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."
Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, says it's "a little hard to focus on positive stories when 10 men have just been blown up or bombs are going off every day. I think we do a pretty good job of balancing it."
The paper has written about schools opening and increased local commerce, Miller says, but "we get untold grief from readers if we don't put American deaths on the front page, which we don't do every time. We go out with the troops and we listen to the troops. When the troops are positive, we write it. When the troops are negative, we write it. . . . It's not like we blithely run out and look for bad news."
Iraqis who kill civilians also have a media strategy, says Time's Ware. "Terrorism by its very nature is a form of warfare in which the battle is for headlines," he says. "The insurgents know just the kind of things to do to garner publicity. But in the end, it's those events that dominate life here in Iraq and dominate the story."
Administration officials don't help their case when they are slow in providing the facts. As NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reported last week, the military initially said that 10 Marines killed outside Fallujah were on routine foot patrol but later revealed they had held a risky outdoor promotion ceremony.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita blames the "fog of war," saying, "The first reports are very often wrong." He says fuller coverage is "a two-way street. We're putting out a lot of information. We can always do better."
Rumsfeld cited as a positive development the emergence of "a vital and engaged media . . . with some 100 newspapers in Iraq now." He did not mention the Los Angeles Times disclosure that the Pentagon has paid some of those papers to carry positive stories written by military officers.
When Vice President Cheney says, as he did in June, that the insurgency is in its "last throes," journalists naturally start to wonder whether the administration officials are being candid. "As a balance to overly negative media coverage," Lowry says, "they give us overly positive statements."
The Miller Fallout
The wounds at the New York Times over the Judith Miller controversy still run deep.
Miller tells New Yorker writer Ken Auletta that she had threatened to sue her executive editor, Bill Keller, and the paper for defamation if Keller did not retract his comment questioning her "entanglement" with indicted former White House aide Scooter Libby. A Keller letter, saying he did not mean to suggest an improper relationship, paved the way for Miller's resignation last month.
Keller, for his part, says that when he was reviewing erroneous pieces on whether Iraq possessed illegal weapons, Miller "was defensive, unrelentingly sure of her positions and unwilling to be perceived as someone who wrote 'bad stories.' "
Miller insists that former executive editor Howell Raines "knew all of my sources" on the WMD stories, but Raines says he did not know and, "to my regret," never asked.
The Auletta article reveals bad blood between Keller and Raines, who beat Keller out for the top job in 2001 but was later forced out in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal.
"Of all the things Howell bequeathed to me, somewhere high on that list -- maybe higher than Judy Miller -- is his claim that the newsroom had become fat and complacent," Keller says. "That plays into what business sides of newspapers tend to believe. I think that was wrong. . . . I don't think he really believed it. I think he thought it would make him popular on the business side. . . . Howell campaigned for the job with the political skills we admire in Karl Rove."
Raines responds: "It was well known throughout the paper that I believed the Times needed to improve its journalism and its business practices. . . . Any reasonable person who read my editorial page could see that I did not pander to business or economic interests. . . . Bill knows that the cynicism, if any, ran the other way." Raines adds that former editor Joe Lelyveld "tried to cast me as a candidate of the business side in hopes of improving Bill's standing in the newsroom."
These folks sure play hardball.
Maureen Dowd was surprised -- make that "completely astounded" -- that the New York Times Book Review picked author Kathryn Harrison to write about Dowd's book "Are Men Necessary?" After all, Dowd had called Harrison "creepy" in her Times column in 1997, in reference to her book about a four-year consensual love affair with her father, and "vengeful" in another column.
"I have the right that every other author has, not to have the review assigned to someone whose book you've slammed," Dowd says.
Asked about Harrison's somewhat negative review, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says Review editors knew Dowd had made "passing negative references" to the Harrison book, and these were "quite tame" compared with those of some critics. "The editors were confident Ms. Harrison would review Ms. Dowd's book fairly, and her review justified that confidence."