Politics & Policy

The Real Iraq Story

Americans don't often get the right picture out of Iraq.

How insightful is the Iraq reporting that you’ve been consuming? Take a little test.

If I tell you that scores of Iraqi detainees have been killed and maimed this year in Abu Ghraib prison, you may not be surprised. But you’re probably guessing wrong about who hurt them. The moronic American guards who are now on trial for improperly humiliating some Iraqis caused no deaths or injuries: The many casualties in the prison were all inflicted by Iraq’s guerilla terrorists.

During this spring’s frenzy of reporting on the plight of detainees at Abu Ghraib, I was surprised that none of the stories mentioned what anyone who has spent time at the prison (as I have) knows is the central danger to the prisoners there. By far the gravest threats to the Iraqis in that facility are the mortars and rockets that guerillas regularly lob into the compound–knowing full well that the main victims of their indiscriminate assaults will be fellow Iraqis. One attack on April 21 of this year, for instance, killed 22 detainees and injured another 91.

The number-one priority for Arabs and Americans concerned about the rights of Iraqi detainees, therefore, ought to be eliminating the merciless assaults of the terrorist insurgents. The sexual indignities imposed by the prison’s rogue guards would have to come second on any sensible list.

Shouldn’t the reporting on Abu Ghraib have provided some context along those lines? Wouldn’t a fuller media presentation of these facts on the ground in Iraq have given the public a better perspective on the various problems at the prison?

Or take another of the Iraq stories most loudly trumpeted in our media: the electricity shortages. You know Baghdad continues to suffer periodic blackouts–news reports remind us of that ad nauseum. Just one more example of U.S. ineffectiveness in this war: The generating system is broken and nothing gets fixed, right?

Wrong. Despite continuing efforts by guerillas to sabotage the grid, Iraq is now generating more electricity than existed in the country before the war. So why do we continue to hear about shortages? Two reasons:

First, Saddam shamelessly hogged the country’s electricity in his capital, shunting 57 percent to Baghdad while the provinces were starved for juice. Today, power is distributed fairly to all population centers, and Baghdad gets 28 percent of the total. Though that means occasional shortages in privileged neighborhoods unused to such things, Iraqis as a whole are better off.

Second, Iraq is in the midst of a consumer surge. The economy will grow an estimated 60 percent this year. Iraqis, who have flocked to cell phones and imported a million cars, are also snatching up washing machines, air conditioners, and electronic devices never before available to them. A third of the country now has satellite TV. Electricity demand is thus rising even faster than the steady increases in generation.

Certainly there are problems that stem from growing electricity demand and a new fairness in distribution. But they are “nice” problems, not simple indicators of failure. Now let me ask: Has any of this been adequately explained in the Iraq reporting you’ve seen?


Over the last year and a quarter, America’s major media have given us millions of words about the Iraq struggle, most of them accurate. Yet they’ve often done a poor job of communicating the big, important truths about developments in that country. The very largest, most critical truth they’ve missed is that the Shiite middle has stuck with us through many travails.

This was demonstrated again when the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr went on the warpath during the spring. Scads of reporters and newsroom analysts declared a general uprising, the loss of majority Shiite support, the beginning of the end for the U.S. in Iraq. “United States forces are confronting a broad-based Shiite uprising,” announced the lead sentence of an April 7 New York Times story written from Washington. A Newsweek headline on April 10 screamed: “THE IRAQI INTIFADA: Suddenly the insurgency is much broader and much more dangerous than anyone had imagined it could become.”

These reports were wrong. Ordinary Shiites and Shia leaders alike subsequently made it clear that the mad cleric does not speak for the majority of them. They quietly plotted amongst themselves and with the Coalition to neutralize Sadr. His uprising petered out.

As someone who has recently spent three months on combat patrols with Coalition soldiers, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the U.S. is facing a hard guerilla fight in Iraq. It is, however, not a mass revolt, or a broad popular insurgency.

If you’re a regular NRO reader, that’s not news to you. But for many Americans, that is news. They shouldn’t feel bad. The fault lies with reflexively alarmist and often incomplete reporting. Over the last 16 months I’ve published two books about the Iraq war based on my own experiences as an embedded reporter. In both I found it necessary to include an entire chapter about problems in media coverage I observed.

Many factors have skewed our Iraq reporting. Deadline pressure, sensationalism, and sometimes just laziness create a negative bias. The easiest reporting from a war zone is simply to point a camera at something that’s on fire. A hundred counterparts that aren’t in flames are “not a story.”

But getting the full picture in a guerilla war requires more than just showing up for the explosions; you need to study and then describe the deeper, glacial changes taking place in society, the public temperament, the tactics of the terrorists, etc. Alas, few reporters show the appetite, endurance, or creativity for this slower style of reporting.

This bias toward failure is fanned by what Michael Barone calls the “zero defect standard” of today’s media. For months, armchair journalists without the slightest understanding of what real war is like have howled that this guerilla struggle hasn’t been run according to a tidy “plan.” Why did we “allow” the looting? How come nobody anticipated the IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) threat? Isn’t it wrong for GIs to invade people’s houses?

Policy nerds and media critics imply that the transformations being attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq should have been smoothly orchestrated like some kind of grand Super Bowl game. Of course even Super Bowls, we’ve learned, are subject to “wardrobe failures” and other breakdowns. But wars never proceed according to plan; they are always fought by the seat of one’s pants, through constant improvisation.

On D-Day (one of the most carefully “planned” military events ever), 4,649 American soldiers were killed within just a few hours–many through what an accusatory mind could characterize as “screw-ups” (gliders and paratroopers landing in the wrong places, amphibious and landing craft unloading in water that was too deep, Air Force and Navy failures to suppress German fire on the beaches). At its recent 60th anniversary, the Normandy invasion was remembered for its high import and the majesty of its sacrifices. Yet by standards of war invoked by some contemporary media observers, those landings could be viewed as traumatic bungles.

British Labour-party leader Tony Blair recently complained that Western reporting on today’s Iraq war had become “appallingly one-sided.” He cited several examples of inexplicably negative and critical coverage of encouraging developments. Why, he asked, would reporters casually tar as “an American stooge” Raad Juhi, the bright, courageous, and principled Iraqi judge who signed the warrant to arrest Moqtada al Sadr for murdering a moderate fellow cleric, and who then arraigned Saddam Hussein?

Some of the antagonistic coverage is undoubtedly linked to ideological imbalances in today’s press corps. A string of studies since the 1980s have shown that elite reporters vote for Democrats over Republicans, liberals over conservatives, by around ten to one. In a war that has taken on intense partisan connotations, the personal dispositions of reporters will inevitably affect the stories.

Today’s war coverage is also often colored by the cultural gap that separates many reporters from soldiers. As Kate O’Beirne only half jokingly put it a couple of years ago, “You’ve got to remember, most journalists spent their high school years being stuffed into lockers by the kind of males who are running our military. Now they’re determined to get even.”

The individuals who make up our media elite didn’t used to be so disconnected from military life. During World War II more than 700 Harvard men perished in combat. But in a typical class at many Ivy-level colleges today you can count on one hand the number of individuals who do military service. Most of the reporters who shape today’s national news now come out of institutions where they have not a single friend or acquaintance or relative with military experience. This doesn’t encourage sympathetic understanding of military work or military people.

The gulf between journalists and warriors doesn’t always lead to hostility, but it regularly creates misunderstandings and ignorant claims. Editor and columnist Michael Kelly noted in a 1997 Washington Post column that “my generation of reporters” (the baby boomers) “is, in matters military…forever suffering a collective case of the vapors. At the least exposure to the most unremarkable facts of military life…we are forever shocked.”


Does incomplete and unduly negative reporting matter in this war? It certainly matters to the public. The American people do not give our media high grades for their coverage of the Iraq war. Only 30 percent told the Pew Research Center they have a great deal of confidence “that the press is giving an accurate picture of how the war is going.” Droves of viewers concerned they are being manipulated with negative imagery have migrated to alternative outlets (like Fox, the only news organization that has enjoyed clear net increases in audience and consumer trust over the last year and a half).

Many other Americans have simply tuned out or cancelled their subscriptions. In different polls, large majorities of the public now say that our news organizations are more inaccurate than accurate, and that reporters “get in the way of solving social problems” (Gallup and Princeton Survey Research). Fully 72 percent of Americans now say “the news media have too much power and influence in Washington” (Harris). As someone doing a lot of speaking on this subject, I can tell you that a substantial portion of the American public (and most of the soldiers serving in the war theaters) is dissatisfied with the last year’s journalism from Iraq.

Unbalanced war reporting can have fatal effects. Any guerilla war is as much a struggle of truthful images as it is a military encounter. Unbalanced coverage can demoralize forces of good, and encourage the sowers of chaos.

Jim Marshall is a Vietnam combat veteran, a Congressman serving on the House Armed Services Committee, and a Democrat. After returning from a fact-finding trip to Iraq he had this to say: “I’m afraid the news media are hurting our chances. They are dwelling upon the mistakes [and] not balancing this bad news with the ‘rest of the story,’ the progress made daily. … The falsely bleak picture weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation, and emboldens our enemy.”

Tony Blair went even further in April 2004. He warned that some journalists and opinion shapers would like to see President Bush and “the power of America” defeated in Iraq. “The truth is,” Blair wrote in Britain’s Observer, “faced with this struggle on which our own fate hangs, a significant part of Western opinion is sitting back–if not half-hoping we fail–certainly replete with schadenfreude at the difficulty we find.”

Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise, has just published Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq. His previous book about the 2003 hot war is Boots on the Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.


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