mind. That has sharpened our journalism enormously.”
The BBC got some stiff competition from Sky News. With a much smaller staff than the BBC, this London-based channel (partly owned by Rupert Murdoch) seemed far more nimble. One of its correspondents, Geoff Meade, became known at the media center for his sharp, if sometimes grandiloquent, questions. When Baghdad was about to fall without the discovery of any weapons of mass destruction, he asked, “Is this war going to make history by being the first to end before its cause could be found?” Among Sky’s regular commentators, Con Coughlin, a biographer of Saddam and a Daily Telegraph editor, explained how Baath Party loyalists would likely have been recruited to play a part in Saddam’s allegedly spontaneous street appearances.
After watching the British reports, I found the American ones jarring. In my hotel, MSNBC always seemed to be on, and I was shocked by its mawkishness and breathless boosterism. Its anchors mostly recounted tales of American bravery and derring-do. After the US attacks on the Palestine Hotel and the offices of al-Jazeera in Baghdad, MSNBC brought on its resident terrorism expert, Steve Emerson, who insisted—before any of the facts were in—that the attacks were accidental. MSNBC’s “embedded” reporters, meanwhile, seemed utterly intoxicated by the war. In one tendentious account, Dr. Bob Arnot—normally assigned to the health beat—excitedly followed his cameraman into an unlighted building where two captured Iraqi fighters were being held near the entrance while a group of women and children could be seen in back. “They’re fighting outside,” Arnot said with indignation. “Here in the front are RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] used to kill Marines, and in the back are these women and children—civilian hostages. And they’re terrified.” But terrified of what? The captured men in the front room? The fighting outside? Were they being held against their will? Arnot never asked.
Before arriving in Doha, I had spent hours watching CNN back home, and I was sadly reminded of the network’s steady decline in recent years. Paula Zahn looked and talked like a cheerleader for the US forces; Aaron Brown kept reaching for the profound remark without ever finding it; Wolf Blitzer politely interviewed Washington’s high and mighty, seldom asking a pointed question. None of them, however, appeared on the broadcasts I saw in Doha. Instead, there were Jim Clancy, a tough-minded veteran American correspondent, Michael Holmes, a soft-spoken Australian, and Becky Anderson, a sharp and inquisitive British anchor. This was CNN International, the edition broadcast to the world at large, and it was far more serious and informed than the American version.
The difference was not accidental. Six months before the war began, I was told, executives at CNN headquarters in Atlanta met regularly to plan separate broadcasts for America and the world. Those executives knew that Zahn’s girl-next-door manner and Brown’s spacey monologues would not go down well with the British, French, or Germans, much less the Egyptians or Turks, and so the network, at huge expense, fielded two parallel but separate teams to cover the war. And while there was plenty of overlap, especially in the reports from the field, and in the use of such knowledgeable journalists as Christiane Amanpour, the international edition was refreshingly free of the self-congratulatory talk of its domestic one. In one telling moment, Becky Anderson, listening to one of Walter Rodgers’s excited reports about US advances in the field, admonished him: “Let’s not give the impression that there’s been no resistance.” Rodgers conceded that she was right.
CNN International bore more resemblance to the BBC than to its domestic edition—a difference that showed just how market-driven were the tone and content of the broadcasts. For the most part, US news organizations gave Americans the war they thought Americans wanted to see.
Even the most internationally minded Western news organizations, however, faced serious problems in covering the war. In Doha, most journalists spent their days shuttling between the Coalition Media Center and their plush five-star hotels. Had the journalists taken the time to look around Qatar itself, they would have witnessed a fascinating political experiment. Though slightly smaller than Connecticut, Qatar sits on enough natural gas to heat every home in America for more than one hundred years, and its emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is trying to use that wealth to create a modern society that he thinks could be a model for the Arab world. During my stay, Qatar took a step toward democracy by holding municipal elections, and among the winners was a woman—one of the first to be elected to public office in the Gulf. In Doha’s spotless shopping malls, men in white robes and black headbands line up for Starbucks coffee and Subway sandwiches, an example of the combination of Wahhabi austerity and Western consumerism that is apparent throughout the country.
Few journalists, though, got to see it. Working late into the night to accommodate editors seven time zones away, they got most of their information about the outside world from TV, the Internet, and their colleagues in the field. Talking with them at the media center and the Sheraton and Ritz-Carlton, I found that they were mainly concerned with such military matters as troop deployments, tank formations, and the length of supply lines. Since the journalists were in Doha to cover Centcom, these concerns were natural, but the reporters for the most part seemed unconcerned about the political aspects of the military campaign—for instance, the workings of the Baath Party police; the attitudes of the different parts of his armed forces toward Saddam’s dictatorship; the interests and resentments of the various Islamic groups and their leaders.
Part of the difficulty was that the reporters knew very little about the Middle East. Most had come to Doha from bureaus far afield—Washington, Mexico City, Rome, Brussels, Nairobi, Bangkok, Hong Kong. They were unfamiliar with Arab history, the roots of Islamic fundamentalism, the resurgence of Arab nationalism, the changes in the regional balance of power since September 11. Particularly serious was their lack of knowledge of Arabic. They could not talk with Arabic speakers directly, read Arabic newspapers, or watch Arabic news channels.
For American TV networks, the lack of experience in the Middle East reflects a turning away from the world that has been going on for a long time. Tom Fenton of CBS told me that when he joined the network, in 1970, “I was one of three correspondents in the Rome bureau. We had bureaus in Paris, Bonn, Warsaw, Cairo, and Nairobi. Now you can count the number of foreign correspondents on two hands and have three fingers left over. Before, we had stringers all over the world. Now no one can afford that.” Even The Washington Post has only a handful of people fluent in Arabic, and only one of them—Anthony Shadid—was stationed inside Iraq. Because of his knowledge of the region and its language he was one of the few US correspondents able to get beneath the surface of life in Baghdad.
Many reporters lacked even the most rudimentary knowledge of Iraqi history and geography. A correspondent for the Los Angeles Times told me of a gung-ho colleague who, embedded with a Marine unit that was racing toward Baghdad, excitedly declared over the phone, “We’re about to cross the Ganges!” When he was told that he must mean the Tigris, he said, “Yeah, one of those biblical rivers or other.” When I mentioned to a reporter for USA Today how hard it seemed to cover the Middle East without much experience in the region, she was dismissive. “You can read one book, like God Has Ninety-Nine Names, and figure out what’s going on here,” she said, referring to the 1996 book by Judith Miller. “You can talk to any cabdriver and he’ll tell you everything you need to know.” As it happens, most of the cab drivers in Doha are from India and Pakistan.
Probably the biggest problem for journalists unfamiliar with the region and its language was their inability to tune in to Arabic-language newscasts. During the first Gulf War, there were no all-news Arabic channels, and Arabs, like everyone else, had to rely on CNN. Now there are five such channels. The newest, the Saudi-backed al-Arabiya, went on the air just weeks before the start of the war. The most important, however, remains al-Jazeera. Even before the war, it had an estimated 35 million viewers; after its start, the number of its subscribers in Europe jumped by 50 percent. If you walk into a working-class café in the Arab world, chances are it will have a TV tuned to al-Jazeera. It has been central in defining how Arabs have seen the war.
For those in the West who get to see it, al-Jazeera remains an enigma. On the one hand, it has run lengthy interviews with US officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Myers; during the war, it stayed with the Pentagon’s briefings long after other networks had gotten bored and moved on. Al-Jazeera has offended many Arab governments with its frank coverage of their repressive policies. During the war Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf denounced it for “marketing to America.”
At the same time, al-Jazeera has aired unedited tapes from Osama bin Laden, and many who followed its reports from Afghanistan during the war there felt it had a decidedly pro-Taliban tilt. It has shown hours of coverage of Palestinian casualties in the West Bank and Gaza and commonly refers to suicide bombers as martyrs. A week into the war in Iraq, it broadcast a tape of US POWs being interrogated and another of dead British soldiers, and it was rebuked for doing so by the brass of both nations.
A visit to al-Jazeera’s central studios is instructive. Built with a $140 million grant from the emir of Qatar, they are as advanced as any Western network’s, with a sleek, airy newsroom in which a wall of monitors shows satellite feeds from around the world. On its staff are people of eighteen nationalities, including displaced Palestinians and Lebanese Christians. Some of the men wear sports shirts and slacks, the women jeans and sandals. Jihad Ballout, al-Jazeera’s new press spokesman, appears in a leather jacket, smokes Gitanes, and drives a BMW convertible. But here, too, are women in traditional black robes and men in traditional white ones; among the latter is the channel’s chairman, Sheik Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family.
In fact, as I learned in Doha, al-Jazeera’s staff has two main factions. One, the Islamists, subscribe to a form of religion-based Arab nationalism, which strongly opposes Western culture and Western political power. The other, the secularists, are drawn to liberalism and modernism, and some have close contacts in Europe. The two groups are engaged in a struggle for power. Riad Kahwaji, the Middle East bureau chief of Defense News, told me that he thought the dispute within al-Jazeera reflected “a broader struggle within the Arab world.” Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, political opinion in the Arab world could, very roughly speaking, be seen as divided between the “traditional left,” often secular, and the “traditional right,” sometimes religious. With the Soviet collapse, however, the left largely disappeared, as it did in Egypt, and the vacuum was increasingly filled by hard-line Islamists. Governments, forced to respond, have themselves more and more adopted Islamist positions. As a result, the region’s politics have become saturated with religion. “This has had an influence on everything—especially the media,” Kahwaji said. “And al-Jazeera is no exception.”
As I learned from people familiar with the station, there is little doubt that the Islamists and those vehemently opposed to the West have the upper hand. And this was certainly borne out when, helped by Arabic translators, I watched the channel. Occasionally there appeared a moderate Arab expressing hopes for a democratic Iraq. Mostly, though, I heard expressions of anti-Western Arab nationalism. Much was made of a pro-Saddam demonstration in Mosul. Saudi scientists urged Arabs to protest the war. Iraqi citizens were shown rejoicing at the destruction of an American tank. Usually, the coalition was referred to as an invading or occupying force, with hardly any indication that it was also opposing a particularly cruel dictatorship.
Several times an hour, we saw footage of civilian casualties. Al-Jazeera took us to hospital wards to show us screaming children, women in pain, men without limbs. The camera lingered on stumps, head wounds, and tubes inserted in nostrils and chests. On gurneys in hallways lay bodies bandaged, bloodied, and burned. Doctors and nurses described how they were being overwhelmed by casualties and how they lacked the supplies needed to treat them. (As Tim Judah wrote in these pages, many of the casualties were in fact military.*)
On al-Jazeera, then, the war was seen mainly through the plight of its victims, while the brutality of the Baathists and their horrifying methods were hardly mentioned. And other Arabic newscasts did not look much different. Al-Arabiya, which is casting itself as a moderate alternative to al-Jazeera, also heavily featured civilian casualties. In doing so, both channels reflect popular sentiment in the region. “The overwhelming majority of the Arab world does not believe the US invasion is legitimate,” Riad Kahwaji observed. “They regard the US presence in Iraq as an illegal occupation.” In short, the war has helped to solidify Islamist tendencies in the Middle East, and this development has been reflected in—and reinforced by—the Arab press and television.
To me, the war as shown on al-Jazeera seemed one-sided; its coverage would have benefited from more reports on Saddam’s crimes and the opposition to him from the Shiite majority and from many other elements in the population. Yet Western television programs seemed to tilt in the opposite direction, showing a war of liberation without victims. The more than five hundred reporters embedded with military units provided some unforgettable glimpses of the war, but remarkably few showed war’s real-life effects, i.e., people getting killed and maimed.
Consider, for example, the day on which US troops made their initial raid inside Baghdad. The fighting was so intense that, according to Centcom, between two thousand and three thousand Iraqi soldiers died. Yet, on TV, I didn’t see a single one of them. On MSNBC, the anchor announced that its live video feed was being put on five-second delay so that images deemed too “disturbing” could be weeded out. On CNN the only casualty I saw was when Walter Rodgers and his crew found an Iraqi soldier lying wounded on the side of the road. A CNN security officer who had some medical training stopped to help the man while US Army medics were summoned. This made for dramatic TV, and it showed the type of casualties CNN apparently thought appropriate for broadcast—those assisted by compassionate Americans.
In Qatar, the International Herald Tribune comes with a locally produced insert, The Daily Star, and it was revealing to compare the two. Here, for instance, are some of the headlines that appeared in the Herald Tribune on April 7:
RECOGNIZING THE VICTORY: HOW WILL US KNOW WHEN IT HAS WON THE WAR IN IRAQ?
FOR US SOLDIERS, THERAPY HELPS EASE BATTLE STRESS
HOPE FOR MISSING GIs GIVES WAY TO SADNESS
RESCUED US PRIVATE REUNITED WITH FAMILY
That same day, The Daily Star carried a front-page story headlined, IRAQI HOSPITALS OFFER SNAPSHOT OF HORROR. It began with the ordeal of Ali Ismail Abbas, the twelve-year-old Baghdad boy who lost his family and both his arms in a US missile attack. It went on to describe how the staff at the hospital he’d been brought to “were overwhelmed by the sharp rise in casualties since American troops moved north to Baghdad Thursday and intensified their aerial assault.” I found hardly any mention of this in the Herald Tribune on that day.
Such differences, I was told in Doha, reflect not only the widespread opposition to the war in the Middle East but also the fact that people there have much greater tolerance for graphic images than do those in the United States. American movies feature scenes of people being blown up and gunned down; American TV programs show women being slashed and men being shot in the face. But television executives believe that when it comes to real war, Americans cannot bear to see bullet-ridden bodies and headless corpses. If they were shown, moreover, the effect might be to weaken support for the war. In the case of Iraq, the conflict Americans saw was highly sanitized, with laser-guided weapons slamming into their intended targets with great precision. We observed this from afar, usually in pictures taken from bombers thousands of feet above their target, or in images of clouds of black smoke rising hundreds of yards away. Spared exposure to the victims of war, Americans had little idea of its human costs.
Next year, al-Jazeera plans to begin broadcasting in English. The images it shows may come as a shock to many Americans. In view of what they are usually shown, such a shock seems needed.
—April 30, 2003
May 29, 2003