Friday, June 16, 2006

When Will the Mainstream Media Get It Right?

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06/16/06 -- My New York Times today paints a pretty grim picture of life in Iraq three-plus years into W's war of choice.

A graphic compares a variety of statistics this May (2006) to the last three. Other than a slight drop in U.S. military deaths from 77 last May to 68 this May, the graphic's stats comparing this year to last are awfully disheartening:

-- Monthly incidents of sectarian violence -- up from 20 to 250

-- Daily insurgent attacks -- up from 70 to 90

-- Multi-fatality bombings -- up from 36 to 56

-- Iraqi civilian deaths -- up from 1,000 to 1,500

-- Number of insurgents -- up from 16,000 to 20,000

And so on.

Unfortunately this news appears in views, on Page A27, the opinion page, in a graphic compiled by a senior Brookings Institute fellow and his senior research assistant. The lead news story on Page 1 in my New York Times today is about an entirely different war -- the public relations war of the Republican Party aimed at obliterating any sense of reality among voters of what's really going on in Iraq. The Times reports the Republican offensive without comment, which is appropriate on the news pages. But it also reports this offensive with very little context, which is not appropriate.

WASHINGTON, June 15 -- The House and the Senate engaged in angry, intensely partisan debate on Thursday over the war in Iraq, as Republicans sought to rally support for the Bush administration's policies and exploit Democratic divisions in an election year shadowed by unease over the war.

It was one of the sharpest legislative clashes yet over the three-year-old conflict, and it came after three days in which President Bush and his aides had sought to portray Iraq as moving gradually toward a stable, functioning democracy, and to portray Democrats as lacking the will to see the conflict through to victory.

In the House, lawmakers moved toward a vote on a Republican resolution promising to "complete the mission" in Iraq, prevail in the global fight against terrorism and oppose any "arbitrary date for withdrawal...."

And what do the facts say in support of this Republican offensive? Well the story doesn't offer any. There is no evidence that proves or disproves the Republican's assertion that Iraq is moving toward a stable, functioning democracy. In its 6th paragraph, however, the article does prominently quote Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who says of Iraq, "It is a battle we must endure and one in which we can and will be victorious. The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores." (Emphasis added.)

Back to our shores?

But wait. Doesn't The Times remember that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with either Al Qaeda or the bombing of the World Trade Center, according to U.S. intelligence? Doesn't it recollect that this mythical connection is one Republicans have insinuated for years through often-unchallenged quotes such as Hastert's? Has it forgotten that even before the war began, those opposing the war warned repeatedly that it would turn Iraq into the very breeding ground of terrorism that the United States was trying to eradicate?

The Times lead article mentions none of this context. Nor does it include any of the statistical context found on Page 27 of the same edition.

Given The Times stature in the American press, this kind of omission leads me to wonder just how mainstream media today are defining their role in delivering the news. More than 50 years ago, the press for a long time failed to challenge the anti-communist hysteria spread by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin -- hysteria based on the thinnest of facts or none at all. McCarthy knew that if he attacked someone as a communist sympathizer, that person's denial would mean little. The news media rarely bothered to look at his evidence. Recognizing, somewhat ashamed, in the years that followed that they had failed to serve the public, news organizations and journalism schools spoke of the need for "fairness" instead of "objectivity," for reporting that was based on verifiable fact rather than “he said-she said” fencing. Has that recognition of a need for a better model of reporting simply been forgotten?

The Bush Administration and its Republican allies in Congress today regularly eviscerate all opponents of the war as weak on terror if not anti-American. Shouldn’t the news media accounts of such attacks review the evidence of how the war is going? Or is it enough to merely print the attacks and the denials and move on?

I believe the media should be providing the context of the Iraq war during the current congressional debate -- unless the press is willing to accept that its job has morphed into serving as a conduit of propaganda meted out, to be fair, by both sides.

I haven't read a transcript of the full House debate. But The Times itself makes clear that at least one Democrat referenced the context of the war. His comment can be found, for the truly dogged reader, in paragraph 21 of today's lead story, the second to last paragraph of the article. There, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts say -- or asserts as The Times chooses to put it -- that "the war in Afghanistan was the response to the terrorist attacks" -- not the war in Iraq.

Wait a minute. Frank asserts? Is it not verifiable fact that Osama bin Laden operated out of Afghanistan with the support of its Taliban leadership? Is it not verifiable fact that the World Trade Center terrorists were overwhelming Saudi Arabian and that there wasn't an Iraqi among them. Remember? We ostensibly went to war there to keep Saddam from using weapons of mass destruction, which -- oops -- it turned out he didn't have.

Facts have never gotten in the way of the Bush Administration. Too often, it lives and dies by the big lie, repeated over and over again. Reporters call this “spin,” because the word "lie" makes them uncomfortable. But whatever name they give it, they should always provide evidence (call it verifiable fact or context) that measures the spin against what is known. Providing this contrast, after all, is the news media's job.

What’s happening in Washington this week is clear. After weeks of utter chaos on the ground in Baghdad -- kidnappings, sectarian mass murders, bombs and the flight of the middle class to neighboring countries -- the Iraqi government filled its Cabinet and U.S. troops killed a very evil guy, Musab al-Zarqawi. It is good news and it does provide an inkling of hope. But now the Bush Administration wants to cash in politically by renewing its historical assault on Democrats as wimps and defeatists and by making the news of Zarqawi’s death partisan.

The problem with this spin is that most of the facts don't support either the Administration’s vision of reality in Iraq or its renewed efforts to tie Iraq to the broader war on terror (and, by extension, 9/11). That information, too, is part of the news – an important part if the American public is to make sense of what’s really going on.

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached by email at


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