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Iraq - The Failure of the Press

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Opinion about Iraq splits along political lines. Republicans maintain that the going is tough but we are making real progress. Most Democrats feel that we are wading deeper into quicksand. The public understandably wants an objective source of information about Iraq. That should be the American press, but it isn't.

The January Gallup Poll on Iraq found that 49 percent of respondents felt that we should set a timetable for removing troops, while 47 percent felt our troops should "stay until U.S. achieves its goals." 53 percent felt that the war was going "very badly" or "moderately badly;" 46 percent felt it was going "very well" or "moderately well."

Rather than help Americans figure out what is going on in Iraq, the mainstream media often contributes to the confusion. In March of 2005, House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, lead a delegation of eight California Congress people to Iraq, seven democrats and one Republican. Upon their return, the San Francisco Chronicle story headlined the story as "Congressional Delegation Sees Real Progress in Iraq." Yet Pelosi and the other Democrats hadn't spoken about progress, in general, only in terms of the training of Iraqi security forces. Pelosi specifically mentioned how dangerous Baghdad had become, how even in the "Green Zone," supposedly the safe inner sanctum for Americans; she had to be accompanied by armed security personnel everywhere - even into the ladies room. The newspaper didn't tell the whole story.

There are five reasons why the press hasn't done its job. The first is that their financial status is shaky. Columbia Journalism Review editor, Michael Massing, reports that because of staff reductions, there are far fewer investigative reporters than there once were. Therefore, most newspapers do not have reporters in Iraq; they rely upon the Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters, or The Washington Post.

The second is that the situation in Iraq is so dangerous that most US correspondents can't get anywhere near the action. Wall Street Journal reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, complained from Baghdad "[my life] is like being under virtual house arrest"[I] can't look for stories, can't drive in anything but a full armored car." On January 9th, while traveling outside Baghdad, a roadside bomb seriously injured ABC evening news co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, and a cameraman. Reuters notes "at least 60 journalists have died on duty in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003." According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 36 reporters have been kidnapped since April 2004.

On the PBS News Hour CBS reporter Lara Logan observed, "I frequently say to American military officers" you want us to risk the lives of all of our team to come and film the opening of a bridge that was intact before it was bombed in this war anyway"those are just not reasons to risk the lives of all the people that are involved in trying to tell this story -- until journalists have freedom of movement to move not just around Baghdad but to move around the country."

A third reason is that the White House ignores requests for vital information. Since October 2001 the Administration has rejected or stalled all requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. This has affected hundreds of requests from the media, and Congress, for information about the circumstances that led to war and the status of our troops.

A fourth reason is that the White House has restricted comments by the military. Seymour Hersh noted in the December 5th issue of The New Yorker . "Many of the military's most senior generals are deeply frustrated [about Iraq], but they say nothing in public, because they don't want to jeopardize their careers."

Finally, the mainstream media censures what it reports from Iraq. Michael Massing remarked ,"The abuses that US troops routinely commit in the field, and their responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American press as too sensitive for most Americans to see or read about. When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced as an antiwar activist, and sent death threats."

If the press can't or won't do their job of truthfully reporting the situation in Iraq, how can the American public develop an informed opinion? There are two strategies. The first is to tap into the foreign media - BBC, Al Jazeera- to get another perspective. The second is to reason, "If the White House is telling the truth about other critical issues, then they probably are telling the truth about Iraq. On the other hand, if they are lying about other critical issues, then they are probably lying about Iraq."

Of course, most Americans won't switch from Fox News or CNN and begin watching the BBC. And their opinions about George W. Bush are already formed: The January 20-22 Gallup Poll found that 49 percent of respondents regard the President as "honest and trustworthy," and 49 percent don't; a finding that has remained consistent for four months. Americans who trust the President will continue to believe what his Administration tells them about Iraq.

As a result, the US will continue to be deeply divided about the war. Each side will point to news that supports their point of view. And the ghastly Iraq war will drag on and on.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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