Media reporting from Iraq is one-sided and flawed

John Leo

9/29/2003 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
If you rely on newspapers and TV networks for your news, chances are you have no idea that the controversial performance of Western reporters in Iraq is emerging as a big issue. The mainstream media have virtually ignored the stunning charges made by John Burns, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. But those charges are all over the Internet and carried by Fox News and conservative commentators.

In his new book, "Embedded," Burns says the vast majority of correspondents in prewar Iraq played ball with Saddam and downplayed the viciousness of the regime. He said Iraq was "a grotesque charnel house" and a genuine threat to America, but to protect their access, the reporters did not tell the truth. Burns named no names (he should now) but he was particularly contemptuous of the BBC and CNN.

Burns' comments are echoed by those of U.S. District Court Judge Don Walter of Shreveport, La. This is another Internet story (dozens of sites carry it) that you aren't likely to find in newspapers. Walter was vehemently anti-war but changed his mind after an assignment in Iraq as a U.S. adviser on Iraq's courts. He says we should have invaded sooner to halt the incredible butchery and torture that the United Nations, France and Russia knew all about and were quite willing to tolerate. And he is distressed by the reporting on Iraq now: "The steady drip, drip, drip of bad news may destroy our will to fulfill the obligations we have assumed. WE ARE NOT GETTING THE WHOLE TRUTH FROM THE MEDIA." (Capitals his.)

Some members of Congress are sounding the same theme. Georgia Democrat Jim Marshall says negative media coverage is getting our troops in Iraq killed and is encouraging Baathist holdouts to think they can drive the U.S. from Iraq. Marshall, a Vietnam vet, said there is "a disconnect between the reporting and the reality," partly because the 27 reporters left in Iraq are "all huddled in a hotel."

Marshall and a bipartisan group of six other representatives just returned from Iraq. The lawmakers charged that reporters have developed an overall negative tone and a "police blotter" mind-set, stressing attacks and little else. Ranking member Ike Skelton, D.-Mo., said he was impressed with the flexibility and innovation of the American military, including 3,100 projects in northern Iraq, from soccer fields to schools to refineries, "all good stuff, and that isn't being reported."

The campaign to get more balance into Iraq reporting has been driven by the Internet bloggers, particularly by Andrew Sullivan (AndrewSullivan.com) and law professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee (Instapundit.com). Reynolds deplores 'the lazy Vietnam-templating, the "Of course America must be losing' spin, the implicit and sometimes explicit sneer ..."

Both Reynolds and Sullivan encourage U.S. soldiers and others in Iraq to send in their own reports, which have generally been positive and hopeful. "I don't trust most of the journalists, I'm afraid," Sullivan wrote in a July appeal for firsthand accounts. Letters home from Iraq are now regularly put up on the Internet. One last week from Senior Chief Petty Officer Art Messer of the Navy Seabees said: "The countryside is getting more safe by the day despite all the attacks you are hearing about. Imagine if every shooting incident or robbery committed in Los Angeles was blown out of proportion." A few military personnel have their own blogs. One, who calls himself Chief Wiggles, is quite good.

The Internet campaign is another example of the new media going around the old media, in this case to counter stories by quagmire-oriented reporters. Perhaps goaded by Internet coverage, USA Today became the first mainstream outlet (as far as I can see) to highlight problems in current Iraq coverage. A strong article last week by Peter Johnson quoted this from MSNBC's Bob Arnot in Iraq: "I contrast some of the infectious enthusiasm I see here with what I see on TV and I say, 'Oh, my God, am I in the same country?'" Time magazine's Brian Bennett added: "What gets in the headlines is the American soldier getting shot, not the American soldiers rebuilding a school or digging a well."

Bennett says the violence and threats are real, but so are growing signs of stability in Iraqi life, with restaurants reopening every day and women feeling increasingly safe on the street.

Columnist Tom Friedman of The New York Times says he is a "worried optimist" who thinks things in Iraq are not as good as they should be by now, but not as bad as they seem from afar. That view might be a starting point for the big media to discuss how the "look from afar" got so skewed.