The road ahead

Posted: May 14, 2004 12:00 AM

It probably seems we get quite enough news out of Iraq. Prison abuses, congressional hearings and American deaths dominate the headlines. But even with all the stories being generated there, we still have far fewer journalists than we need in Iraq.

Last year, at the height of the war, there were some 500 embedded journalists traveling with our troops. But when the fighting stopped, most of those journalists left Iraq.

These days only a handful of ?embeds? remain. That means a lot of important stories are going uncovered.

For example, 2,500 Iraqi schools have been renovated in the last year, and another 800 will soon be finished. Almost 9 million new math and science textbooks are in use. And these books actually attempt to teach math and science. The ones they replaced were good for nothing more than promoting Saddam?s cruel regime.

More Iraqi homes have electricity now than did under Saddam. Hundreds of thousands of children have been immunized and are getting quality medical care.

But we haven?t seen any video of new schools opening, read any newspaper articles about new schoolbooks or seen any photos of children getting shots. That?s because the few journalists who remain in Iraq are focusing on abuses in a prison and fighting in Fallujah.

Unfortunately, that?s the way journalism works. We tend to converge on any breaking story. That?s why, when a building burns down, every local TV station will send a crew.
They cover the fire, but not the park around the corner, where hundreds of children played and nothing bad happened all day.

There are a few fires in Iraq, and journalists should certainly cover them. But there are many more parks. And schools. And hospitals. If we had more journalists, and more imbedded journalists traveling with our troops, we?d get a better, more complete picture of what Iraqi life is really like.

Of course, there are some who argue that imbedding didn?t work. ?[Journalists are] so embedded with the troops, they may as well be getting a P.R. retainer from the Pentagon,? Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, wrote last year.

And according to Rita Kirk Whillock, a professor at Southern Methodist University, ?if you?re an embedded reporter and you have no gun, you develop friendships with [service members]. How much criticism are you going to lob??

Let?s imagine for a moment that a newspaper reporter in this country pretended to be a druggie, lived in a crack house for three months, and wrote a series of sympathetic stories about the addicts and drug dealers there. She?d probably win a Pulitzer Prize.

But when reporters get up close to real Americans, Americans who?ve volunteered to fight and die for the rest of us, some believe we should be frightened these journalists will be incorrectly influenced.

On the contrary, if anything, we ought to insist that journalists ride along with our troops for a few weeks, just to make sure the journalists are in touch with the very best people America has to offer. 

As to Whillock?s specific criticism: Journalists would have lobbed criticism, if there?d been any to lob. The fact is, they reported what they saw: American service members working hard, winning battles while minimizing casualties -- on both sides.
Embedded journalists saw Americans going out of their way to avoid damaging religious shrines. They didn?t report that Americans were committing atrocities, for the simple reason that we weren?t committing atrocities. 

Of course, journalists should keep investigating the Abu Ghraib prison story. If there are more horrible photos out there, we ought to see them. However, journalists should also investigate how the abused Iraqis came to be in prison in the first place. That?s a side of the story that would make for interesting reading, especially if it turns out that many of the prisoners had directly attacked Americans.

Whether or not one supports our policy, the United States is now attempting to improve the world by building a healthy democracy in Iraq. The military is doing its part.
Officials say they plan to keep 138,000 troops there through the end of next year, enough to provide security as Iraq becomes a sovereign nation.

Along with those service members, we also ought to have enough journalists on hand to record our many successes at least as completely as they?ve recorded our few failures.