School of Media and Communication

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How military could improve Iraq coverage by E. Thomas McClanahan

Posted on Tue, Sep. 13, 2005

How military could improve Iraq coverage

Can we win a war opposed by the media?

Take the case of Vietnam. The press was initially supportive of the war but then turned against it. Reporters portrayed the conflict as unwinnable, even though the tide was turning at the time U.S. forces began withdrawing. Relentlessly negative coverage contributed to the ultimate defeat.

In Iraq, the underlying message of the media is similar. This war has become unwinnable. We've taken on too much.

In one sense, most journalists always operate from a built-in bias: Most define news as something that went wrong, blew up, came apart or revealed incompetence.

Reporters are predisposed to play up the latest study on the latest crisis in nutrition or focus on where institutions are not functioning well. That's what the press is supposed to do.

Yet the coverage from Iraq is tainted by the additional bias of agenda journalism. It's no secret that many reporters covering the war see it as fraudulent or illegitimate. Many see it as a metaphor for American arrogance. All of this is fairly apparent from the coverage.

I supported the war. I don't think President Bush had any choice but to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But if I were against the war, I'd cover it precisely as it's being covered today - with a heavy emphasis on mayhem and U.S. casualties and far less attention to the slow but steady progress on the political front and what our forces are doing to the insurgents.

But one question rarely considered is this one: Is the military doing as much as it can to help get the broader story out? Probably not.

  Last year, a Rolling Stone piece on the Baghdad media detailed the unremittingly dangerous nature of the work. Because of the risk of death or abduction, most reporters are cocooned at one or two hotels, where they write reports based on telephone interviews, daily briefings, wire reports and Al Jazeera broadcasts.

According to the article, many were trying - without success - to become embedded with a U.S. combat unit, and not only because that would take them closer to the action. Many considered being embedded safer than working in Baghdad.

  In a report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey criticized the multinational coalition's public diplomacy, which he called a "disaster." U.S. authorities, he said after a trip to Iraq, "are not aggressively providing support (transportation, security, food, return of film to an upload site, etc.) to reporters to allow them to follow the course of the war."

  A Defense Department spokesman said that on average, there are only about two dozen embedded reporters in Iraq, although the number has jumped to 35 in recent days because of the ongoing military operation at Tal Afar.

Reporters quoted in the Rolling Stone article complained of long waiting lists for journalists seeking embedded status. But the Defense spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, said the door was open. Most news organizations, he said, "have opted to keep folks in Baghdad, given the limited resources they have in Iraq. & With embedding, you can cover the unit you're with, but it's hard to cover anything else."

  Some of the good news doesn't get out because military officials don't want it out. Michael Yon, a former Special Forces soldier who patrols with Army units in Mosul and writes about his experiences on a blog, observes that he is often told to publish nothing even when things go well.

"Just why the military considers some information 'classified' while other information gets the 'go ahead, write it' shrug, is not based on logic, science, or even one of those absurd but ironclad rules that codify so much of the military," Yon wrote.

"Many explanations for the military's requests not to publish certain information do not hold up well to scrutiny. For example, our soldiers capture or kill top terror figures in Mosul routinely, sometimes in stunning operations that display split-second timing. The 'higher ups' often say, almost reflexively, that they don't want the enemy to know about these kills or captures."

But why, he asks? After all, when a terrorist is missing, it's hardly a secret to his relatives and fellow terrorists.

Yon traveled to Iraq at his own expense because what he saw in the media differed greatly from what his friends in Iraq described. He wanted to see for himself how things were going.

That's one difference between this war and Vietnam. News consumers can find sources, like Michael Yon's blog, that frame the story differently from the line taken by the Baghdad media. Even so, if the Pentagon wants a better press, I'd say it should do more to encourage embedding, which would lead to more stories showing what U.S. forces are doing, as opposed to reports that focus on insurgent attacks. In short, the Defense Department should take McCaffrey's advice to heart.

To reach E. Thomas McClanahan, call (816) 234-4480 or send e-mail to

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