TCS Daily


Live Bait: Grunt with a Camera Eye

By Max Borders - June 15, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's note: J.D. Johannes is a former Marine Sergeant and embedded reporter who linked up with his old Marine Corps unit for syndicated TV news reports on the current conflict in Iraq. He sat with Max Borders for an interview about his experiences.

Max Borders: How did you end up going to Iraq?

J.D. Johannes: It started in the fall of 2004. In early winter, I sat down with my insurance agent who used to be my old first sergeant in the Marines. And he told me elements of my old reserve unit were going to be deploying to Iraq in the spring of 2005. Right then it just crystallized what I wanted to do and what I needed to do, because I knew that their story of a group of guys -- a group of reserve Marines from Kansas City -- going into Iraq was not going to be told by the major media unless I went along.

Because from the perspective of local media, there's really only four templates for the Iraq story: unit leaves; unit comes home; someone's hurt really bad and dies; and a wife of a reservist or guard member who's getting screwed over by the mortgage lending company.

But you never get to see the guys over there doing the work, risking their lives and performing great things on a daily basis. I figured I could go over there and I've worked in television for years in the past. I could go over with a camera, a laptop computer and I could syndicate television news reports back to local markets where the actual reservists were from.

Borders: So based on your personal observations and the work you were doing there, what's one of the biggest stories the mainstream media has missed?

Johannes: The reality sunk in very quickly. As you watched on the news early on, all you saw was the bombing, shoot outs, and explosions. What you didn't see was the day in, day out boredom of the war.

Where I was -- with this group of marines in 2005 around the Fallujah AO -- we (the unit) would spend days and weeks trying to get into a shoot out -- attempting to get into a shoot out. I know that sounds absolutely insane, but that's the only way that you can engage the enemy. And when you have an enemy that you have to work so hard to bait out into the open, you're not dealing with a very strong enemy. You're dealing with a very annoying enemy. A very deadly enemy. But not a very strong enemy.

They would have to set up these incredibly complex ambush-bait-and-kill operations where one group would be the bait to lure somebody out so you could actually engage the enemy, and it took a lot of time to do that. What you didn't see were the days and days on end where nothing happens -- nothing more than eating some flat bread, drinking some tea, playing a little soccer, buying some soda pops at the soda stand, hanging out with the locals and getting a sunburn.

The news media template is: if it bleeds, it leads. They have to work really hard at finding stories besides the explosion outside of Baghdad in the daily car-bombing. It's a time-consuming process that the media is not willing to invest in. Nobody wants to cover a bunch of Marines who go out on a week long operation and the highlight of the operation is that they're invited to the wedding of the sheik's son.

Borders: Do you think that's news?

Johannes: It does show how we've progressed in that country; how much things have changed. I had the opportunity about a week ago to be a part of a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute with Bing West. Bing West wrote the book, "No True Glory", which is set in the Fallujah area in 2004. I was in Fallujah area in 2005, still a dangerous place, but completely different from what Bing was writing about in 2004 when the place was a daily shoot-out -- when there really was a gun fight every day. Now, it's completely different. The level of hostility and violence has plummeted, and that, of course, has been missed by the media.

Borders: Nobody is going to want to read the story about the soldiers who were in the dessert getting sunburned. But what other kinds of things will they want to read about and that the mainstream media is missing?

Johannes: The daily successes. The Marines would joke about this. Their MOS [military operation specialty] was in 0311 or 0352 is 0350 as in infantry police officer. You gather Intel. You set up ambush and bait-and-kill operations. You track down a bad guy when they were bringing in a bad guy every other day. Finding a weapons cache every other day in the area... But those weren't the things making the headlines.

Capturing a wanted, low-level terrorist in Amiriya is a big success in that area. Would there ever be a story on it? No. One reason is there wasn't a reporter there when the individual was captured. Even though there was a compelling story in how they gathered the Intel, tracked the person, conducted a raid on the suspect's home, captured them, etc. A big success not covered in the media. What is covered is a car bombing in Baghdad. What happens on aggregate is you get a distorted view of the war that shows only car bombings and few successes, when there are successes every day -- little successes that add up.

Borders: So it sounds to me like this phenonomenon is a mix of an urge to find "real" stories -- something that can actually get into print -- and reporters' ideological baggage. Do you believe that objectivity in journalism is even possible with those kinds of dual pressures on journalists?

Johannes: Journalists are human beings. I mean, we come into everything with our own personal views, which are formed by our experiences; how we're brought up, the way we view things. It's impossible to say that people can be blank slates.

One of the biggest flaws in the media -- and I wouldn't exactly always put it on individual reporters themselves -- the problem is in the structure of the overall media coverage. You just have a handful of reporters covering a major conflict in a large country. The pressure comes in the various complexities of covering Iraq.

Case in point: I get a call (about a month or two ago) from a TV news director who had known what I had done in Iraq. He was hoping I was still there so he could hire me to go out and do what I had done in the past because there was a reserve unit from their area being deployed. But the parent affiliate said: "nope, we don't leave the Fortified Hotel -- ever." So a lot of the employers aren't willing to bear the risk. And that is the structural program that really tilts the war.

Also, and this is probably the most disturbing part, many journalists have not figured out that they're being targeted by the enemy on purpose to help shape the coverage of the war. The insurgents don't want the reporters out and about running around. They're completely satisfied with the "balcony" report and some video shot by a stringer of the daily car bomb. That's the message that the insurgents want to get out. They don't realize that warfare is both the kinetic and non-kinetic. And, therefore, they miss how they're being played by the insurgents. I wish more reporters realized that.

Borders: Would we better off with more reporters -- even at the risk of getting stories of bored soldiers in the dessert?

Johannes: More would be better. I've pointed out before that at the height of the Michael Jackson trial, there were some 2,200 credentialed reporters covering that trial. At the height of the invasion, there were 450-some credentialed reporters embedded with the coalition, and probably a couple 100 others out running around on their own, doing a great job. The number of -- especially of western reporters credentialed in Iraq -- is very small. And that does a great disservice to the American public. Because news forms history, which informs public opinion, which shapes foreign policy for generations to come.

Borders: You were one of the folks in-and-around Abu Ghraib when it was attacked in April of last year. Can you relate that story?

Johannes: I was, to my knowledge, the only Western reporter anywhere close at the time. And we (the platoon) had been conducting a complicated ambush operation along the major highway next to Abu Ghraib that runs between the Fallujah and Baghdad. It's a six lane superhighway and we'd been out there as bait for several days -- two, three days ahead of time. It seemed like forever because we were going 24 hours a day. And we're rolling out of the main gate of Camp Fallujah and we hear the artillery going: BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM... "Wow!" we said, "something big is happening!" We didn't realize we were driving right into it.

Another unit that had been out on the road had taken an ambush heading into Abu Ghraib. They were just two vehicles, so they got pinned down and they weren't going to get positioned to have a maneuver element. We rolled up about a click outside Abu Ghraib already, still coming in. Contacts were coming. Stray bullets were flying around. A few snapping here; a few snapping there. Not a live fire-fight because it's down in a village and the Marines are not going to unload into a civilian housing area. So, we got to do it the old fashion way.

While the fight's going on at Abu Ghraib -- a mile down the road of the prison -- we're encountering forces that were retreating back into this village the canal country around it. It was all over in about an hour, maybe two. And we move on with the rest of the mission. "Hey, that was cool" -- go on with the rest of the mission.

Three days later, we're done with the operation and it was successful. The Marines had made it and killed several ID teams. We come back to the base and we're sitting in the chow hall and it's all over the news on CNN, and Fox News. "Abu Ghraib a hotbed of insurgent activities." "Is this a new turn in the war?" We were like "Wow. That was really big news, wasn't it?"

Borders: How was it big news if you were the only one there?

Johannes: Because we heard about it after the fact. And the media had heard about it after the fact. It was a pretty big shoot out, but it was an absolutely dismal failure on the part of the insurgency. Their goal was to break down a wall and free the prisoners. They didn't make it. A very few of them even made it to the wall. Most of the insurgents, however, were gunned down in the open field.

No Americans were killed; a few Americans were injured, obviously with shrapnel, but actually more inmates were injured -- by shrapnel from the insurgents. So all they succeeded in doing was creating a lot of martyrs for their own cause and injuring the people they wanted to free; an absolute failure militarily.

But in the media, the fact that they could even put together an 80-man force to attack that base - "that's a sign of strength of the insurgency, right?" Never mind that they got their asses handed to them.

Borders: It looks like you have a slightly more optimistic view of things than the mainstream media.

Johannes: I am an optimist. What really sealed my optimism was when I got to spend some time at the national assembly there at the convention center in the international zone, when the delegates were hammering out the constitution late last summer. I got to see the delegates working; I got to see press conferences. At one press conference I think I was the only western reporter. There might have been another one (I think he was from the LA Times.)

And what I saw there: everyone talking about the matter; coming out to do the press conference; 12 or more television cameras from the Arab media; a big pit of print reporters just peppering these Iraqi politicians with questions -- just badgering them, man... It just looked like a White House press conference. I realized there and then -- a free press. Three years ago, that didn't happen in Iraq. And then you see all the other factions and parties coming out to the podium, putting on their spin, blaming the other guy -- it looked like Washington, D.C. Spin sounds the same in every language. And when I saw that, I said, "OK, these people get it."

Borders: J. D. Johannes, thank you very much.

Johannes: Thank you.


See more of J. D. Johannes's work here.

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2 Comments

Grunt with a Camera....
To those of you who are so sure Iraq is a lost cause because the major media says so, I recommend this article. I think the point made that the "insurgents" are using the major American media for its own benefit, can't be over-stressed.

We saw much the same in Vietnam. The only real differene was that Vietnam was a war not worth fighting and this one could help change the entire equation in the Middle East.

The main stream media ?
It's hopeless waiting for the mainstream media to cover the events in Iraq. The media are made up of people who are almost totally opposed American presence in Iraq. Personal opinions of opposition trump all Americans' right to know what's going on in Iraq.

How petty and arrogant the media behaves!

It's no wonder that this former Marine who's now a cameraman sees that the war in Iraq is not reported by our media.

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