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[casi] Is Media Bias Filtering Out Good News from Iraq?

FAIR  Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting     112 W. 27th
Street   New York, NY 10001

Is Media Bias Filtering Out Good News from Iraq?
October 28, 2003

Are the media ignoring the good news in Iraq? From
pundits to White House officials, that's what many
critics are saying. According to George W. Bush
(10/6/03), "We're making good progress in Iraq.
Sometimes it's hard to tell it when you listen to the
filter." While these complaints have sparked extensive
discussion and debate in the media, an examination of
coverage finds very little substance to this critique
of media treatment of Iraq.

The pro-occupation critics claim that there's not
enough coverage of the rebuilt schools, for example,
or the fact that hospitals in Iraq are open.
Congressmember Jim Marshall (D.-Ga.) was perhaps the
most blunt of them all, alleging in an opinion piece
for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (9/22/03) that
the media's "falsely bleak picture weakens our
national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and
emboldens our enemy." Marshall concluded by lamenting
"the harm done by our media. I'm afraid it is killing
our troops."

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (9/26/03) told viewers that
"some of the most powerful media players in America
don't want America to succeed in Iraq…. American
soldiers have told me that the biggest morale
challenge that they are facing is not Saddam and
Osama's thugs, but, rather, it's dealing with the
biased, slanted reports that they're getting from
American news organizations."

But are these critics complaining about bad press, or
simply bad news? As the Associated Press (10/17/03)
explained: "The schools, for example, need
rehabilitation in large part because of the chaotic
looting touched off by the U.S. military's entry into
Baghdad in April. And many schools have not been
rehabilitated, particularly in poorer neighborhoods
and the south."

Newsweek (10/27/03) pointed out that "reporters who
covered the war say that some of the Coalition's
achievements are less impressive than they sound. Paul
(Jerry) Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in
Iraq, proudly announced the reopening of Iraq's
schools this month, while White House officials point
to the opening of Iraq's 240 hospitals. In fact, many
schools were already open in May, once major combat
ended, and no major hospital closed during the war."

Newsweek went on to note that journalists who might
actually try to cover what these critics deem the
"good" news are discouraged from doing so: "In
Baghdad, official control over the news is getting
tighter. Journalists used to walk freely into the
city’s hospitals and the morgue to keep count of the
day’s dead and wounded. Now the hospitals have been
declared off-limits and morgue officials turn away
reporters who aren’t accompanied by a Coalition
escort." So while critics say journalists should be
chastised for not reporting on hospitals, the
occupation forces are making it more difficult for
reporters to actually visit them.

The fact that reporters are kept away from hospitals
suggests that it's risky to assume that more coverage
of Iraqi reconstruction would yield "good" news.
Consider New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins'
description of the scene at an Iraqi hospital (NPR's
On the Media, 10/3/03): "The hospitals are open. If
you've been in a hospital in Iraq, however, the
reality is far different. One should not picture a
hospital in the United States. A typical hospital in
Iraq is a nightmarish place where they don't have
electricity yet. Where there's people sleeping on the
floors; where the emergency rooms at night are flooded
with people who have been shot and maimed in the chaos
that breaks out after curfew."

But some reporters are still grappling with the
criticism that their coverage has been too "negative."
ABC's Baghdad correspondent Neal Karlinsky told
Nightline (10/15/03) that "there's a lot of good news
stories here that we are trying to get out. And, quite
frankly, news events sometimes get in the way of that.
It's hard to work on a feature story about life in
Baghdad getting back to normal when there is suddenly
a car bombing that kills a half dozen people nearby."
Karlinsky seems to be complaining that breaking news
keeps getting in the way of reporting the news. CNN's
Bill Hemmer (10/14/03) wondered if life in Iraq could
"also be better than what's being reported also. If
you consider that these reporters, many of them tell
us they want to go cover the new school opening, but
they can't because there's another bombing or shooting
and that prevents them from sending that story?"

But other critics note that "good news" is hardly the
only thing missing from Iraq coverage. Seth Porges
writes in Editor & Publisher (10/23/03) that coverage
of injured and wounded U.S. soldiers gets very little
media attention. "For months, the press has barely
mentioned non-fatal casualties or the severity of
their wounds," writes Porges. "Few newspapers
routinely report injuries in Iraq, beyond references
to specific incidents. Since the war began in March,
1,927 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, many quite

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, on the same
day the Editor & Publisher piece was published, wrote
that "we've had 900 wounded or maimed" in Iraq.
Perhaps the fact that the Times so rarely publishes
figures for wounded soldiers makes Friedman's error
somewhat unsurprising; FAIR was able to find just one
reference to the total number of wounded soldiers in
the Times during the month of October. The paper did,
however, run an editorial (10/5/03) that mentioned the
"mournful daily roll call of additional dead and
wounded soldiers." Ironically, that roll call of the
wounded is rarely published in the New York Times.

It is not unexpected for any administration to put
forward its interpretation of news events. But the
White House's aggressive pursuit of favorable news
coverage threatens to squelch reporting on the actual
human costs of the occupation. For example, the
Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported on October 21
that the White House is "banning news coverage and
photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all
military bases."

Whether they are based in Baghdad or in Washington,
journalists are obliged to report the news on the
ground, not as "good" or "bad" but as news, regardless
of how it fits with the vision the administration
would like Americans to see.

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