The San Antonio Express-News today has an intriguing article about the U.S. military's relationship with the press in Iraq. Apparently the GOP talking point from last year: "Why isn't all the good news being reported?" is, unbelievably, still making the rounds. I thought this spin had been dropped back in the spring, when Iraq deteriorated so visibly that it was impossible to deny the tragic situation there.
"You're looking at a city that didn't look very much different than any community in the United States," said Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy chief of the U.S. Central Command. "Traffic all over the place, people all over the streets, commerce going on, and they don't have mortars going off and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) blowing up and all that stuff all the time." Alas, no.
That's the Iraq he thinks many Americans never see or read about. It's an argument as old as the U.S.-led occupation and tends to be made by some in the military and supporters of President Bush. Once a whisper, the claim is now a roar. "You're not telling the good news stories," they say.
I once was amused by that refrain. Too many Americans don't know about life in Iraq, in part because they get most of their news from television, whose 90-second stories are driven more by sound bites than journalism.
Now I'm worried. It's convenient for the Bush administration and its supporters to make journalists the object of scorn for flawed policies and an obvious failure to do their homework. It is especially convenient to do so in an election year.
Journalists filing flimsy stories might be tired, stressed, under deadline pressure or lazy, but it's a stretch to imagine that any of us wake up in Iraq each morning thinking about how to trash Bush or the military.
Day in and day out, we try to find compelling stories. As we do that, we worry about being kidnapped or killed by IEDs and car bombs. Bush isn't on the radar.
Talk with Smith and it's clear he's fed up with the reporting. He is unhappy with some Arab outlets, which he said let all sides of a story say whatever they want — without checking to see if the claims are true.
(Hmmm. Sadly, that behavior sounds very familiar.)
Smith, Central Command's deputy chief, is weary of the Western media's focus on terrorist bombings, insurgent attacks and the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal. Such reports overshadow a "vibrant" economy in Baghdad, a city that has "an awful lot of activity that's positive."
Arkansas National Guard Spc. James Hess sides with Smith. Men are dying and that's bad, he said, but death is always a part of war. "You figure the time frame we've been over here versus some other wars, we ain't really losing a lot of men," said Hess, 34, of Arkadelphia, Ark.
"Whenever I talk to either my family or people I know they just hear, 'Oh, man, I heard somebody else got killed again. We were worried it was you.' And I said, 'Do you hear anything about the Iraqis getting the opportunity to rebuild?'"
There are good things happening, to be sure. Kids are going back to school. Garbage is picked up. Power is restored.
As he sat in his office July 8, after a two-day tour of Iraq with Express-News photographer Ed Ornelas and myself, Smith complained that Western media were still focused on Abu Ghraib.
"Abu Ghraib isn't a big story with the Arab media anymore. The turnover of the government, the future of Iraq, the folks that are dying senselessly, those are issues for the Arab media," he said. "But (the U.S. media) keeps wanting to get drawn back to this small group of people that humiliated a small group of Iraqis who in general were not good people to begin with."
"The deteriorating relationship between the civilian leadership of the Pentagon is troubling," said Dave Moniz, president of Military Reporters & Editors, an organization I co-founded after 9-11. "I think there is a lot of uneasiness and hostility just under the surface."
[Gordon Lubold, a reporter for Marine Corps Times] fears that commanders don't understand the role of journalists in a free society and instead want cheerleaders.
"There are successes: Bad guys get killed or caught. Schoolhouses get painted. There are also failures: People die. Equipment fails. Frustrations abound," he said. "But in trying to write candidly about a complex, rich story that I believe is fascinating, we're being perceived as bad actors. Reporters are becoming convenient scapegoats for the frustrations the military is feeling about its own mission."
The author's conclusion is hard to refute. Things must be very tragic in Iraq for these military officers to resort to talking points like "Nothing blew up in Mosul today," or "Compared to other wars, it isn't so bad."