Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The "liberal press" and the Iraq War

Michael O'Hanlon and Nina Camp take on the issue of the fabled Liberal Press bias against the Cheney-Bush administration in reporting the Iraq War: Is the Media Being Fair in Iraq? Washington Quarterly Autumn 2006. (Has "media" been permanently established as a singular noun now? It's actually the plural of "medium".) The took a survey of major news outlets for the months of January, April and May for each of the four calendar years that US troops have been in Iraq.

Among their findings for newspapers:

Nonetheless, the data do vary more notably from month to month than from newspaper to newspaper. In other words, for some months, the news was far worse than it was for others. This variation suggests that events on the ground drove the tone of coverage much more than the emotional, professional, or political predilections of editors and journalists.
The following findings on television coverage did raise a question for me:

Another point to consider is that newspapers grab attention with headlines,
whereas television speaks most loudly with images. Violent imagery on television makes a greater impression on audiences than words or even photographs in a newspaper. It is therefore plausible that television coverage of the war in Iraq has conveyed an even more negative tone than the data suggest.

We found that Fox News, which is widely considered conservative leaning, had a far larger number of news stories about Iraq that were neutral in tone, whereas the other three outlets had comparable and much lower numbers of neutral headlines. The story headlines used by Fox News, regardless of time of day or program, do not lend themselves to the type of scoring that could be done as fairly straightforward as it was for headlines in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and NBC News. No doubt, a network that wishes to convey a different tone than the one adopted by the rest of mainstream media is capable of doing so. These initial assessments are entirely consistent with the possibility that Fox News made a decision to do just that.
Is it really the case that, "Violent imagery on television makes a greater impression on audiences than words or even photographs in a newspaper"? I'm not sure a generalization like that is meaningful. The context in which it is presented by the reporting and the framework in which it is understood by the viewer surely must play a large role. Especially when you're trying to rate the coverage as "positive" or "negative".

A survey like this will never convince anyone who's assuming that the conflict's true status is reflected in official administration statements or press releases from the armed services' PR departments. The more serious service journals of strategy and history, like the Army's Parameters or Military Review, certainly don't constrain themselves to assuming that.

And so what's actually happening has to be taken into account if you're really trying to judge the quality of the reporting. They write, for instance:
Leaving aside the war per se, Iraq has far and away the highest criminal murder rate in the greater Middle East. Although it is difficult to give precise figures, in Baghdad the criminal murder rate is estimated at nearly one murder victim for every 1,000 people per year.11 That rate is roughly 10 times the typical murder rate in inner cities in the United States. Kidnapping is another huge issue. Stories about kidnappings tend to be told only when a U.S. citizen, such as Jill Carroll or Nicholas Berg, is abducted, but kidnapping of foreigners is just the tip of the iceberg. The stunning reality in Iraq is that an estimated 30–40 Iraqis — professionals, political figures, doctors, lawyers, wealthy merchants — are kidnapped each day.12 Many if not most are released once ransom is paid; few are killed through grisly beheadings or other such spectacles. Yet, the rate of kidnapping, probably the highest per capita rate in the world, is tremendously disruptive to life in Iraq.

On balance, Iraq is easily the most violent country in the broader Middle Eastern region. Leaving aside a couple of extreme examples, such as Sudan, Iraq is one of the most violent countries in the world. (my emphasis)
Given an underlying reality like this, how can any honest reporting of those grim facts be "positive"?

If there were sensible conservatives still left in the Republican Party, they might find themselves agreeing with this:

The broad argument voiced by critics of the media in the United States is often badly overstated. Even though the overall image of Iraq conveyed by the mainstream media may be somewhat more negative than reality, it is not incredibly dissimilar from the situation on the ground. Iraq is a war zone in which progress has been largely elusive. Given this reality, accurate reporting naturally places more emphasis on the negative aspects than on the positive ones.

Journalists are missing quite a few stories in Iraq, but the ones they miss are just as often bad as they are good.

It makes little sense to expect people reporting from a war zone to have a particularly happy set of messages to convey. Sometimes the reporters do get it wrong, and it is legitimate to hold them accountable when that happens and also to suggest specific ways they can improve their reporting. Rather than habitually berating the media in sweeping terms, we should read their critical stories for insights into where U.S. policy may be failing and how it can be improved in a war that we truly must win yet could still lose, on the ground in Iraq. (my emphasis)
The Liberal Press conspiracy has become an article of faith for almost all Republicans, it seems. But the officer corps' attitudes toward media coverage of war are heavily influenced by the widespread belief that it was media coverage of the Vietnam War that deprived the military of a victory they had won on the battlefield. It is such a forced argument, one based largely on a "stab-in-the-back" viewpoint designed to let the military duck responsibility for their own failures in that war, that it's very disturbing that such a theory could have gained such wide support among officers.

In much military writing about the role of the media, we see a strong tendency to look at press relations as "information operations" to be managed in much the same way that false information designed to deceive an opposing army about operational plans on the battlefield would be.

Ironically, acting on that assumption for nearly four years in the Iraq War, the military has given the public and Congress very good reason to question their own credibility, from lying about Pat Tillman's death to constant declarations of endless strings of victories that only lead to more endless victories at a higher level of violence.

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