TCS Daily

The Press and the War in Iraq

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 7, 2004 12:00 AM

The debate over media bias has reared its head yet again -- this time regarding press coverage of the war in Iraq. Some argue that the media is not covering the good news that is occurring in Iraq, and could potentially bring about policy decisions that may be based on a false popular view of the state of the war. Others believe that the most important news out of Iraq is bad news, and that it should therefore come as no surprise that media coverage of Iraq should be negative.

Recently, Michael Barone, and Mort Kondracke added their voices to the debate. Both argued that the alleged continued inaccuracy of the media could lead to deleterious policy consequences, and strongly took the media to task.

Whether the media are getting it right in covering events in Iraq is a question open for debate. And it is a legitimate debate to have. We must make sure that our information services are giving us the whole picture of what is happening in Iraq.

Unfortunately, even having that debate appears to be too controversial for some. In this article, blogger and American Prospect writer Matthew Yglesias makes a startling charge about those who criticize the media's coverage of Iraq:

". . . the political purpose of the theory [that everything in Iraq is fine except the media coverage] isn't hard to grasp. The groundwork is being laid for a new version of the "stab in the back" myth that helped destroy Weimar Germany. No matter how far south things go in Iraq, the blame will be laid not at the feet of the president who initiated and conducted the war, but rather on those who had the temerity to note that it wasn't working. Rather than the critics having been proven right, or so the story goes, the critics are to blame for the failure of the very policy they were criticizing. It's an ugly tactic, and as you go down the journalistic food chain, it grows uglier still."

The charge is astonishing. If Yglesias isn't actually accusing those who are critiquing the media of being Nazis, he is accusing them of stealing a page out of the Nazi playbook.

But contrary to the implication in Yglesias's piece, no one is asking that media coverage be Pollyannish in discussing what is happening in Iraq. Here is Barone, stating the central grounds of his complaint against the media:

"To the criticism that they report and overemphasize bad news, reporters say, correctly, that bad news is news. But in a country like Iraq, ruled by a vicious dictator for the last 35 years, good news is also news. Reporters readily fan out to find bad news. But they seldom seek the good news -- readily available in Iraqi and military weblogs and confirmed in polls of Iraqis -- that incomes, electricity, schools, water quality, medical care, religious freedom and security are improving in Iraq. Some reporters, as the Daily Telegraph's Toby Harnden reports from Iraq, deliberately avoid good news because they think it might help George W. Bush win re-election."

And here is Kondracke:

"The media -- unperturbed by mistakenly likening both the Afghan war and last year's invasion of Iraq to Vietnam - focuses overwhelmingly on the bad news coming out of Iraq. There is plenty of bad news - but there is also much good, and it is being almost completely ignored."

No one seeks a papering over of any of the problems that may exist in Iraq. Nor should anyone else request that bad news be pushed under the rug. But neither should good news go unreported. And there is good news to report -- as seen in the compilation posts found here and here. It is puzzling -- to say the least -- as to why we don't hear more about that good news.

Interestingly, Yglesias argues that "we got into this mess in no small part because of the media's reluctance to apply a proper degree of scrutiny to the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction and the likely postwar situation." However, if Yglesias is concerned about the media having bought into what he believes was an overabundance of optimism, shouldn't he be similarly concerned about the media possibly buying into an overabundance of pessimism? Surely, one extreme is not more acceptable than another, is it?

Most of those who critique the media's coverage of Iraq argue that there is a great deal more complexity in the situation than we see in our nightly news broadcasts and on the front pages of our newspapers. As such, the best policy to pursue is to demand that we get both the good and bad news from Iraq. The contention that there is good news to report from Iraq may be debatable, but that debate would go a lot better if one side didn't inch so dangerously close to muddying the discussion with tired and inapt comparisons with Nazis. That way distraction lies.


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