The Post and the Whole Picture in Iraq

By Deborah Howell
Special to
Sunday, March 26, 2006 12:00 AM

When the Iraq war started, more than 700 reporters were "embedded," traveling with U.S. troops in the field. Embedding brought a newfound respect between reporters and soldiers. Members of the media and the military hoped that this would bring a new day of military-press relations and help bury the resentment that had lingered from the Vietnam War.

Most reporters left after the big battles, and now, after three years of slogging through the insurgency, covering the war is mainly the province of those few news organizations, such as The Post, that can afford to do so.

The Post's work (and that of other news media in Iraq) draws intense attention and a steady stream of complaints from readers, military and civilian, who say the coverage is excessively negative and too focused on violence.

It's clear that many of those readers see war coverage through their own political filters. One reader wrote a Post reporter a few weeks ago: "Be nice to see your traitorous ass shot." Another reader who writes frequently, Bob Youcker of Bethesda, said: "Iraq is a country the size of California. Is there not one good thing happening in the country?"

Those complaints anger journalists who risked their lives to cover a war in which 67 of their colleagues have been killed and many others, including ABC-TV's Bob Woodruff, have been injured. There are other risks; Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor is still held captive by terrorists.

After talking and corresponding with Post staffers and other journalists with Iraq experience and experts in and outside the military, I find no easy resolution to the complaints.

Here's why:

· The press corps is trained to see the story, and the war is the story. The Post has heavily covered the efforts to build a democracy, but the continuing insurgency and the lack of security for Iraqis are still the main news.

· Reporters are scrambling to keep up with daily events in an atmosphere so dangerous that Post reporters find it impossible to freely move and report.

· There is a built-in tension between the press, always skeptical of authority, and the military culture of respecting authority and keeping secrets.

About 60 Post journalists, from the buildup to the war through the insurgency, have covered the war by being embedded with troops in the field; by traveling on their own; and by interviewing Iraqi politicians and civilians in Baghdad and around the country. Many have been there several times. The Post has three full-time U.S. employees in Iraq: Ellen Knickmeyer, the bureau chief; Jonathan Finer, a correspondent; and John Ward Anderson, in a position through which Post reporters rotate in for six to eight weeks at a time. The Post also has four Iraqi reporter-translators: Naseer Nouri, Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim.

The staff has written hundreds of daily news stories and dozens of more in-depth pieces. A recent reporting trip by senior military reporter Thomas E. Ricks produced broad and deep stories on counterinsurgency training; civilians in Iraq; the 3rd Armored Cavalry's improvement from mediocre to outstanding performance; how doctors are holding up under grueling conditions; and how the Army published a study by a senior British officer criticizing . . . the Army. Military reporter Ann Scott Tyson's story on the importance of female helicopter pilots showed how far the military has come in integrating its fighting force by gender.

Ricks believes problems in the relationship between the military and press "grow out of the fundamentally political nature of the fight. The military wants to be judged in military terms -- 'look at all the bad guys we killed, and don't forget the school our soldiers painted.' But the media, which is trained to measure the politics of a situation, knows the answer isn't killing bad guys, and may not be painting schools. It probably is providing security to the people.

"Now the Army is adjusting much more swiftly than it did during the Vietnam War. These days, I think, many commanders do understand those principles, but when they assert to reporters that they 'get it,' the reporters remember that division commanders back in 2003 and early 2004 also claimed to 'get it,' but back then were wrong. After hearing so many false assertions of progress, coming on top of a war launched on false premises, it may have become harder for journalists to recognize genuine signs of progress when or if they do occur. Once bitten, twice shy."

Readers have had many complaints about how and where stories about Iraq are displayed. Many readers complained when The Post ran results of the vote on Iraq's new constitution deep inside the paper last Oct. 26. Post editors said there were several front-page stories on the run-up to the election, predicting what happened. That didn't satisfy readers or me.

Sometimes it's the timing. Marine Col. David Lapan, a public affairs officer in Fallujah until recently, has written to me often about this.

A Post story on bombings and civilian casualties in late December brought this note from Lapan: "We have successful elections, the level of violence goes down, [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] announces a troop reduction, and we're treated to a front-page Post story about civilian casualties, one that is not particularly topical since the combat actions it describes happened weeks and months before. The story itself was fairly balanced. But the perception it leaves is that the Post . . . had to find something 'negative' to write about in the midst of many 'positive' developments in Iraq."

The story in question, by Ellen Knickmeyer, was fair; such stories often take months of reporting, and when they are ready, they go into the paper. Additionally, The Post had reported on troop reductions on Page 1 and the decline in violence didn't last long.

Tension can be expected between the military and the press in wartime. Lapan gave what I think is an excellent description of the cultural difference between the military and the press: "Reporters are generally idealists, trained to be skeptical (some would say cynical) and we're generally optimists and realists. Reporters are taught to question authority; we're taught to follow it."

Cori Dauber, professor of communications studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, closely monitors the media, war and terrorism. She is a research fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and writes and runs the blog.

Dauber starts off with two biases. She supports the war in Iraq and thinks The Post "is the best newspaper in the country and its Web site is 'the gold standard.' " She also said: "Post reporters get out more than anyone. The answer is not to push reporters to get out more, but to be more transparent about the limits of their reporting" and how much is done by Iraqi staff members. The Post regularly credits its Iraqi staffers in bylines and taglines.

Dauber said that "the constant rotation through Baghdad is a problem. It means reporters don't know military culture or doctrine or rank or weapons. But I completely understand the reasons why it's a necessity to rotate. But by the time they learn where the bathrooms are, they're gone."

David Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, supervises The Post's Iraq coverage. He says that the reporters who rotate in and out of Iraq "often prepare extensively, and some, like Ricks, are experts in their field."

Post reporter Steve Fainaru, who recently completed a 14-month stint in Iraq, sees it this way: "Everyone wants to read their view of the war in your story. To me the only issue is whether our stories are real or not. I never got complaints from the people who were involved in the subject matter of the stories.

"The job of soldiering over there is incredibly difficult. I have tremendous respect for those guys. The criticism completely misses the point. Iraq is on the verge of civil war. Where's the good news?"

Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, echoed Fainaru: "I have a tremendous respect for the journalists over there. I don't want to minimize the danger of operating in Iraq. Journalists are the target of the insurgency. They have competing pressures with limited resources.

"The center of gravity is still Baghdad," Whitman added. Reporters "have to cover the Iraq political process and do daily military stories. They are limited" in being able "to do enterprise and Iraqi life-type stories."

Yet Whitman is frustrated because he says soldiers and civilian reconstruction workers return to the United States from Iraq and complain that what they see in the way of economic and military progress isn't represented in news coverage. "When planes crash, it's news. When they don't, it's not. In Iraq, when there's an explosion, they cover it. When the roads are open and commerce and people are moving, it's not terribly interesting news."

Kenneth H. Bacon, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Pentagon spokesman, can look at both sides of the problem. He is now president of Refugees International, a nonprofit advocacy group. "I can understand the administration's frustration. But I do think the press covered well the biggest success so far -- the political reconstitution of Iraq -- and the administration has gotten credit for what it's done."

Reconstruction, he said, "falls far short of a good story. Schools and hospitals are reopening and yet there are major complaints of a lack of gas, power and water and, most importantly, a lack of security. There has been a lot of fraud in the process with mismanagement or no management. Sure there have been achievements. But in the face of pervasive insecurity, what does the achievement mean?"

The dangers of reporting in Iraq have forced The Post and other bureaus to depend on Iraqi staffers. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, former Baghdad bureau chief and now assistant managing editor for continuous (online) news, said, "A lot of the reporting has to be by remote control. A lot of white-skinned Americans can't show up; it's way too dangerous."

That produces grumbling from military officials, who don't always trust Iraqi staffers or sources. But Chandrasekaran admires the Post's Iraqi staff: "They are professionals, from prominent and able families, often with multiple degrees. While it is difficult to engage in some kinds of reporting because of the danger, we have put our lives and our journalism in their hands again and again."

One of the Post's Iraqi staffers, Naseer Nouri, 48, was in the Washington area recently, attending a journalism workshop at the University of Maryland. Educated in the United States as a pilot and aircraft engineer, Nouri is now a Post special correspondent.

Why does he work for The Post, since it puts him in danger? Nouri said, "Of course, I'm afraid. I'm afraid I will die and not send the story. You have to be Iraqi to understand. I feel a responsibility. I cover the violence, the places [American] reporters can't go. If I don't go, who will cover it?"

What about good news? "Reporters report what they see. I can't remember good things not covered. We still don't have dependable electricity and water," Nouri said. But he doesn't want the U.S. military to leave. "Iraqis trust the U.S. military more than the Iraqi police and army," he said.

For journalists who want to be able to see the war up close, embedding with military units has been one of the most successful approaches. Under the program, reporters are given freedom to report in exchange for agreeing not to endanger units' operational security.

Reporters generally want such assignments where the action is; some commanders don't want a reporter's presence at all or retaliate against coverage they don't like by refusing embeds. Lapan and Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, head of the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) in Baghdad, said embed assignments go begging. But reporters say they can't get the assignments they want. The commander of any unit has to agree to the reporter's presence.

Lapan said: "In my opinion, the biggest benefit to the embed program is the development of reporters who better understand military operations, who can provide full context to the events they witness, something that doesn't normally occur when reporters rely on stringers or alleged eyewitnesses." He thinks it is "shortsighted" for commanders to turn down reporter embeds.

Johnson said that the CPIC "tries to support what the commander wants, since they're fighting the war. We don't turn down embeds at all. When we get a request, it may be very specific or broader. We go to the unit involved. They manage their own embeds. We don't force them to take anyone; we're not going to force anyone to interact with media. We may offer advice and talk to them about their reasoning. In the end, we respect the wishes of the unit."

Reporters also complain that some commanders won't take reporters and try to manipulate coverage. Fainaru said he was refused embeds and that one commander put him under armed guard and had him removed from embedding because he didn't like a story Fainaru had written.

Joe Galloway, a legendary military correspondent who works in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, said he was initially refused embeds as well. Galloway, co-author of a classic account of the Vietnam War, "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young," was offered embeds with logistics and support operations, when he wanted to be with combat troops. Galloway said that he told public affairs officers: "I've been covering the Marines for 41 years. I'll be happy to spend my whole time with the Army and I won't write the word 'Marine' in any story I do."

He ended up getting the embed assignments he wanted with the Marines and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "It was a horrendous situation, with the bad guys blowing up the police stations, beheading people and throwing their heads in the traffic circle. The Marines did a splendid job of restoring stability and security," he said of his experience in Tall Afar. Galloway said he felt much safer with the military than he did in Baghdad.

Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, now president of Klein Steel Service in Rochester, N.Y., was in Iraq until February 2005 and never turned down a reporter wanting to be embedded. He said that the stories those assignments generated were mostly "wonderful. You have to take a risk. We owe to the citizens of our country to tell them what is going on. You can't cover it from the Green Zone. I share everything with embeds. What we're after is balance. You have to open up; you're foolish not to. I never regretted taking them into my confidence."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has criticized press coverage; in a speech in December, he 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."

Citing polls by the Pew Research Center, Rumsfeld said the discontent was centered among what he described as the country's "elites." Asked about the likelihood of democracy taking hold in Iraq, he said, 63 percent of journalists polled and 71 percent of those in the foreign affairs establishment and in universities and think tanks predicted the effort would fail. By contrast, 64 percent of U.S. military personnel surveyed and 56 percent of the U.S. public were optimistic.

Hoffman's view: "Iraq is a country at war. We're stationed right in the middle of it. That's what we do, observe, describe, report. If we lived in a perfect world, we would see everything. You cover the war you got. The people who complain of the limitations ignore the reality of what courageous reporters do."

One critic of the coverage is John Dowd, a Washington lawyer: "I can't subscribe to your newspaper anymore because you have lost all sense of balance and perspective in your coverage of the war in Iraq and against the terrorists. It is clear to those of us who have our sons and daughters who are in harm's way that you support the terrorists and you are opposed to the efforts of our Marines, all who are sacrificing so that you are free to publish without interference."

Dowd's son Dan is a Marine captain, just back from his second tour as a helicopter pilot in Iraq. Dowd sees his son and other U.S. and Iraqi soldiers "as the most selfless people I've known in my life." I found his letter haunting; it pains me that he would think Post journalists support terrorists.

I have even found criticism of the coverage in the newsroom. Norrelle Combest, a Post copy aide, came by my office to say that The Post should cover more of the kind of support work done by the D.C. National Guard. She's a specialist fourth grade in the Guard and wants to see stories that present "the whole picture . . . something besides combat."

The Post's Jackie Spinner, who returned from Iraq in November after a year reporting there, sympathizes with these readers. "I deeply understand their need to read about a sense of mission." She covered reconstruction during most of her time there. "I wrote great news stories about reconstruction, but now it's much more difficult to get there.

"I don't think people understand how dangerous it is to travel. You're always a kidnapping target. I couldn't roam freely around the country and find these stories now because it's not safe." And she said there is a reluctance among reporters to automatically go to where the military thinks a good story might be: "We don't want to be manipulated."

"But when it's between covering a school opening in Kirkuk and 82 Iraqis getting killed in a bombing, the bombing is going to win. Death and killing are more of a priority." Spinner's book from her year in Iraq, "Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss and Survival in Iraq," has just been published to good reviews.

Galloway and Lapan used almost identical words to say they see relations between the military and the media headed the way of Vietnam. Galloway said: "It's not at that point yet, but there are signs of it." Lapan said: "I see things headed in the wrong direction. I don't think we're at the point we were post-Vietnam, but it's headed that way."

A Gallup poll of the public, the military and the media, commissioned for a McCormick Tribune Foundation conference on military-press relations, showed some sobering numbers. Seventy percent of the military believes the media are too negative and only 20 percent of the public believe the coverage is balanced. Seventy-two percent of the military think media access to military officials is sufficient. Only 16 percent of those in the media agreed that the level of access is sufficient.

The Pentagon doesn't depend on the news media to get out the military's story. It maintains numerous Web sites, and Central Command, which oversees Iraq operations, has an increasingly sophisticated digital video and image distribution system to get the military's story out to radio and television stations as well as hometown newspapers. Four hundred video clips and almost 100 radio interviews go out every month.

The Pentagon also is reaching out to bloggers writing about the military. Pro-war blogger Bill Roggio was invited late last year to embed with the Marines, and a story in The Post quoting him brought about 100 critical e-mails generated off Roggio's blog, . Roggio was mentioned in the lead paragraph of a Dec. 26 story by Jonathan Finer and Doug Struck, then doing a rotation in Iraq, on the military's efforts to get its story told favorably. Finer and Struck also wrote about the military's controversial Information Operations program, where Iraqi news media are asked to do stories that focus on efforts to help Iraqis' quality of life and to counter insurgents' attempts to influence coverage. Those stories are often backed up by cash payments.

Roggio was furious that he was mentioned in the same story with journalists paid to write favorable pieces. He said it looked like "I must be part of a nefarious scheme by the military to influence the perceptions on Iraq. All they did was extend an invite that is no different than extending an invite to any reporter. I was invited on my merit. I felt I earned the right to be embedded. I took the risk of leaving my family and job and financing this with donations. Then to see it put in this light, I felt very wronged."

Finer and Hoffman said any close reading of the story would have told readers that Roggio was not paid by the military. That is correct, but a more expansive explanation of the difference between the two programs would have been helpful.

Roggio embedded under the a Pentagon public affairs program that deals with the news media and runs military Web sites. Information Operations, on the other hand, is basically meant to influence coverage. The issue of blurred lines between the two has been raised both by the military and the press.

Lapan arranged Roggio's embed near Fallujah. In Lapan's view: "We have invited bloggers . . . to embed in an effort to tell the story. Bloggers, in my mind, are just another means to communicate accurate, truthful information about what we do. These are not Information Operations any more than embedding a reporter from The Post or the New York Times is."

"The crux of the matter: Public affairs . . . is meant to inform the public. Information Operations is meant to influence our adversary and local populations. PA is primarily directed at American audiences. IO is primarily directed at enemy and supporting foreign publics. By law, IO is not to be directed at the American people. The purpose of IO is to influence; the purpose of PA is to inform," Lapan said.

Finer, in an e-mail, said: "The decision to embed Bill Roggio, a widely read military blogger whose views on the war are well known, came at a time when the military was increasingly expressing frustration with coverage they were receiving in the mainstream media. It also came amid the revelation of efforts to influence coverage in the Iraqi press by paying journalists to publish favorable stories. The story sought only to document what appeared to be a growing effort on the part of the military, and the insurgency, to control the dissemination of information from Iraq. Incidentally, the military, as well as independent analysts, seemed to agree the war over information was picking up on both sides and the Marines I spoke with did not object to the portrayal of Roggio as part of that effort."

After spending time over the past few months talking to journalists and the military in Iraq and at the Pentagon, I kept coming back to two quotes.

One is from Bradley Graham, a longtime Pentagon correspondent for The Post who said at the McCormack Tribune conference: "With the nation embroiled as it is in a difficult conflict and national opinion increasingly divided over what should be done, it's particularly important for the media and military to try to get their relationship right."

The other is from military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks: "Blaming the media is like blaming the rain. It is part of the battlefield environment, and smart officers figure out how to use the environment to their advantage." Ricks is writing a book about the war, which will be published in September. The title is "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

Deborah Howell is The Washington Post's ombudsman, and can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at A shorter version of this column appeared in The Post on March 26, 2006.

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