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Media In Iraq: Blind Men With An Elephant

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Baghdad (UPI) Oct 10, 2005
Iraq is a deceptive place. Most soldiers ask reporters embedded with them the same question: Why do you guys only report the bad news? The premise of the question is valid - if a little skewed.

There are of course "good news" stories printed all the time about soldiers and Marines doing humanitarian work, about Iraqis turning in enemy caches and fighters.

The answer is standard: bad news is more often the kind of "breaking news" that lends itself to reportage; it usually involves death, which is undeniably important; it is something measurable and observable; and it is a predictable consequence of war.

But nevertheless it is true that most soldiers do not recognize the Iraq they read about in the newspaper or see on TV, and it is deepening a gulf they feel with the media and with a large sector of America. The same goes for their family, friends and strangers who read soldiers' many blogs about their war experience.

The two realities just don't track.

I traveled across the country for nine weeks, embedding with U.S. soldiers and Marines in most major cities, trying to assess in an objective way how the counter-insurgent war is going, how and if Iraqi forces are progressing, how the insurgents and Zarqawi's terrorists were evolving their tactics, and whether Iraq is seeing any real reconstruction, economic or political.

I took countless helicopters, drove city and rural streets in up-armored Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, British Warriors and once in a tank. I joined foot patrols, watched cordon-and-search operations, sat with Iraqis at their kitchen tables, talked to merchants whose burglary gates had been cut open with saws by Americans; shared candy and water with barefoot little kids who gathered on sidewalks when soldiers jumped out of their armored vehicles in full battle gear.

In all that time, as far as I knew, I was never in immediate danger. There was a grenade thrown once, ineffectually, at the back of a Warrior I was in. On one Blackhawk ride near Mosul machine gunners fired on men scrambling on the ground with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

In Fallujah I saw a single improvised explosive device explode, but from a safe distance. And I watched a car bomb burn at a police check point in Tall 'Afar, the explosion killing no one but the people inside the car -- a man, a woman and two young children. In that same city I had a front-row seat at a battle in which no one died.

I was nervous before I came, because the Iraq I read about in the newspapers taught me to be scared. But once here I quickly put the sense of peril behind me. The soldiers I was with had done so. And I gradually came to believe, at some subconscious level, that Iraq wasn't so dangerous.

As a reporter, however, I am supposed to challenge supposition, my own included. So on my last night in Baghdad -- another in a long line of quiet ones, stars wheeling overhead -- I sat down at a computer terminal and pulled up the casualty announcements for the previous 64 days. And I started counting.

The total staggered me. At least 88 Americans died from the day I arrived to the night that I was packing to leave. Well over 300 innocent Iraqis had been slain in the last month alone.

How could I not have realized this? My e-mail is set to receive casualty reports daily, and I read every single one of them. But in the haze of my days with soldiers and Marines, they were eclipsed, slipped into the context of a large country made up of mostly small towns stumbling as they try, without much help from the world or even the U.S. government, other than the military, to find their legs.

The dissonance between my own experience and the facts in front of me revealed an important truth about this war.

Iraq is like the elephant and the blind men. In that parable, the blind men describe the elephant as they experience it. One, holding the tusk, says an elephant is smooth, hard and sharp. One, feeling the belly, says it is soft and wrinkled. Another, holding the trunk, says it is long, thin and muscular.

Each is right. Each is wrong.

While I was embedded I was told there were 38 other reporters also spending time with the 140,000 U.S. military in country. There are many more reporters in Baghdad, the capital of the Iraqi government, the seat of the national assembly and the constitutional committee. It is also the headquarters to the U.S. military. It is the heart of the country, and it is a place where there is infrastructure that supports the media -- satellite connections, working telephones, reliable electricity and generators, usually running water. There are cars and drivers, hotels with cement protective walls, guards with guns.

For these same reasons, it is also the focus of much violence. Insurgents who want to destabilize the interim government do well to concentrate their efforts there. If they want to kill Americans, there are some 30,000 living in the "international zone" who offer a fat target. And if you are a terrorist worth your salt, you want to maximize your effect and this you do by putting all these facts within easy reach of the television cameras. And they are facts.

This is not to say there is not tremendous violence elsewhere in the country. But those attacks are geared toward more localized interests -- discouraging recruits from joining the police or army, trying to intimidate citizens from participating in daily life, killing one ethnic or religious group or another to attempt to spark retaliation and civil war, or to punish someone for helping the Americans, or to settle an old or new tribal score.

The net effect is that reporters in Baghdad feel as though the city is under siege, particularly compared to what it was two years ago, when they could walk on the streets eat in restaurants and shop in markets without fear of being kidnapped or killed. Those activities are certainly possible today, but they are ill-advised. The risk is too present.

Reporters in Baghdad receive reports of violence around the country every day, increasingly aware of the risks they take to cover the war, even if they spend much of their time in their hotel offices.

Each death they cover, each car bomb they watch burning in a street bathed in innocent blood, confirms the view of Iraq they serve up daily.

It is a fundamentally different view of the war seen by soldiers in the field, and for good reason. Soldiers see the counter-insurgency campaign, and they know they are making progress. It is measurable in the number of people they catch who lead insurgent cells, in the number of IEDs they find before they explode, in the number of tips they get from locals.

But the counter-insurgent fight is not the entire war. It is an important piece, but not the end result. The war is a much broader struggle, the battle to create a legitimate, functioning government that both serves and protects the people of Iraq, thereby winning their consent to be governed.

Once that consent is conferred, the worst of the war will be over.

I'm not sure how many reporters recognize that consciously, but it is a reality they respond to instinctively. They hear "good" news from the military, but what is before their eyes is chaos.

What few in the media or the U.S. government seem to realize is that these two contradictory things can be true at the same time, but they are truths that glide past each other. They do not speak to the same problem.

The U.S. military, at least the commanders I talked to, are keenly aware they can "win" the fight against the insurgents but the war still be lost by the civilian governors of Iraq, both American and Iraqi.

Don't confuse activity with progress, one of them told me in Tall 'Afar.

As in the rest of the world, soldiers and reporters see what they are conditioned by experience in Iraq to see. A soldier acts upon the world, and a reporter observes it. One is focused on the process, the other the apparent result. Individual casualties weigh heavy on the soldiers who called the dead friends. The sum totals of death and injury place an equal if less personal burden on the shoulders of journalists, who must rationalize the number with the government's claims it is winning the war.

Time Magazine reported this week the White House is sending a top aide to Iraq to see if it can influence the media to cover the war more positively.

The effort will likely result in increasing the numbers of embedded media. If news organizations can spare the staff -- it is not possible to provide comprehensive national coverage outside Baghdad -- it is a worthwhile endeavor. Reporters will learn a different and equally valid view on that unit's area of operations, and they will meet with commanders and soldiers who can be very good and honest sources.

At the same time they must resist pressure to produce "good news" stories to "balance" the bad, an inherently fraudulent concept flogged by many in the government and military.

There should only be true stories, accurately told.

Iraq is a deceptive place, with thousands of narratives running through it. None is more right or wrong than the blind men describing the elephant.

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