Operation Good News' Last Gasp
Bush Administration Fails to Alter Public's Growing
Negative Perception of Post-War Iraq
by Bill Berkowitz
October 13, 2003
A little over a month into the Bush Administration's Operation Good News -- the president's effort to change the public's perception about events in Iraq -- bad news dominates the Iraqi reality. On most days, to paraphrase bluesman Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign," "If it wasn't for bad news, there wouldn't be no news at all."
Take a few recent stories: The White House, essentially admitting that its post-war plans for Iraq and Afghanistan have been failures, has created an "Iraq Stabilization Group," to be run by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice; David Kay, the head of the Bush Administration's weapons of mass destruction hunting party in Iraq, returned home empty handed; Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, recently pointed out that that the guerilla resistance is stiffening -- "This is still wartime," the Lt. Gen. said; the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq has soared above 320, while more than 1740 have been wounded (an average of nearly nine per day since March 20); and, on the first Saturday in October, crowds of ex-Iraqi soldiers charged U.S. forces and Iraqi police in Baghdad and Basra, protesting the lack of jobs and possible pay cuts.
The administration's good news campaign began as barely a murmur in the Internet's blog-o-sphere, but it didn't take long to reach a full-throated roar. Internet bloggers Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds helped drive "the campaign to get more balance [read that, good news] into Iraq reporting," conservative columnist John Leo recently wrote. The charge was that the media not only had a predilection for airing bad news, but was intentionally ignoring the good news from Iraq.
The Bush Administration played its part as top-level officials blanketed the tube: The president shared his thoughts with the Fox News Channel's Brit Hume; Condoleezza Rice graced several talking head programs; Team Bush met with Republican Congressional leaders "to counter media reports that they believe accentuate U.S. casualties and give little attention to progress toward stability in Iraq," VOA (Voice of America) News reported.
Some critics claimed there was a blackout of the good news coming from Iraq because of the media's "if it bleeds, it leads" credo. Then, insidious accusations that the media was undercutting U.S. efforts and aiding the guerrilla resistance cropped up.
The conservative media watchdog group, Media Research Center (MRC), in its daily "Media Research Center CyberAlert," characterized recent national newscasts on ABC and CBS as "Another round of depressing news." According to the Media Research Center's experienced media watchers, on Thursday, September 26, ABC's Jim Scuitto looked at how "a wave of rapes and kidnappings of women has followed the war" in the nation in which women previously 'had more freedom to study, to work and to dress as they like than in many Persian Gulf countries,' but 'now they see those rights under threat from the lack of security and from Islamic fundamentalists.' It's so bad that 'some women will even say they were better off under Saddam.'" The same evening, MRC pointed out that CBS's Allen Pizzey reported how "poverty and a ruined infrastructure are most people's daily reality."
However, on the Fox News Channel, reporter Steve Harrigan had evidently gotten the administration's message and wondered why "You don't see a happy Iraqi... on TV," Harrigan told the hosts of the "Fox and Friends" morning show. According to the MRC, Harrigan saw "a huge contradiction between the Iraq he saw and the one he sees on U.S. TV networks." He said that the families he spoke with were optimistic about the future and he "contrasted it with how 'coming over here,' to the U.S., 'there's a huge gap, like two pictures.'"
MRC analyst Amanda Monson reported that "Harrigan recalled following around a happy cigarette factory worker who sees challenges, but 'he was really happy and that's what you don't get over here. I come back here, I was out in a boat last weekend in Tennessee and some guy said to me, 'they hate us over there, right? They want to kill us.' That's the picture I think that everyone has over here and that's what they're talking about. You don't see a happy Iraqi. I've never seen one on TV.'"
A John Leo column catalogued stories that begged to be told, including the conversion of U.S. District Court Judge Don Walter of Shreveport, La., who was opposed to the war but reversed himself after serving in Iraq as a U.S. adviser on Iraq's courts. In a recent column, Judge Walker wrote: "The steady drip, drip, drip of bad news may destroy our will to fulfill the obligations we have assumed. WE ARE NOT GETTING THE WHOLE TRUTH FROM THE MEDIA." (Capitals his.)
Perhaps the most controversial charge heard was that negative reporting not only hurt the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq, but actively encouraged the guerrilla resistance. In a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution column, Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) wrote: "The falsely bleak picture [from Iraq] weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and emboldens our enemy."
Rep. Marshall, who had returned from a three-day House Armed Services Committee visit, yearned for the early days of the invasion when "embedded journalists reported the good, the bad and the ugly. Where are the embeds now that we are in the difficult part of the war, now that fair and balanced reporting is critically important to our chances of success?" Rep. Marshall told the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly that he'd like to see stories on GI's playing soccer in Iraq.
According to The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress, "Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the committee's ranking member, said, 'The media stresses the wounds, the injuries, and the deaths, as they should, but for instance in Northern Iraq, Gen. [Dave] Petraeus has 3,100 projects -- from soccer fields to schools to refineries -- all good stuff and that isn't being reported."
Surely Rep. Marshall and his colleagues wouldn't want the public to base its understanding of what's happening in Iraq on three days worth of visits and conversations with U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer; Maj. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, overall commander of military forces in Iraq; and Gen. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
Journalists reporting on the chaotic unfolding of events in Iraq do face a delicate balancing act. The Fox News Channel's Eric Burns argues that although "journalists [can]... do stories about the deaths of American soldiers and make the situation seem bleak [and]... .stories about schools being rebuilt and make the situation seem hopeful... .[it] does not seem possible... for a single report, or even a single news program, to present both sides of the issue, the gloomy and the hopeful, which they should do in measures as equal as possible."
When embedded reporters filed story after story highlighting the early triumphs of the military invasion, there was no hue and cry from the Bush Administration, or other major U.S. media outlets for that matter, about balancing the good news from the battlefield with the bad news from civilian neighborhoods. The bad news, such as the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombs -- of which the Pentagon makes a point of not keeping track -- or the damage done to Iraq's infrastructure, was an afterthought for most U.S. media outlets. It also took months for the print media to even bother reporting on the hundreds of wounded U.S. troops regularly airlifted to hospitals in the states.
In an early October report for the Guardian newspaper, award-winning writer Suzanne Goldenberg writes: "Iraq under the US-led occupation is a fearful, lawless and broken place, where murder rates have rocketed, 80% of workers are idle and hospital managers despair at shortages of IV sets and basic antibiotics. Police are seen as thugs and thieves, and the American and British forces as distant rulers, more concerned with protecting their troops than providing security to ordinary Iraqis. The governing council they created is simply irrelevant."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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