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Equal Time On The Baghdad Street


I share Andrew Sullivan’s exasperation with media outlets serving as transmission belts for the views of “real Iraqis.” Almost every day some newspaper or TV show interviews a man or woman in the street in Baghdad who manages to say virtually exactly what the regime wants said. It feels like the New York Times getting man in the street interviews about Stalin in the 1930s. What else are they going to say?

When John F. Burns, The New York Times reporter who’s done some of the best and most honest reporting from Baghdad, was still in Iraq he always made it clear that getting an honest read from people in Baghdad was hard. But it wasn’t until he came back that he gave an indication of how hard it really is. Here’s what he had to say about the goons who accomapny Western reporters everywhere. From last Sunday’s Times:

“Minders,” the men who watch visiting reporters day and night, are supposedly drawn from among the regime’s harder men. But even they break down, hands shaking, eyes brimming, voices desperate, when reporters ask ordinary Iraqis edgy questions about Mr. Hussein.

“You have killed me, and killed my family,” one minder said after a photographer for The New York Times made unauthorized photographs of an exhibition of statues of the Iraqi dictator during a November visit to Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts.

But we’re supposed to take some “hard-hitting” interview by Lester Holt in Baghdad seriously? No offense to Holt, but we consider interviews with paid spokesmen unreliable, how about interviews with people who think their families will be killed?

I have some suggestions and I would love it if we could get a groundswell of pressure against news outlets to enforce them. First, reporters should strive for “equal time” from Iraq. If one person is against liberation they need to interview someone else in favor for balance. If they can’t do that, they should repeat what Iraqis are telling them in private. Also, the camera should always — always show the minder standing there enforcing Saddam’s will. Print reporters should always make it clear to the reader that the “man in the street” has a man from the government watching the interview.

But my biggest suggestion — I’d call it a demand if I could enforce it — is that all of these reporters go back to Baghdad and re-interview the exact same average Iraqis after Saddam is gone. If reporters think they’ll be exposed as megaphones for a dictator down the road, they might voice their skepticism more. Or they might just stop doing these bogus interviews altogether.