In Baghdad, at an informal meeting of the incoming U.S. ambassador to Iraq and members of the media, the ambassador got an earful about how difficult it was to cover this war. Despite the dainty hors d’oeuvre and wine (in the first real glasses I have seen since my arrival in Iraq), the press brought out a laundry list of issues preventing them from doing their job: checkpoints, transportation, the bureaucracy of blood tests at the border, and the need for more personal security. For what was supposed to be a meet and greet, the greet did not last long. Ambassador Ryan Crockerwas gracious, and some thanked him for inviting us to his home, which was rumored to be the former residence of Saddam’s sister. But like so many things here in country it’s not always possible to separate the rumored from the real. Discerning facts from fiction is an obstacle the media trips over daily.
As the current center of national government, the Green Zone is a high-security, exclusive neighborhood, where checkpoints are more common than monuments. On the way back from the ambassador’s residence, we were asked to get out of the car and submit to a search. Several members of the press and State Department were livid; they insisted there was no need for them to break the usual protocol of VIP express entry. The Peruvian guard, whose English was not up to the task of explaining his urgency, tersely insisted everyone leave the vehicle.
While waiting in line for the x-ray machine, I asked the Peruvian if this was normal. He assured me that it was not, and nervously explained they had received very specific information about a bomb threat. The following day, a suicide bomber attacked a hotel just a stone’s throw away. But at the inconvenient checkpoint, a New York Times reporter raised even more of a fit for the guard than he did for the ambassador. With the Iraq war being one of the most dangerous to cover, you’d think some journalists would appreciate the extra security measures, but you’d be wrong about a lot of assumptions concerning the wartime press.
After spending some time with the mainstream media, it’s not hard to understand why the coverage coming from Iraq is, as Staff Sergeant Rodriguez from the 4-9 cavalry out of Texas put it, “Completely wrong . . . in my opinion.”
The media has a conflict of values. A successful insurgent will always get more recognition than a successful infantryman — no matter how many successful infantrymen there are. In an arm-wrestling match between progress and propaganda, the reward of media coverage for bad behavior has a Pavlovian effect on attention-seeking terrorists.
On my trip north, our convoy was hit by an IED. An explosion is a split-second flash, something you could miss if you blink. Like attempting to photograph a lightning bolt when the sky is clear, explosions are tricky to catch on film. You have to point at the right place in the right moment, and even then you’d need luck. Unless, of course, you know when, where, and how the bomb is about to go off.
Unlike any other player on the board, the press has no oversight, no mandate, few penalties, and even fewer consequences. In Fallujah, a suicide bomber kills one victim, but an “unidentified police officer” reports 20 dead and just as many casualties. Because there are not enough reporters on the ground, too many bureaus have outsourced both their reporting and standards to third-party “stringers” whose spectacular videos of explosions and inflated body counts have shown up on both jihadist recruiting sites and American television screens, simultaneously. These hacks-for-hire literally get more bucks for each bang.
Nothing happens? No cash from an image-driven 24-hour news cycle. Have the media made mistakes in coverage? No doubt. But in an industry where some claim to be “keeping them honest,” there’s no penalty for false or misleading reports. With accountability about as valid as last week’s newspaper, reporters still maintain carte blanche in their work. For a group that habitually decries abuse of power and unilateralism, who watches the watchmen?
In 2004, the Iraqi prime minister banned Al Jazeerah from the country for “presenting a negative image of Iraq.” The Al Jazeerah spokesman, whose first name is Jihad (no joke), called the ousting “unjustifiable” and “contrary to the promises of freedom of speech.” Presenting a negative image of the United States is hardly grounds for dismissal and it may even earn an ambitious journalist a Pulitzer Prize, but the men and women fighting in this war have consistently protested against biased coverage that “never shows all the good things that happen.”
Everywhere I have traveled throughout Iraq, I’ve heard troop horror stories of seemingly friendly reporters “burning” them, but reporters defend themselves. An LA Times correspondent insisted she was meticulous about getting quotes right, another journalist from the Army Times said soldiers sometimes regret saying things that look dumb in print. Misled or misspoken? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but there should be no doubt about the friction between those on post and those in the press. Reporting as if the war were some type of game show, media coverage has been reduced to a running tally of dead servicemen and “expert commentary” from the faraway, air-conditioned offices of a midtown Manhattan newsroom.
Setting a Guinness record for distance to commute to work, Time magazine’s Iraq “expert” Joe Klein has managed to get his opinion and analysis to audiences worldwide since 2003. With no military experience (which seems to be a prerequisite for reporting from Iraq), perched above is keyboard in Westchester, N.Y., Klein has been a persistent back-seat driver in the “rush to war”. Finally, after four years of his articles have influenced millions of readers and news outlets throughout the world, Joe Klein has made it into Iraq just in time to declare the effort hopeless.
As I read much of the Western press I wonder, who side are these guys on? Of course, the answer is that they’re supposed to remain neutral, but this neutrality is a luxury afforded the media by a standard that only one side will meet. When Time magazine interviewed a bombmaker claiming to be responsible for “rising American casualties,” they forgot to ask the “sophisticated and tenacious enemy” the tough questions like, “What’s your exit strategy?” or “How broken is the insurgency?” “Could you define victory?” or even the most basic, “Why are you doing this?” The fact that the press demands accountability from one side and offers servility to the other is a very cunning strategy to win an asymmetrical war. That is, it’s as if the press were conducting a war of its own.
– Matt Sanchez is currently embedded in Iraq, as a member of the media. He is also a corporal in the United States Marine Corps reserves.