Hogan's Alley

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Dangers Of Reporting In Iraq

In yesterday's Week In Review section of the NY Times the superb John F. Burns, the Times' bureau chief in Baghdad, uses the release of Jill Carroll to reflect on the dangers of reporting in Iraq outside what he describes as, "beyond the world of armed guards, blast walls, checkpoints, sandbags and razor wire that have become de rigueur for all news bureaus in Baghdad."

Burns properly calls our attention to the virtual pact with death that reporters make when seeking to report from this terra incognita. When they do, they usually travel with bodyguards, armored vehicles and translators into pre-scouted territory, which makes the likelihood of this armada encountering anything resembling "real life" in Iraq impossible.

To not take on these precautions like Jill Carroll, who traveled only with a translator and dressed in the head-to-tow abaya of devout Muslim women, risked it all. According to Burns, 65 reporters, 45 of them Iraqi, have died covering the war. Further, in every instance the lives of the translators, drivers, guards who accompany them and are seen as "collaborators" by the insurgents are usually forfeit. Witness Ms. Carroll's translator, Allan Enwiyah, who was executed on the spot by her captors.

Burns recounts how he himself, along with eight others, was captured in Najaf prior to the Americans taking that Shiite holy city during the initial days of the war and was held for several hours before being released.

What do these realities mean for the quality of reporting from Iraq? Clearly it means that we will read reporting based largely on press releases. Press releases from the Coalition Forces, the Iraqi Government and the insurgents. The later, ironically, are often delivered in the form of a bomb, with the facts subsequently confirmed by press releases by the former. Add to this reality the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of TV news programming and the deeply felt anti-war sentiments of a large segment of the journalists and their editors and the results are predictable.

As has been the case throughout this war, the media pretend they are providing full and complete reporting, the public accept that what they see and read reflects the reality on the ground and public support for the enterprise withers. As it will forever on in future wars. No weaker force in the future facing a Western army will neglect the lesson of Iraq and assure that most of their country is unsafe for journalists. Any positive reporting about the progress of a war is now a thing of the past.

The important question is whether consumers of news in Western democracies will learn that reporting is not reality. We have not yet done so.

Now that we have learned that governments are not to be trusted in their almost universally positive spin on events and that our enemies have learned how to control the flow of negative spin, how does a citizen unearth to find the truth?