September 28, 2003

The media’s distorted reporting on Iraq

By: AFF Editors

Is the Iraq reconstruction already a disaster? Is it a Vietnam-like quagmire as the Democratic Party and more than a few others across the political spectrum claim? Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., for one, begs to differ. Recently back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq with other congressmen, he found that while the hardships and sacrifices of the reconstruction effort are real, so too is the progress.

But the progress is hardly reported on. The news media is “dwelling upon the mistakes” and blocking out everything else, Marshall said in a recent op-ed. “[The media] is not balancing this bad news with the rest of the story,” Marshall said.

What’s missing from the stories include: a recent Gallup poll showing that two-thirds of Iraqis are optimistic about the future; the extensive allied efforts to rebuild Iraqi schools, hospitals and infrastructure; and the increase in Iraq oil production. Should we be surprised this is glossed over? Marshall didn’t say it, but this is no new phenomenon. The reporting on Iraq has been skewed this way for years.

In fact, many western journalists sucked up to Saddam’s regime when he was in power. They’re just falling back into old habits now. Consider the case of New York Times reporter John Burns, one of the few who dared challenge Saddam’s regime.
In a recent interview excerpted in Editor and Publisher, he talks about how other news organizations would ply the Baathist regime with gifts and flattery.

In one case, a reporter for another major U.S. newspaper (Burns didn’t say
who) sent the regime reprints of Burns’s tougher reporting alongside the other reporter’s own softer pieces. The message was clear: hey, Saddam, I’ll give you what you want, unlike that Burns guy.

Or take the case of CNN, which kept a bureau open in Baghdad during Saddam’s last years. When The New Republic magazine said CNN’s toothless reporting on Iraq showed that it was under Saddam’s thumb, CNN executives shot back that the criticisms were “fiction.” It was only after Saddam’s regime fell that CNN news chief Eason Jordan admitted that, yes, reports of Saddam’s atrocities were buried because the cable news channel didn’t want to upset the regime and lose the bureau.

A (justifiable) fear of Saddam obviously played a part in this behavior. But that cannot be the whole reason. These journalists always had the option of just pulling out and going back home. No, the truth is that, for good or ill, journalists have a tendency to think the worst about their own government’s actions while being solicitous of anti-U.S. opinion.

Under Saddam’s Iraq, that made playing ball with the regime easy for some. In post-Saddam Iraq, that means focusing on the reconstruction’s shortcomings while ignoring its successes. Of course, the failures should–and must–be reported. No one wants a Pollyannaish view of the reconstruction. But we need the whole picture, the bitter and the sweet. As Marshall put it, “The falsely bleak picture weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and emboldens our enemy.”

Sean Higgins writes for Investor’s Business Daily.