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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Iraqi Bloggers, In the News And Critiquing It

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page C01

Omar Fadhil says the media are painting far too dark a portrait of Iraq.

Outsiders "think there is fighting at every corner, people can't walk the streets, the economy is devastated and people are starving," he says. "No one is showing the good news coming from Iraq. That's usually ignored. Things are difficult, but life is going on."

The press has confused Lani Guinier with Zoe Baird, above, both of whom were Clinton nominees but only one of whom didn't pay taxes for a nanny. (File Photo)

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Fadhil, 24, is a dentist in Baghdad. He and his two brothers are doing more than just griping about the coverage; they are at the forefront of the first wave of Iraqi Internet bloggers, engaging in a form of expression that was impossible under Saddam Hussein.

On a visit to Washington earlier this month, Omar and his sibling Mohammed, 35, who is also a dentist, found themselves ushered into the Oval Office for a meeting with President Bush after a last-minute invitation. The president asked their views on Iraqi politics and assured them that the United States will not leave until the job is done.

Pretty heady stuff for two men who had never before been outside their country.

In an interview, Omar and Mohammed described their excitement at being able to say what they think and reach about 7,000 people each day. Their English-language blog, IraqtheModel, is part journal, part travelogue and part political soapbox.

"In 35 years under the Saddam regime, we learned to protect ourselves" by not speaking out in public, says Mohammed. In fact, he hid from authorities for six years after refusing to join the Iraqi army. "Now we want to say in a loud and clear voice that we welcome American troops and consider this a liberation, not an occupation."

What makes these two men -- and a third brother, Ali, a pediatrician -- a refreshing presence on the Internet is that they are not professional bureaucrats or polished writers. They are a family of Sunni Arabs describing what they see and feel -- a revolutionary development in a country where Internet access had been previously restricted to a few government-approved sites and e-mailers were subject to arrest for hostile correspondence.

In true Internet fashion, they are already having a war of words with other bloggers who see them as American tools. These critics "insult us and apply the worst description to our efforts and hopes in building our country, many times going as far as disfiguring facts and using stupid conspiracy theories," Ali said in a recent posting.

After hearing that an oil pipeline had been blown up while he was driving toward Basra, Omar wrote that the majority of people in that area "make money from carjacking, kidnapping people for ransoms, smuggling drugs and weapons and even prostitution. In general they have no moral, religious or social values. What I can't understand is why the government hasn't done anything to stop those thugs from destroying the country's economy till now!"

Working with Spirit of America, a nonprofit group supporting projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Fadhil brothers are raising money for an Arabic-language blogging tool for their countrymen. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who has worked with the group, suggested to presidential aides that the two men "had interesting and inspiring stories and the president might be interested in hearing them," says White House spokesman Sean McCormack.

The brothers have also helped form the Iraqi Pro-Democracy Party. And they seem to have gotten more than a whiff of Western capitalism, using their site to sell IraqtheModel T-shirts and mugs.

Other Iraqi bloggers are more pessimistic. A woman who identifies herself only as Riverbend wrote recently of electricity shortages and all-night waits for gasoline, saying "the situation seems to be deteriorating daily." But the brothers offer themselves as evidence that life is improving. Under Hussein, says Omar Fadhil, who works for a government clinic, he made the equivalent of $1.25 a month. Now, in the same job, he earns about $160 a month.

The brothers talk about killings and kidnappings the way a Washington resident might ruminate on local crime -- sure it goes on, but not necessarily in my neighborhood. "The situation is dangerous in some localized spots," says Omar. "When there's 'a huge explosion shaking Baghdad,' I hear about it on the news, even though I live in Baghdad. The news is exaggerated many times."

"People outside Iraq are more worried than the Iraqis themselves," says Mohammed.

Still, given the level of violence, aren't they worried about using their real names on a provocative blog?

"We decided not to be afraid anymore," Omar says. "We're tired of being afraid."

Mistaken Identity

Do Lani Guinier and Zoe Baird look alike?

True, both are women. And yes, both were Bill Clinton nominees who didn't make it. But Guinier, who is black, had her nomination as assistant attorney general yanked because of controversy over her legal writings, while Baird, who is white, withdrew as attorney general-designate after admitting she hadn't paid taxes for a nanny.

Somehow, the New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post, Washington Times, Knight Ridder, Associated Press, CBS and "The Daily Show" all managed to cite Guinier as having a nanny problem in stories about Bernard Kerik's failed Homeland Security nomination. (Kerik had lots of other problems, too, which reporters were far better at ferreting out than the White House.) Some relied on a 1995 AP report that made the same mistake.

In a letter to The Washington Post, Guinier says she is still trying to correct public confusion about her ideas -- a task made "more difficult by inaccurate media reports" about a nonexistent nanny.

The Guinier controversy was "not that long ago," UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh writes on his blog. If reporters "can't even get the basic facts about it right, can we really expect them to report intelligently and accurately about Social Security, income tax reform, judicial nominations and a host of other important but complex issues coming down the pike?"

Suze Says

Should Suze Orman, the personal finance guru who hosts a weekly program on CNBC, be a pitchwoman in "Lock 'n' Roll" commercials for a General Motors loan program?

"I'm a commentator," she says. "My job in life has been to develop products and sell them -- whether it's my books or my will and trust kit."

But isn't she concerned that taking corporate money will compromise her independent image? "I get paid to do what I do," says Orman, adding that she has turned down other commercials. "This isn't about charity. It's about bringing you the best financial information I can." She says she wrote the ad herself because "GM was offering a financial deal that I thought was just too good for consumers to pass up."

CNBC spokeswoman Amy Zelvin sees no conflict of interest because Orman is "not an employee of CNBC. She's not a journalist." Why, then, has Orman been listed as CNBC's personal finance editor? The title "should have been more clear," Zelvin says, and has now changed to personal finance commentator.

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