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Good News From Iraq: A Presidential Dodge or Attainable Goal?



Hand it to the Bush administration: in another bit of media jujitsu, public statements from the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense accusing the news media of underplaying so-called "good news" in Iraq has blunted attention to their own policies.

On the war's third anniversary, when reporters would normally be recounting the litany of missteps which got us into Iraq, parts of the news media have instead been asking about the fairness of coverage. And those questions have, of course, energized those GOP stalwarts who are dying to support this president and this war -- if only to avoid the growing pessimism about a conflict which has cost more than 2,000 American lives so far.

As Gayle Taylor from Columbus Ohio said during a press conference Wednesday: " "They just want to focus ... on another car bomb or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed or they just want to focus on how they don't agree with you and what you're doing, when they don't even probably know how you're doing what you're doing anyway. But what can we do to get that footage on CNN, on Fox, to get it on Headline News, to get it on the local news?... It portrays the good. And if people could see that, if the American people could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict."

It has become the question of the moment: everyone from Lou Dobbs to AOL asking consumers if the media is underplaying good news from the war (as if people whose only knowledge of the war comes from news reports can judge whether those reports are complete). What they are really asking, in this world of custom-built news, is whether the reportage from Iraq comports with what consumers expect or want to hear -- a much different question.

This is the challenge journalists face as news media move from a broadcast model to a niche model. In a broadcast world, those who gather content control the conversation, collecting news and presenting it to the biggest audience they can find. But digital technology has turned news into a niche game, where outlets must draw a smaller, specialized audience demanding news the way they want to consume it.

I looked at news coverage among the major TV networks on Tuesday, the day President Bush spoke about insurgents using the media to transmit their message, and indeed the news from Iraq was grim. Insurgents attacked a prison, freeing 30 inmates and killing 19 Iraqi policemen. A former guard at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison was found guilty of illegally using his dog to torture inmates. President Bush implied American troops would be in Iraq until after his term ended in 2008. And military authorities were investigating allegations U.S. soldiers had killed 11 members of an Iraqi family in retaliation for an attack.

In a day of news like this, would a story about an electrical plant opening or school rebuilt get much traction, anyway?

In a poignant column for American Journalism Review, a former press attache for the American embassy in Baghdad detailed the challeges facing all Western journalists trying to get a handle on Iraq: limited knowledge of language; limited ability to speak with Iraqi people for fear of kidnapping or attack; a lack of reliable statistics and information; Iraqi officials who couldn't grasp how to collect or release accurate information to reporters; and the paradox of bringing danger to areas simply by reporting on them.

"For example, we stopped taking reporters to the inaugurations of many reconstruction projects because, as we quickly learned to our dismay, publicity might invite a terrorist attack," wrote Robert J. Callahan. "On several occasions, one involving a school, terrorists struck the site and killed innocent people the day after an article or television story appeared. We concluded that good publicity simply wasn't worth the cost in lives and damage, and we stopped advertising them. It was frustrating, to be sure, but prudent."

Despite the danger, the fact that 91 journalists have been killed in Iraq so far and many more wounded (including ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff just recently released from the hospital), pieces like Richard Engel's excellent story on the dangers of reporting from Iraq can still sound a bit defensive. (Keith Olbermann took such umbrage to new heights, lambasting Laura Ingraham for suggesting reporters are phoning in Iraq coverage from hotel balconies, calling her "desperate" and "stupid.")

It seems obvious that tremendous practical limitations are making it tough for journalists in Iraq to do more than concentrate on the biggest news there -- a low-grade, guerilla-style civil war which may derail all our attempts to install a new government there. I predict we will see efforts to report on more "good news" from the region, if only to try balancing Americans' picture of a country where there is reconstruction and achievement alongside vicious violence and warfare.

But it's tough to turn your eyes away from the dead and dying, particularly when there is so much at stake.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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