On June 7, one of the most revealing stories to come out of Iraq appeared on page A15 of The Post. That it wasn't on the front page surprised me and a number of readers. But that's another story. The report, by veteran war correspondent Daniel Williams, took the reader on a rare and dangerous trip beyond the checkpoints and inside Fallujah, where masked and unruly gunmen hold sway. On the road back to Baghdad, the armor-plated SUV that Williams and his driver were traveling in was attacked by gunmen from another vehicle and sprayed with dozens of bullets from AK-47 assault rifles. The SUV spun out of control, but the armor did its job and the two men survived.
About a week later, an attempted kidnapping near the Abu Ghraib prison of another Post reporter was thwarted at the last minute by some U.S. Marines who spotted what was happening.
More than 30 journalists have been killed in Iraq. Many others have had close calls in recent months. New York Times reporters, for example, have been abducted and held for several hours. A two-car caravan carrying CNN correspondent Michael Holmes was raked by AK-47 fire. He escaped but two Iraqi employees of CNN were killed.
These episodes came to mind last week after congressional testimony by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Asked by Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) about "the tendency to report on bad news rather than good news for whatever reason," Wolfowitz said, "frankly part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors. And rumors are plentiful. Our own media," he went on to say, "have some responsibility to try to present a balanced picture, instead of always gravitating for the sensational. And the violent is always sensational."
That night, CNN anchorman Aaron Brown led off his "NewsNight" broadcast this way: "First of all, we don't publish rumors. Second, reporters, ours and others, travel a good deal. They went to Fallujah during the nastiness there. They were in Najaf. They're in Basra tonight. They have also gone to schools and hospitals and lots of other places to present the most balanced picture they can of what life is like. But the fact is that life in Iraq today is dangerous. Listen to what the Iraqis say. Listen to their fears about leaving their homes in Baghdad. Listen to their new government talk about the possible need to impose martial law. Iraq isn't black or white . . . but to argue, as Mr. Wolfowitz implicitly does, that security and violence are not the major story is about as correct as his argument to Congress that the reconstruction would be self-financing and that the Iraqis would welcome us with flowers."
There is no doubt that Iraq has become exceedingly dangerous for journalists and that the escalating violence of recent months has inhibited traveling and interviewing of Iraqis. The Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news, Phil Bennett, discussed the implications of this in the Outlook section on June 6. "Gone is the assumption," Bennett wrote, "that correspondents are more valuable as witnesses than as targets. To insurgents, foreign journalists are foreigners first, just another element of an occupying force to which we don't belong."
Reporting, nevertheless, is going on. Risks are still being taken, but in a more calculated fashion. Wolfowitz has been a leading proponent and explainer of the war in Iraq. But his answer to Saxton seemed to me both mean-spirited, suggesting cowardice, and wrong. On Thursday, he issued an apology in a letter to "journalists covering Iraq."
Yet Wolfowitz is hardly alone in arguing that "the media picture seems to be unbalanced." Some readers regularly make that claim to me. "There is and has been plenty of good stuff going on in Iraq, but you won't find it reported in The Post; schools rebuilt and functioning, kids with their shots, the entrepreneurial spirit starting to flourish and more," writes one.
It is true that a lot of people are trying to do good things in Iraq and some are succeeding. The Post has run several stories reporting such accomplishments. Many were included in a well-reported, three-part series that began last Sunday by Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran that captured the clash between ideals and realities. Some other Post headlines this year: "In Iraqi Towns, Electoral Experiment Finds Some Success"; "Soldiering On to Rebuild Iraq; Civil Affairs Takes On Tough Task"; "U.S. Plan Seeks to Build Civilian-Run Iraqi Army"; and "A Different Street Fight in Iraq; U.S. General Turns to Public Works in Battle for Hearts and Minds." Most of these were on the front page.
But there is no real "balance" in this story, because there is no real balance thus far in what is happening in Iraq. The conflict does not resemble the prewar portrait painted by Wolfowitz and others. The insurgency is more fierce, widespread and costly than forecast and the lack of security, naturally and properly, dominates the news.
Before the war, Wolfowitz also told Congress that estimates by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of troop strength needed to provide stability in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq were "wildly off the mark." That phrase now might be applied to Wolfowitz's more recent comments. Over time, history will provide a more definitive judgment about who has been publishing "rumors," the press or the policymakers.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.