Bad News, Too Often Traveling First Class?

Donald Rumsfeld says the media overemphasize violence in Iraq.
Donald Rumsfeld says the media overemphasize violence in Iraq. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

With American soldiers being killed almost every day, there is no shortage of bad news from Iraq. But are journalists painting an unduly dark portrait?

"I understand there may be great pressure on many of them to tell a dramatic story," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week. "And while it's easy to use a bombing or a terrorist attack to support that interest, it is not always the most accurate story, or at least not the full story."

Michael Ware, Time's Baghdad correspondent, calls this administration spin.

"It is so far from the truth on the ground it's almost indescribable," he says. "The defining quality of the Iraq story is the horror. It is a war, and it is awful, and bloody, and vicious, and brutal on all sides. To devote your energies to making that day's story the opening of a health clinic is almost irresponsible."

It is an age-old debate, made all the more urgent by the rising death toll, this week's Iraqi elections and growing public pressure for a pullout. Suicide attacks and roadside bombs are clearly news, both depressing and depressingly easy to cover. When Saddam Hussein can't be tried without a judge and two lawyers in the case being murdered, chaos will loom large in the coverage. The slow building blocks of progress, from economic gains to improved infrastructure, are more episodic and abstract. And the dangerous conditions for journalists make it hard to roam the country and chronicle the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Privately, at least, some journalists say Rumsfeld has a point. But there is no shortage of critics. David Halberstam, the author and former Vietnam correspondent whose reporting led John F. Kennedy to demand that the New York Times recall him, says Rumsfeld is starting to resemble that era's Pentagon chief, Robert McNamara.

"When the policy doesn't work, shoot the messenger," Halberstam says. "When the policy doesn't work or is seriously flawed, you go after the press, and certainly that happened in Vietnam. What was particularly odious is that if we were writing pessimistically, they'd say we were insulting the soldiers of an ally and insulting the U.S. military. As the people in the field were suppressed, they turned to the journalists, and we became their outlets."

Relations between reporters and the military have generally improved since the bitterness of Vietnam. But during a recent stint as an embedded correspondent in Iraq, Pamela Hess of United Press International said the question most frequently asked by soldiers was: "Why do you guys only report the bad news?"

In his speech, Rumsfeld said: "We've arrived at a strange time in this country, where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact."

The day after the speech, a suicide bomber killed 36 at a Baghdad police academy, and that became the story of the day.

Many conservatives see a clear imbalance. National Review Editor Rich Lowry says the dangers of the airport road to Baghdad were long treated by the media as a metaphor for Iraqi instability -- until U.S. forces finally made it safer, which generated few stories (in The Washington Post and USA Today, for example).

"When something goes wrong in Iraq or there's a possibility of something going wrong, it gets very big play," he says. "And if the situation improves or doomsday doesn't come about, it gets almost no play. There's a tendency by a lot of the media to believe the worst of the military. A lot of reporters are skeptical of the war and of Bush, and their coverage tends to conform to that point of view."

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