Media

White House Whining on Iraq Coverage

Contrary to what the president claims, the media does report the good news on Iraq. There's just very little of it.
Are the media ignoring the good news in Iraq? From pundits to White House officials, that's what many critics are saying.

According to George W. Bush, "We're making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it's hard to tell it when you listen to the filter." While these complaints have sparked extensive discussion and debate in the media, an examination of coverage finds very little substance to this critique of media treatment of Iraq.

The pro-occupation critics claim that there's not enough coverage of the rebuilt schools, for example, or the fact that hospitals in Iraq are open. Congressmember Jim Marshall (D.-Ga.) was perhaps the most blunt of them all, alleging in an opinion piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the media's "falsely bleak picture weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and emboldens our enemy." Marshall concluded by lamenting "the harm done by our media. I'm afraid it is killing our troops."

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told viewers that "some of the most powerful media players in America don't want America to succeed in Iraq…. American soldiers have told me that the biggest morale challenge that they are facing is not Saddam and Osama's thugs, but, rather, it's dealing with the biased, slanted reports that they're getting from American news organizations."

But are these critics complaining about bad press, or simply bad news? As the Associated Press explained: "The schools, for example, need rehabilitation in large part because of the chaotic looting touched off by the U.S. military's entry into Baghdad in April. And many schools have not been rehabilitated, particularly in poorer neighborhoods and the south."

Newsweek pointed out that "reporters who covered the war say that some of the Coalition's achievements are less impressive than they sound. Paul (Jerry) Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, proudly announced the reopening of Iraq's schools this month, while White House officials point to the opening of Iraq's 240 hospitals. In fact, many schools were already open in May, once major combat ended, and no major hospital closed during the war."

Newsweek went on to note that journalists who might actually try to cover what these critics deem the "good" news are discouraged from doing so: "In Baghdad, official control over the news is getting tighter. Journalists used to walk freely into the city’s hospitals and the morgue to keep count of the day’s dead and wounded. Now the hospitals have been declared off-limits and morgue officials turn away reporters who aren’t accompanied by a Coalition escort." So while critics say journalists should be chastised for not reporting on hospitals, the occupation forces are making it more difficult for reporters to actually visit them.

The fact that reporters are kept away from hospitals suggests that it's risky to assume that more coverage of Iraqi reconstruction would yield "good" news. Consider New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins' description of the scene at an Iraqi hospital on NPR's "On the Media": "The hospitals are open. If you've been in a hospital in Iraq, however, the reality is far different. One should not picture a hospital in the United States. A typical hospital in Iraq is a nightmarish place where they don't have electricity yet. Where there's people sleeping on the floors; where the emergency rooms at night are flooded with people who have been shot and maimed in the chaos that breaks out after curfew."

But some reporters are still grappling with the criticism that their coverage has been too "negative." ABC's Baghdad correspondent Neal Karlinsky told Nightline that "there's a lot of good news stories here that we are trying to get out. And, quite frankly, news events sometimes get in the way of that. It's hard to work on a feature story about life in Baghdad getting back to normal when there is suddenly a car bombing that kills a half dozen people nearby." Karlinsky seems to be complaining that breaking news keeps getting in the way of reporting the news. CNN's Bill Hemmer wondered if life in Iraq could "also be better than what's being reported also. If you consider that these reporters, many of them tell us they want to go cover the new school opening, but they can't because there's another bombing or shooting and that prevents them from sending that story?"

But other critics note that "good news" is hardly the only thing missing from Iraq coverage. Seth Porges writes in Editor & Publisher that coverage of injured and wounded U.S. soldiers gets very little media attention. "For months, the press has barely mentioned non-fatal casualties or the severity of their wounds," writes Porges. "Few newspapers routinely report injuries in Iraq, beyond references to specific incidents. Since the war began in Mar., 1,927 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, many quite severely."

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, on the same day the Editor & Publisher piece was published, wrote that "we've had 900 wounded or maimed" in Iraq. Perhaps the fact that the Times so rarely publishes figures for wounded soldiers makes Friedman's error somewhat unsurprising; FAIR was able to find just one reference to the total number of wounded soldiers in the Times during the month of October. The paper did, however, run an editorial that mentioned the "mournful daily roll call of additional dead and wounded soldiers." Ironically, that roll call of the wounded is rarely published in the New York Times.

It is not unexpected for any administration to put forward its interpretation of news events. But the White House's aggressive pursuit of favorable news coverage threatens to squelch reporting on the actual human costs of the occupation. For example, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported on Oct. 21 that the White House is "banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases."

Whether they are based in Baghdad or in Washington, journalists are obliged to report the news on the ground, not as "good" or "bad" but as news, regardless of how it fits with the vision the administration would like Americans to see.
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