The Magazine

Bad Reporting in Baghdad

From the May 12, 2002 issue: You have no idea how well things are going.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By JONATHAN FOREMAN
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IT'S ENDLESSLY FASCINATING to watch the interactions between U.S. patrols and the residents of Baghdad. It's not just the love bombing the troops continue to receive from all classes of Baghdadi--though the intensity of the population's pro-American enthusiasm is astonishing, even to an early believer in the liberation of Iraq, and continues unabated despite delays in restoring power and water to the city. It's things like the reaction of the locals to black troops. They seem to be amazed by their presence in the American army. One group of kids in a poor neighborhood shouted "Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson" at Staff Sergeant Darren Swain; the daughter of a diplomat on the other hand informed him, "One of my maids has the same skin as you."

It's things like the way the women old and young flirt outrageously with GIs, lifting their veils to smile, waving from high windows, and shyly calling hello from half-opened doors. Or the way the little girls seem to speak much better English than the little boys who are always elbowing them out of the way. Or the way the troops get a sense of the gender violence endemic in the culture: Yesterday in the poor al Sahliya neighborhood two sweet 12 to 14-year-old sisters on a rooftop who introduced themselves to me and Staff Sergeant Gannon Edgy as Souha and Samaha were chased away by a rock-wielding male relative. His violent anger hinted at problems to come here.

But you won't see much of this on TV or read about it in the papers. To an amazing degree, the Baghdad-based press corps avoids writing about or filming the friendly dealings between U.S. forces here and the local population--most likely because to do so would require them to report the extravagant expressions of gratitude that accompany every such encounter. Instead you read story after story about the supposed fury of Baghdadis at the Americans for allowing the breakdown of law and order in their city.

Well, I've met hundreds of Iraqis as I accompanied army patrols all over the city during the past two weeks and I've never encountered any such fury (even in areas that were formerly controlled by the Marines, who as the premier warrior force were never expected to carry out peacekeeping or policing functions). There is understandable frustration about the continuing failure of the Americans to get the water supply and the electricity turned back on, though the ubiquity of generators indicates that the latter was always a problem. And there are appeals for more protection (difficult to provide with only 12,000 troops in a city of 6 million that has not been placed under strict martial law). But there is no fury.

Given that a large proportion of the city's poorest residents have taken part in looting the Baathist elite's ministries, homes, and institutions, that should tell you something about the sources preferred by the denizens of the Palestine Hotel (the preferred home of the press corps). Indeed it's striking that while many of the troops I've accompanied find themselves feeling some sympathy for the inhabitants of "Typhoid Alley" and other destitute neighborhoods and their attempts to obtain fans, furniture, TVs, etc., the press corps often seems solidly on the side of those who grew fat under the Saddam regime. (That said, imagine the press hysteria that would have greeted a decision by U.S. troops to use deadly force against the looters and defend the property of the city's elite.) Even in the wealthiest neighborhoods--places like the Mansoor district, where you still see intact pictures of Saddam Hussein--people seem to be a lot more pro-American than you could ever imagine from reading the wires.

Perhaps this is just another case of reporters with an anti-American or antiwar agenda. Perhaps living in Saddam's totalitarian Baghdad has left some of the press here with a case of Stockholm syndrome. It may also be a byproduct of depending on interpreters and fixers who were connected to or worked with the approval of the Saddam regime. And you cannot underestimate the herd instinct that can take over when you have a lot of media folk in a confined area for any length of time. But whatever the cause, the result has been very selective reporting.

The Associated Press's Hamza Hendawi, for instance, massively exaggerated and misrepresented the nature of the looting in Baghdad in the first days after the U.S. armored forces took key points in the city. Like so many Baghdad-based reporters, she described an "unchecked frenzy" that did not exist at that time (the looting was targeted and nonviolent, in the sense that the looters attacked neither persons nor inhabited dwellings). Read her pieces and you'll meet a veritable parade of Iraqis who are angry with the United States.