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Issue Date:  April 21, 2006

The media's role in Iraq is at issue


Last month the Bush administration celebrated the third anniversary of the Iraq war in two ways. First with a propaganda campaign, built around a series of speeches, TV interviews and news conferences, in which President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to say the war was going well.

Second, by discrediting the press, the administration tried to undermine the growing public conviction that the war was a mistake and that we should withdraw within the near future. Every day, they said, good things are happening in Iraq -- schools built, American casualties down, the Iraqi government taking charge -- but the media won’t tell us about it. In the most fatuous statement of the month, Robert Lichter, head of a conservative media institute, complained on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” March 22 that the administration had given a lot of medals to heroes recently and the media had failed to report them.

In the March 24-30 issue of The Guardian Weekly, Gary Younge writes that before the first Gulf War, Adm. William Crowe warned Colin Powell that war in the Middle East, killing thousands of Arabs, would set back the United States for a long time. Nonetheless, he said, to make a great president you have to have a war, and a war when you are attacked. Somehow the younger Bush appears to have heard half this advice, demanded his own war, got it, and now watches it fall apart.

Tragically, rather than good stories about medals, atrocity stories are earning new headlines. Protesting Iraq war veterans in the New Orleans area who have turned against the war have told their stories to Katrina victims. Their training dehumanized them, one said in The Guardian for March 29: “If you start looking at them [Iraqis] as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you going to kill them?” The March 27 TIME magazine reports that in November Marines killed 15 Iraqi civilians responding to a roadside explosion in Haditha. Iraqi family members described a systematic revenge slaughter; Marine investigators called it “collateral damage.” Nine hundred Iraqi civilians were killed in March and thousands became refugees in their own land.

The press’ response to the administration’s libel that they are hiding the “good news” has been strong and to the point.

On “Meet the Press” April 2, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, a Republican, reminded us that 80 journalists have died in this war and the press is being made the scapegoat for the administration’s three years of mistakes. Not “tactical” mistakes, as Condoleezza Rice called them, but disastrous strategic misjudgments.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” CBS correspondent Lara Logan bluntly explained March 26 that things are much worse than they have been able to show in a daily broadcast. Think, she said, of all the dead bodies we didn’t show. Told that conservative talk show person Laura Ingram accused war correspondents of reporting from their “hotel balconies,” Ms. Logan invited Ms. Ingram to Iraq, where journalists who three years ago could walk the streets and mix with the people now risk their lives daily and are forced to travel in armored vehicles with armed guards, and reminded us that ABC anchor Bob Woodruff, still suffering from his near-mortal wounds, was criticized for taking risks.

(CBS is making a big mistake hiring Katie Couric from NBC to anchor the “CBS Evening News” when it has this articulate, beautiful, intelligent and courageous newswoman already on its staff.)

Finally, in an essay in the April 6 New York Review of Books, Orville Schell, who did classic reporting from Vietnam, has described today’s Baghdad as a scene from the grim, futuristic film “Blade Runner” where “violence is so pervasive and unfathomable that you wonder what people think they are dying for.” Journalists not housed in the Green Zone, a vast impenetrable bubble protecting American officials, live in the ruins of bombed-out hotels, in neighborhoods walled off like medieval towns. They meet secretly with sources who risk their lives by talking to them and rely more on Iraqi stringers who don’t even tell their families whom they work for.

He concludes that the story may become one of the Americans hunkered down in the Green Zone “watching Iraqis kill other Iraqis as the country disintegrates.” And this was a war to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is humanities professor at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006

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