Flacks and Hacks in Baghdad
What it's like to report from Iraq.
Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By NOAH D. OPPENHEIM
BAGHDAD IS A GIFT to the cynical. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has erected miles of concrete blast barriers along major roads. Every entrance to the "Green Zone" is barricaded behind sandbags, razor wire, and at least one parked tank. Checkpoints, fortifications, large guns--the trappings of occupation are unavoidably ugly, and, in Iraq, little has been done to beautify them. It is no wonder then that so many reporters, finding their worst suspicions confirmed during the ride from the airport, never see past the cement walls.
Four weeks ago, MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" asked me to go to Baghdad in search of the story most of the mainstream media were missing. The network's vice president knew I was a supporter of the war, and suggested I find out if things had really gone as horribly wrong as the evening newscasts and major print dailies reported. What I found is that, in Iraq, the mounting body count is heartbreaking, but the failure of American journalism is tragic.
First, some popular illusions that need to be dispelled: Most correspondents for newscasts do very little, if any, actual reporting. They assemble the visual elements of a jigsaw puzzle whose shape is dictated by an unholy deity--"the wires." Every day, the Associated Press and Reuters offer an account of the major events in Iraq. If a bomb has exploded or an American soldier has been killed, that is the day's major event. Barring that, an alarming comment from an American official, like Ambassador Paul Bremer or General Ricardo Sanchez, will suffice.
Once the wires have dictated the day's headline, television correspondents sometimes venture into the field. However, the purpose of leaving their fortress hotels is rarely to collect information. True, sometimes they'll elicit a soundbite that fits their preconceived notion of the day's narrative. More often than not, they simply need a scenic backdrop in front of which to recite their lines. Even this is optional. I have watched correspondents "report" stories having never actually left the bureau.
Which is not to suggest these correspondents are lazy. This is simply the way it's done. The wire services now all have television divisions that provide video, in addition to copy, to all subscribers. Why send a correspondent and crew to a dangerous place if the pictures have already been recorded and the facts already written down?
The consequence of this system is that, on television, the story in Iraq is no more than the sum of basic facts, like casualties, crashes, and official pronouncements. Such things are important and should be reported. Unfortunately, when you add to the mix time constraints and the herd instinct--the general reluctance to depart from the story line common to all the major media on a given day--little else makes it on the air.
Beyond this structural failure, there is a problem of attitude. Along with freedom, America has brought to Iraq the notorious Red State-Blue State divide. Most journalists are Blue State people in outlook, and most of those administering the occupation are Red. Many of those who work for the Coalition, including civilians, carry guns. This either amuses journalists or makes them uncomfortable. Most of those who work for the Coalition are deeply invested, emotionally, in the success of America's enterprise in Iraq. (How else to explain why someone leaves an apartment in Arlington to live in a trailer in Baghdad and endure mortar attacks?) Most journalists did not support this war to begin with, and feel vindicated whenever the effort stumbles.
Journalists will point out that they, too, are braving significant risks and discomfort to do their jobs. This is true, but would carry more weight if it seemed they were doing their jobs well. Instead, their sense of peril fuels a certain self-aggrandizement and sometimes a selfish myopia.
I recall a conversation with a talented writer for a major American newspaper. I had recounted the productive and impressive time I'd spent with the 101st Air Assault Division and expressed my admiration for their public affairs officer, Major Trey Cate. This writer said that he loathed Major Cate, indeed, hated him beyond words. Why? First, he accused the major of being a bully and a liar.
Then the writer explained that his translator had recently been killed in Mosul, the 101st's area of responsibility, in an act of Iraqi-Iraqi violence. The writer had called Major Cate to ask him what the U.S. military was doing to investigate the death of his translator. Cate responded that he was unaware of the incident. This was a reasonable response given that in many parts of Mosul, the Iraqi police are now handling criminal investigations. According to this American journalist, however, Cate's reply was unconscionable and indicative of the military's general indifference to the welfare of Iraqis.