March 27, 2008

Journalist Highlights Controversies Surrounding News Coverage of Iraq

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As the bullets fly outside, people scream for help from the bombarded streets around a makeshift medical clinic in downtown Fallujah. Approaching the building with blood pumping from a hole in her neck, a girl fights her way through the chaos making a sickening gurgle noise with every breath. The city is getting torn to pieces by sniper fire and bombers streaking across the sky. And today was supposed to be a ceasefire.
This is just one of the many scenes gone unreported by the mass media over the course of the Iraq War, said independent journalist Dahr Jamail, who spoke at Cornell on Tuesday. Criticizing coverage of the war by the popular press, Jamail and many political analysts insist that embedded reporters from the country’s top news outlets have failed to tell the whole truth behind America’s invasion and subsequent occupation.
From the beginning of the operation, critics argue, corporate media outlets across the nation helped fuel Administration agendas by reporting false information and speculations. Ignoring bad information, misinterpretations and blatant lies, the press played into the hands of government propaganda campaigns, said Jamail.
And according to him, not much has changed on the issue today.
“There has been a mild shift towards a bit more critical coverage, due largely to the dramatic shift in U.S. public opinion over the last few years,” he said. “However, I still think most media is very pro-state in that it doesn’t come close to reflecting the catastrophic nature of the situation on the ground.”
However, shortcomings in media coverage may be due more to logistical difficulties, safety risks, language barriers and travel constraints than hidden agendas and political alliances, said David Patel, government. “Iraq is a very difficult place to do reporting in,” he said.
Judith Reppy, former director of Cornell’s Peace Studies Program, blamed the poor performance on limited reporter access to dangerous areas around the country. In a war that has killed more journalists than Vietnam, it is hard to get a good picture of what is happening beyond Baghdad’s Green Zone, she said.
But the untold accounts of events and people around Iraq are not the only stories being passed up, said Jamail. Many times, the underlying issues behind a story are ignored too, leaving false impressions from incomplete information, he explained.
[img_assist|nid=29153|title=In the line of fire|desc=Author and freelance journalist Dahr Jamail speaks in Kaufmann Auditorium on Tuesday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Citing the recent coverage of decreasing violence after the troop surge last spring, he said reports often miss important details like the role of increased military air strikes, the Iraqi Awakening forces and Muqtada al-Sadr’s temporary militia stand down.
“I think that we now, largely, live in a media culture where if you can’t explain something in a sound bite, then that is too much time,” he said. “And the situation in Iraq is incredibly complex and takes time to explain.”
Anti-war advocates like Jamail are not the only ones criticizing media coverage in Iraq. According to Major Bryan Miller, a veteran of the conflict and member of Cornell’s Army ROTC, mainstream reports have missed the positive accomplishments of military operations, unfairly focusing on just the violence and controversies of the war.
“I think the Eagles said it best — the press wants dirty laundry,” he said. “And I’m not naïve, I know that’s what sells papers, but you need to tell both sides of the story.”
Reflecting on his time in Iraq, Miller recounted construction projects his unit worked on where they built schools, ran water lines and restored electricity.
“But nobody wrote about that,” he said. “I just wish they’d cover more about these things that matter.”
According to the Defense Department, as of this month, unemployment has declined 12.4 percent since 2004, oil production has risen to 2.3 million barrels per day, 92 new healthcare centers have been built and projections for next year show a 7 percent growth in the Iraqi economy.
This does not mean that the big-picture situation is improving though, said Patel, who focuses on Middle Eastern politics. According to him, despite all of the military’s successes in Iraq, little has changed.
“They’ve done tremendous good at the local level and that’s what I think a lot of the commanders are frustrated with,” he said. “They think that’s being missed in the larger story. The question is: Are all those small good things the U.S is doing at a local level aggregating it up to a more stable environment? I don’t think so.”
Fueling further debate on media coverage in Iraq, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, a non-partisan research group, recently reported that total reporting on the conflict has declined from about 25 percent of news stories last January to around 5 percent this February.
“I do think the move off the front page is unfortunate because the war has not become any less important,” Reppy said.
Taking a less critical standpoint, Patel said that because news is often dictated by American audiences, the recent trend cannot be blamed on media outlets.
“I’m hesitant to condemn the media for not covering things because I think that if there was a demand for it … there would be better coverage of it,” he said. “For people who want to learn the details about Iraq, there are sources where they can go.”
According to Patel, even recently, there have been many good stories in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The L.A. Times and blogs by Juan Cole and Abu Aardvark.
But despite the study, Miller said issues in Iraq have become no less significant to Americans across the country, predicting continued interest from reporters and citizens alike.
“It’s not going to go away until the war ends. That’s the story I’d like to see the most: The War is Over, Soldiers Come Home,” he said.