Misplaced Blame: The Media’s Performance in Iraq

Throughout the Iraq war, the Bush administration has complained about the tenor of media coverage in Iraq. Paul Bremer did so during the first year of the American presence there, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as well as Vice President Dick Cheney make the point repeatedly. The complaint that we see only the bad news, not the good, has become increasingly prevalent within the U.S. armed forces as well.

This problem is potentially serious. Many critics of the media believe that negative coverage could cost the United States the war. By their reasoning, the only way we could lose in Iraq is if our national resolve falters, and the only way that could happen is if Americans gain an unfairly pessimistic view of trends within Iraq due to the media’s fixation on violence and other bad news.

To be sure, the quality of media coverage about Iraq is uneven. Some reporters are simply more entrepreneurial, or more courageous, or more fully aware of the inherent challenges of counterinsurgency warfare, than others. And as any viewer of almost any 11 o’clock news show knows, TV in particular tends to lead with violence rather than positive stories.

But the broad argument by the American media’s critics is often badly overstated. While the overall image of Iraq conveyed by the mainstream media may be somewhat more negative than reality, it is not far off. If we lose in Iraq, it will most likely be because of events on the ground there, not a prematurely wavering political support here.

In fact, one can make a reasonable argument that the American public’s view on Iraq is just about where it should be given the facts. The public is enormously impressed by our troops, but depressed about the general lack of major progress on the ground and upset with the Bush administration for overpromising and underpreparing in regard to the war. Yet it still hangs with the effort — after having stayed with the president who took us to war during his re-election bid in 2004 — because the alternatives all look worse.

Consider how things are going, and how they are being reported, in each of the three major areas we are emphasizing in Iraq — security, economics and politics. On the latter, the American media has for the most part accurately reported the horse-trading, backroom dealing, and maneuvering that has been prevalent in liberated Iraq, as it is in most of the world’s democracies. In fact, the impressive steps toward democracy we have witnessed in Iraq the last couple of years have inspired Americans and peoples the world over, largely because the media has covered them thoroughly and fairly.

But it is equally true that Iraq remains a long way from the type of strong political consensus needed to form a coalition government and address the key challenges that country faces. The American media cannot be blamed for failing to turn bickering between Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani, Muqtada al-Sadr and others — which is beginning to turn into political paralysis that increases the chances of civil war — into a happy narrative.

On economics, it is true one can find positive news stories all over the place. In a country of 25 million, where the United States has been spending more than $5 billion a year and high oil prices have also brought in large amounts of money, there are countless accounts of newly successful businessmen, of schools opening and telephone services mushrooming and TV satellite dishes sprouting, of bustle in the streets and cars on the road. To the extent the media should view its job as bucking up American morale, it could perhaps be criticized for not telling enough of these stories.

But is morale boosting really the role of media in a free society? Presumably, reporting reality is its main job. And despite the good anecdotes, the reality is simply not that good. For all the good economic stories, the performance of infrastructure remains at or below Saddam Hussein levels in oil production, electricity production and distribution, water and sanitation services, and transportation infrastructure.

Availability of heating and cooking fuels has declined substantially below estimated requirements. Unemployment remains 30-40 percent, perhaps higher in Sunni Arab regions.

Some initial data from the U.S. government in 2004 suggested more Iraqi children were in school, and more getting vaccines and adequate food supplies, than under Saddam. But those data have largely dried up, or become anecdotal rather than systematic, making it hard to conclude that health care and educational systems are performing very well either.

To be sure, there are not enough probing media stories about economics in Iraq. But from what the data show, it is hardly clear the additional stories, if told, would be mostly good.

On security, it is true the media have perhaps covered the violence too much, just as they do here at home. It is also true there have been other specific mistakes, such as the tendency to fixate only on how many Iraqi units are in the top state of readiness (typically 0 or 1 battalion at a given time) rather than the more important indicator of how many are at least reasonably competent.

But the Bush administration itself bred skepticism about the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces in the first year after liberation by constantly overstating progress made. It has taken a while for the journalistic corps to build up confidence in the training programs undertaken by Gens. David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey since spring 2004. Now, however, that story is getting out. The media are reporting frequently on how many raids are led by Iraqis, how many cities are primarily in the hands of Iraqis, and so on.

Still, let us remember that even recent events hardly constitute an unblemished success. Iraqi units may be more proficient technically at present. But they are poorly integrated ethnically and not yet truly dependable politically.

Moreover, just as with Iraq’s high unemployment rate, some bad stories about security have actually been underreported. For example, leaving aside the war, Iraq has far and away the highest criminal murder rate in the greater Middle East. And stories about how many Iraqis are being kidnapped only tend to be told when an American like Jill Carroll makes the news.

To be sure, journalists are missing lots of stories in Iraq. But the ones they miss are just as often bad as good. To be sure, journalists are human too. But if they have faults, they are more inclined to be ultracompetitive to beat the competition to a good headline than to deliberately work against the interests of the Bush administration or the United States.

And while those in Iraq are not facing the same risks as front-line troops, they are taking casualties at rates comparable to higher-ranking American officers.

Let’s not expect people reporting from a war zone to have a particularly happy set of messages to convey. Rather than habitually berate the media, we should read their critical stories for insights into where our policy may be failing and how it can be improved in a war that we truly must win.