Nationalism or religious fundamentalism. Sectarianism or secularism. Unified sovereignty or Balkanization. Occupation or resistance. A future Iraq or no Iraq at all?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sourcing Iraq News coverage: Who do you trust?

In the past five years there has been little to rival the literature, nomenclature, and "research" on the subject of Iraq, Iraqi WMD, Saddam Hussein, pre-emptive war, oil, Israel, Zionism, Kurds, Yazeedis, and so on.

It is understandable that the reader will be alarmed at the wealth of information, but truth be said most of it is hardly as worthy as the paper (or terrabytes) it is printed on.

So, before we can move on and address the shape of a future Iraq and its people, we must first discern between reliable sources and unreliable sources and what distinguishes them as such.

With one swift swoop, we urge the reader of this blog to discard - The New York Times, the Washington Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Newsweek, USA Today and many other mainstream North American publications - because in the science of averages they have produced far more subjective than objective news content.


First off, all of the above resorted to press conference journalism in the wake of 9/11. Patriotism, not objectivity, was the rule of thumb. The White House holds a press conference, in jet the journalists, write up the statements they are given, ask token, surface questions and type away at their laptops.

The next day, the reader/viewer can pick up any of some 200 major newspapers and magazines and find nearly identical coverage. To be fair, the paragraphs are moved around somewhat to give the semblance that there is variety, objectivity, etc.

Journalists who go beyond the norm and ask the typical talking heads questions are ostracized by the White House, their peers, their families, and so on.

One such luminous name stands out: Karen Thomas who persistently challenged President Bush and White House spokespersons on the issues.

But her voice was definitely muted by the rush to vengeance for 9/11. The US public did not care who paid for 9/11 as long as it was someone in the Middle East, Arab and Muslim.

Iraq was an ideal target - particularly a media blindspot - because it was an ironclad society with little to no reporting conducted there in 13 years (1990-2003).

Whatever news came out of the White House or the various think-tank war proponents was swallowed hook, line and sinker. It did not matter that American journalists were failing time and again to do their jobs effectively.

There was a hunger for blood that makes the adage truth is first casualty of war sound like a nursery school limerick.

But everything is documented. And in future generations, the world will look back at the horrific crime that was perpetrated by the American government, the American media, and the American people.

Supportive material: Lack of Skepticism Leads to Poor Reporting on Iraq Weapons Claims

... On March 20, the second day of the invasion, U.S. military sources initially described missiles launched by Iraq as "Scuds"-- the U.S. name for a Soviet-made missile used by Iraq during the Gulf War. They exceed the range limits imposed on Iraqi weapons by the 1991 ceasefire agreement.

While some reporters appropriately sourced the Scud reports to military officials, and cautioned their audience about the uncertainty of the identification, others rushed to report claims as facts. NBC's Matt Lauer's report was definitive: "We understand they have fired three missiles. One of those was a Scud missile. It was destroyed by a Patriot missile battery as it headed toward Kuwait."

His colleague Tim Russert was similarly certain, saying, "Because of last night's activity, clearly the Iraqis are now trying to respond with at least one Scud fired at the troops mapped on the border of Kuwait and Iraq." Fellow NBC anchor Brian Williams added, "We learned one Scud had been intercepted, but two missiles had made it to Kuwaiti soil."

On NPR that day, anchor Bob Edwards was equally sure about what happened: "Iraq this morning launched Scud missiles at Kuwait in retaliation for the American strike on Baghdad a few hours earlier." Correspondent Mike Shuster helpfully pointed out that "these Scuds are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions and have a range of up to 400 miles."

ABC's Ted Koppel, "embedded" with an infantry division, reported matter-of-factly that "there were two Scud missiles that came in. One was intercepted by a patriot missile." ABC anchor Derek McGinty had earlier explained that "there was a Scud attack, one Scud fired from Basra into Kuwait. It was intercepted by an American patriot battery, and apparently knocked out of the sky. There is still no word exactly what was on that Scud, whether or not there might have been any sort of unconventional weaponry onboard."

Fox News Channel's William La Jeunesse was not only asserting that a Scud had been launched, but was drawing conclusions about its significance: "Now, Iraq is not supposed to have Scuds because they have a range of 175 up to 400 miles. The limit by the U.N., of course, is like 95 miles. So, we already know they have something they're not supposed to have."

As the day went on, however, the Pentagon was less definitive about what kind of missile Iraq was using, prompting some journalists to back off the story. Associated Press reported on March 22 that "Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that the Iraqis have not fired any Scuds and that U.S. forces searching airfields in the far western desert of Iraq have uncovered no missiles or launchers."

Even so, the next day, columnist Peter Bronson (Cincinnati Enquirer,3/23/03) was still writing, "The Scuds he swore he did not have were fired at Kuwait, and Iraq was launching lame denials while the craters still smoked." Apparently the corrections of the earlier, incorrect reports had not reached even all of those whose job it is to follow the news. ...

U.S.-based journalists are generally quick to caution readers, when describing an allegation made by Iraq, that the information "could not be independently confirmed." The fact is that information provided by any government should be treated with skepticism; reporters might try extending their critical approach to the U.S. military's statements.

Bear in mind that these events correspond to but a two-day period of news coverage about the war. It did not begin there nor did it end there.

Hindsight may be 20/20 but has anyone learned from the retrospective analysis?

For example, in the prelude to the war, as the Bush administration sought to increase the drum beating and fearmongering that Iraq was on the verge of mounting a nuclear attack on US cities, the United Nations inspectors were busy at work in Iraq, uncovering (and embarrassing) nearly all the incriminating data.

On 5 December 2002, Suzanne Malveaux was reporting from outside the White House, and told an anxious audience that President Bush and his closest advisers were highly skeptical of Iraqi intentions, especially after the United Nations inspection team UNMOVIC discovered mustard gas in some Iraqi shells.

And she ended her report there.

However, the report was incomplete. Perhaps it was Malveaux's journalistic naivete or deliberate malintent at misinformation but she failed to indicate that the mustard gas had been discovered (and documented) by UNSCOM (UNMOVIC's predecessor) in 1998. UNMOVIC returned in 2002 to find the same shells still there, waiting to be destroyed.

On Saturday, December 7, Miles O'Brien talking to Rym Brahimi reporting live outside the Iraqi Ministry of Information:

"Rym, you are outside the [Iraqi] Ministry of Information, we should call it the Ministry of Propaganda, or the Ministry of Disinformation..."

On 13 December 2002, the UNMOVIC inspection team had told reporters that Iraq was cooperating with their mandadte. Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the BBC, "We are off to a good start, but we are far from being able to reach a conclusion. We are not keen to rush to a conclusion … I hope the world will bear with us."

A few days later, Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, told the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, "There have been no impediments. We didn't expect any. That is pleasing."

But in a prime-time speech, President Bush sounded a different tone when he said "the signs from Iraq are not encouraging."

US media, still reeling from the duty-bound weight of patriotism over journalistic integrity, gave almost no airplay to Blix and ElBaradei but hyped up President Bush's statements. Neither did the White House pool of "investigative" journalists query the President why his remarks were at ostensible odds with those of the UN inspectors in Iraq.

So how did the public respond? By taking the initiative and investigating news on their own. Up popped any number of onlines news and views outlets, in addition to citizen journalism.

March 2003. Shock and awe. The age of bloggers was about to begin.