(On May 17, 2006, AEI hosted the “War of Words” veterans in a panel discussion entitled “Veterans Speak Out on the Coverage of the Iraq War.” DD will publish their statements on May 17, 18 and 19.)
Former Marine Sgt. J.D. Johannes,
Embedded combat reporter
Let me run through a little thought experiment with you. Now, no one raise their hands, but just think about this for minute.
To get home, or back to work, pretend you have to go through that set of doors behind you. Now, those doors may be booby trapped, and the first person through, and anyone within five feet of him, is going to get some shrapnel. But, you’ve got to cross that threshold. And, on the other side, there might be a guy with an RPK machine gun waiting to throw some lead at you. And down the hall, there may be guys hiding around the corners with AK-47s. But, after all that, you make it outside, where there could be snipers. And when you make it to your car or cab, and there’s a chance someone is waiting to blow you up with an IED. And, once you’ve made it home, there is a chance someone is going to try and lob a mortar or rocket into your subdivision.
That is what it is like to be a Marine infantryman, or, a photographer who spent five months with a Marine infantry platoon in Al Anbar province.
Now, after hearing that scenario, if you said, ‘no thanks,’ congratulations: you are normal. But if you heard that scenario and said, ‘Hey, whatever,’ I know some recruiters who may want to talk to you. Most reporters, being normal, aren’t exactly eager to chase grunts around Al Anbar.
In spring of 2005, I left my life behind and traveled to Iraq as an embedded reporter.
I spent 5 months living with a Marine infantry platoon, walking the streets of places like Karmah, Amiriya, and Ferris. I spent days and weeks outside the wire, baking in the sun, sleeping on the dirt, lining up in the stack as the Marines hit target houses, and all the time those nights and days punctuated with the call to prayer.
I drank tea and smoked cigarettes with sheiks and Imams. I sat down and ate with men who led villages and families. I bartered with shop keepers for sodas and cigarettes, played soccer with kids. And, I spent a lot of time getting sun burned.
Punctuated by the rare few minutes of intense violence, most of the time the Marines chatted up the locals, gathered intel and chased leads.
I have concluded, based both on my experience, and the reports of other newsmen, that an unconscionable amount of what we in the press have been feeding the American public regarding the war in Iraq is fashioned by the propaganda arms of our enemies. Ba’athist kidnappers and Jihadi bombers are planning their operations not to win the war in Iraq, but to win it in America. To that end, they are assessing what American reporters are willing to cover, and what American news organizations are willing to risk.
This has been made abundantly clear in Al Qaida documents recently released by Centcom and the Coalition. An excerpt of the translated document reads:
The policy followed by the brothers in Baghdad is a media oriented policy without a clear comprehensive plan to capture an area or an enemy center. In other words, the significance of the strategy of their work is to show in the media that the American and the government does not control the situation and there is resistance against them.
Stated simply: Al Qaida is not even trying to win the war on the ground anymore. It is attempting to win the war in the press.
And they’re doing pretty well. On April 2, 2005, when Al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to assault Abu Ghraib prison, I was the only reporter there. The unit I was with was patrolling the area as part of a week-long op, and caught the tail end of the assault. The Marines didn’t think much of it. The main result was a bunch of dead insurgents. The next day, when the sun came up, we saw the v-beds that didn’t even make it off the highway and the remnants of so-called ‘lions of taweed.’
It wasn’t until we were back in base, watching TV in the chow hall, that we discovered that the failed assault was “BIG NEWS,” and that reporters were showing up after the fact. Two-to-three days after the fact.
As a Marine Colonel told me. Al Qaeda lost that fire-fight in Iraq, but they won it on CNN.
In the Spring of 2005 — before I went to Iraq — while I was going from TV station to TV station selling my syndicated news reports to local News Directors, I used a very simple sales pitch:
I would ask: How often do you air coverage of the war? Every day, in some form right? They would nod yes. Then I would ask: how often do you get a local tie-in? They would think about it, but I already knew the answer. For local TV stations there are only 4 Iraq stories:
Local Units leaving — local boy killed in action — wife of local boy being screwed over by the mortgage holder — local unit comes home. On one station I saw them hit the Superfecta with all four stories in one night.
Then, I would ask: How often do you have footage and an interview with a local boy, a grunt out there fighting the war on terror with video of him in action?
The answer was, invariably, “never.”
Some of the stations bought my feeds on the spot. And if I could make money going to Iraq as a one person shop, and Michael Yon, Bill Roggio and Michael Totten can report from Iraq with support only from tip jars on their blogs, then there is obviously a market for news beyond the daily car bombing.
But you wouldn’t know it from the war coverage on network and cable news. On network news you have four story templates:
The two most common are the Balcony Shot of a reporter recapping the latest car bombing, and the Computerized Map showing the latest bombing. Less often, you get an interview with some Iraqis, nearly always in Baghdad invariably saying how bad things are. And in the rarest of these templates, a real live U.S. newsman reports with a coalition unit, usually long after a major event, as in “Tal Afar six months later,” “Mosul six month later,” and the one I saw most, “Fallujah Six months later.”
Why only four templates?
Bruce Kesler, writing in Editor & Publisher asked, “Is the Media Covering Iraq On the Cheap?”
Yes, they are. In the article Kesler talks about the cost of insurance policies for reporters in a combat zone, the cost of security, and though he doesn’t mention it, there is probably a hazard pay bump.
Which all leads Kesler to write,
“Ironically, the same media that criticizes the U.S. for sending too few troops to stabilize Iraq send too few reporters to cover much more than the dramatic bombings around Baghdad.”
During the height of the Michael Jackson trial last summer there were 2,200 credentialed reporters. During the initial invasion of Iraq, there were 452 reporters embedded with the coalition. Last Summer I saw only a handful of reporters drift through Fallujah. In fact, I saw more talk radio show hosts than reporters.
Why? Think back to the opening scenario I gave you. Al Qaida and its fellow travelers have used violence, kidnappings and the ever present threat of violence against reporters to lock down news coverage.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a News Director who knew what I did in Iraq and was hoping I was I still there so he could hire me to do a story. Why hire a freelancer? Because his parent network had told him that network reporters and photographers don’t leave the fortified hotel.
With Western reporters holed up in bunkers, their view of the war is filtered by Iraqi stringers, who as noted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, may be plants for the terrorists, terrorist sympathizers or newsmen intimidated by violence or the threat of violence.
Many in the media recognize this, which has yielded a new type of report from Iraq—the daily summary of statements. As in, a stringer calls in an event and a Western Reporter contacts the local Iraqi police, Coalition Press Desk or other spokesperson, gets a statement, then summarizes it.
The only thing this kind of news-gathering yields is the daily result of terrorist violence. But that, of course, is the insurgents’ goal —to create the perception in the western media that Iraq is out of control.
What you will not see in the media is what I saw in Iraq…a lot of every day life.
For every minute of violence and danger, there would be days of eating flat bread, drinking tea, and sitting around in positions hoping to get shot at.
Yes, trying to get shot at. At least one third of the operations I went on with the Marines were bait and kill operations—why my platoon was always the bait, I don’t know, it just worked out that way. When you have to work hard at getting the enemy to shoot at you and engage you so you can capture or kill them, you are not dealing with a very potent enemy. In one A-O, the unit I was with was so effective with bait and kill operations, that after two weeks, they were nearly useless as bait.
In the media, you never hear of the units where everyone came home alive. There are no stories about an operation in which the high-light was the tribal Sheik insisting the Platoon come to his son’s wedding. There is never the tag line—“In other news, most Iraqis went about their business of saving up enough money to buy a satellite dish and pay their cell phone bill”—yes, every mud hut seems to come equipped with a satellite dish—“so they too can watch the latest news about a car bombing in Baghdad in between racy Jordanian soap operas.”
The terrorist goal of winning through the media has worked. Through threat of violence, they have shut down reporting; and because many reporters must believe their own spin they think embedding with the military is more dangerous than it really is.
The result is a picture of Iraq in which small slices are accurate — the basic facts about the recent bombing are accurate—but where the majority of the canvass is left blank, turning the small slices into the entire portrait.
Paul McLeary recently wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review:
“Iraq is unquestionably the biggest story of our time, and one which will affect American foreign and domestic policy for the rest of our lives — but if news organizations won’t invest the money and manpower to cover it from top to bottom, it will end up becoming a story told only through its major disasters and victories, without many of the small, personal narratives and struggles that give the story its humanity.”
McLeary is right. News is important; the news reporting on Iraq is shaping and will shape American policy for two generations—and that is too important to be done on the cheap.