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Monday, April 03, 2006

Let's have good news from Iraq, please: Criticisms of a liberal media bias seem valid

By Dennis Byrne

April 3, 2006

Is The New York Times going bi-polar, or what?

The nation's imperial paper recently said it wouldn't engage in off-the-record sit-downs with President Bush, an invitation that other papers have accepted with no twinges of conscience. Not so the Times. Explained a top executive to Editor & Publisher, a newspaper industry publication: "As a matter of policy and practice, we would prefer when possible to conduct on-the-record interviews with public officials."

Oh, come on.

The Times--like many newspapers--feeds off anonymous sources, especially if the leak trashes the Bush administration. A Times reporter spent months in jail for refusing to reveal an anonymous source, and the newspaper happily ran leaked, classified information about the wiretapping of international conversations with terrorists.

So, save us the baloney. The public knows that anonymous sources usually spill information that benefits the spiller or his interests. Yes, the public understands that an occasional unnamed source is useful in exposing wrongdoing. But it also understands that the many "high purposes" the media use to justify the unabashed spread of "spin" (it used to be called propaganda) under the cloak of secrecy is just bunk.

Yet, the Times and others continue to embarrass the business with this kind of transparent nonsense. It's one reason that newspaper circulation and the viewership of evening network news are declining. Like a gravely ill patient that refuses to listen to a glum diagnosis, too many of my colleagues greet criticisms of a liberal media bias with a closed-minded, "I'm sick of hearing it."

Just like they did after Bush recently joined in the criticism. "The kind of progress that we and the Iraqi people are making in places like Tal Afar is not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news," he said. "Footage of children playing, or shops opening, and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion, or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured."

Editor & Publisher followed up with a story, "Iraq reporters hit back at claims they are biased on war coverage." Taking the offensive, they replied that the administration itself fails to come up with enough good news stories, and when it does, reporters don't get enough protection to go out and safely cover the story.

Those of us who haven't been in a war zone criticize the work of war correspondents at our own peril. Yet, for all the assertions that little or no good news is to be found in Iraq, it is simple to find some on the Internet from, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is helping rebuild Iraq. (Why is it called "rebuilding" Iraq, when it was a sorry state before the war? Shouldn't we be talking about "building" Iraq?)

Billions of dollars of highway and other public works projects; new safety nets for the poor and vulnerable, entrepreneurial opportunities, a free press, leadership training--all requisites for successful self-government. For all the stories about power shortages, for example, how many explain that they are partly the result of exploding demand, a good sign of economic progress?

Oddly, some journalists give little credence to such official, attributable reports. In today's upside-down world, official government reports don't carry the same weight as whispered, unattributed reports.

News often is defined as something that didn't happen before, or rarely happens. So, if indeed little good is happening in Iraq, every piece of (rare) good news ought to be reported with the same fervor as every act of violence--which we're to believe is an increasingly common occurrence. And, logically, less deserving of reporting. Or does the absence of reporting "good news" in a country the size of Iraq actually mean that reporters can find absolutely nothing good?

If all this is confusing, it's nothing compared to the confusion shared by the American public about what actually is happening in Iraq. The media's credibility has become so strained that partisans on both sides have to admit in good conscience that they're unsure of what's real. Obviously, this isn't good for a democracy.

So, the media might give more thought to being less defensive, and more objective, not just in covering the news, but also in evaluating their own performance. The public would appreciate that kind of good news.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and consultant.

E-mail: dennis@dennisbyrne.net

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

16 comments:

Peter K, Chicago said...

Thank you! Surely the news from Iraq is not all good, but it's not all bombs and strife either. Explosions make better TV than school openings but that alone can't explain the overwhelming negativity of the stories. I believe most Americans,whether or not they they believe we should even be in Iraq, want to see us succeed and wouldn't mind hearing about events that seem to indicate that possibility.

Bob said...

While listening to the NPR program On The Media over the weekend I was stunned by their take on the refusal of a Knight Ridder reporter to not attend off the record sessions with President Bush. To the host this was a principled stand that only applied to the current President. Are these people completely nuts?

Spook said...

In addition to the excellent points you made, I would also submit three reasons that it is virtually impossible for most mainstream American media to be anything but biased in their coverage of news and in their presentation of opinion. First, those two once-separate efforts are today conflated almost beyond recognition.

Secondly, while championing the virtues of diversity, in the major arenas of American Life --- government, business, and education, the mainstream American media remains, with a few notable exceptions, the least diverse of major organizations in America today. The lack of diversity of thought among the staff of media today prevents them from achieving the balance and additional benefits of diversity they so heartily endorse and espouse for other organizations.

To paraphrase Jeff Jacoby; they [mainstream media news and editorial staffs] may look, different, but they all think the same.

And, finally, for all of the finger-pointing that the media does regarding openness and transparency in organizations serving the public, the mainstream news media is the least open of any organization purporting to serve the public today.

Until the very recent emergence of the Blogesphere as a valid and reliable forum for citizen opinion, there was not a single significant, widely disseminated challenge to the very tight filter on public discourse as promulgated and protected by the major media.

The mainstream media today is the classic case of the cobbler's children needing new shoes.

Northside Mom said...

What a whiny editorial yesterday

How difficult for you to live in an "upside-down" world, where the "good news" is not given the same coverage. I guess the "truthiness" about Bush's colossal failure in Iraq just doesn't get enough play, does it.

Thank goodness our family gets the NY Times in addition to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune continues it's downward spiral into irrelevance (not to mention fraud per last year's scandal on inflated circulation numbers) . The Sunday paper is a joke. What used to be an enjoyable, informative morning of reading takes about 1/2 hour now. If I had to choose between the newspapers I'd choose the NYT and this is after being a loyal patron of the Tribune all my life. The Tribune's decimation of in-depth foreign and US reporting leaves Chicagoans in the dark on critical issues facing America. But then, this is all to the advantage of the Tribune's true masters: the misadministration of Cheney/Bush and their corporate buddies. Keep us in the dark and feed us you know what. Chicagoans, according to the Trib are really interested in happy news - like the Trib's new Personals page. (Even my mother, an uber-GOPer, is appalled!!.)

The NYT has it's scandals for sure - and for this liberal, it can never be liberal enough. But if one wants some real in-depth reporting on both sides of the issues, there is no other choice for us in Chicago these days (forget indicted Conrad Black's horrible paper).

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of bad news that you believe American's are getting too much of continues:

- U.S. Announces Deaths of Nine American Troops (4 more yesterday too!!)
- Sectarian Strife Fuels Gun Sales in Baghdad
- Civilians in Iraq Flee Mixed Areas as Killings Rise
- Rice admits "thousands" of errors in Iraq (are those the dead Iraqi's or our brave ill-used American soldiers?)
- U.S. Plan to Build Iraq Clinics Falters - Contractor Will Try to Finish 20 of 142 Sites after two years and roughly $200 million

And it goes on and on and on. You are right that Americans don't know what is actually going on in Iraq. If what was going on was reported in full - Americans would impeach Bush and find the fastest honorable way to get out of Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Your column in today's Tribune is breathtaking in its ridiculousness. One example- You say that "Oddly, some journalists give little credence to such official, attributable reports." Shocking, that they would believe their own eyes, rather than more of the government propaganda which has proven untrue or misleading at nearly every turn. Personally, I believe the press at this point more than any "official" reports.

Second, are you upset if the press reports what the government tells them and then go see with their own eyes and interview people in Iraq and then report that? Or is that not getting out the good news? When you say that people are unsure of what is real, is that the fault of a free press or of a government that seeks to shape reality to fit with its own ideology (and is willing to pay faux reporters to pretend to report the truth)?

Third, you act as though anonymous sources are not the bedrock of a free press. What business are you in? If the press had only to rely on official government reports, you would be working for the Joseph Stalin news gazette. Whatever the government told you, you could just report it. In fact, anonymous sources (used incidentally by the administration when it serves their purpose), act as a check against the hubris of whatever party is in power.

Fourth, I guess if you ran the paper, you would not have reported on the 9/11 bombing, but would have focused on all the buildings that were not blown up that day. I suppose that would have been considered the good news not reported by the press on that horrible day. I thought you were a newsman? When people get blown up, it is news, even if the government is training people for entrepreneurial skill and leadership training (are you kidding, that the papers should be reporting on the success of leadership seminars?)

And what is this Liberal press you discuss? Is it the Tribune? The WSJ? The Christian Science Monitor? Or is it only the NYT. which seemingly must always defend itself against attacks it receives when it reports things which do not square with the dreams of this administration? Excuse me, but I am due back on the reality-based Earth, while you join Mr. Cheney in making sure your TV is turned only to FOX. I feel like I can watch all of the press (including libs, righties and those trying to be objective) and then make up my mind. Sorry that you think the American public is too stupid to do that.

Tom Vega-Byrnes said...

Interesting column today.  But as a member of the Chicago punditocracy, aren’t you part of the media you criticize?  Anyway, I think the problem you identify has nothing in particular to do with the Iraq war.  You write for a newspaper.  Who invented “if it bleeds, it leads”?  Newspapers.  Why? Because it sells newspapers.  How long has this been a good way to sell newspapers? Probably hundreds of years.  Why does it sell newspapers?  Human nature is morbidly curious, same reason for gaper’s blocks, the popularity of TV wrestling, Jerry Springer and watching auto racing just to see the spectacular and deadly car crashes.  It’s a human weakness that the NY Times did not invent, but maybe exploits.  What about the NY Post?  Do you think it features ribbon-cuttings and “good news” stories on Iraq on its front pages? Fuggedaboudit!

I actually do read some of the good news on Iraq in the Engineering News Record, a weekly that contractors read, about progress or lack of it on big construction projects, in Iraq, among other places.  From what I’ve read, a huge % of the construction budget has been sucked up by security, and to re-build things multiple times.  (It gets built, then blown up, then re-built, etc.)  The ratio of security personnel to construction workers is unprecedented in the annals of the construction business, worldwide.  I can’t give you the number, but it is depressingly high.

Iraq is an extremely big, long and tough job.  It will take many more years.  The problem is that most people (in most countries) will never fully understand (or support) footing the bill in blood and treasure to re-build someone else’s country.  Especially if many people in that country seem to hate us.  Even if it makes sense, it’s the right thing to do, etc. etc.  Human nature being what it is....

The good news in Iraq really is hard to find, mainly because reporters are restricted to the Green Zone.  Basically they are not really in Iraq, but in an artificial bubble where they cannot research stories in the streets (they way journalists are supposed to do it, like they learned at places like the City News Bureau).  Not too many reporters want to end up like Jill Carroll, and risking soldiers’ lives to rescue reporters should not be a top priority for our GI’s.  You mentioned US AID bulletins, and they probably are a good place to start.  But how many City Hall reporters just repeat anything Daley or City Hall says as if it were the gospel truth, without backing it up, researching the story?  So some of the problem is not the war correspondents’ fault.  This is a damn hard war to report on.  Give them some credit.  More reporters have died, and been intentionally killed in Iraq than probably were killed in Viet Nam.

I’d love to hear the good stories, but I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy to hush them up.  Lots of hard realities are out there making it hard to report the few good stories.  I’m sure that editors could give those few stories better play.  You’re probably right on that front.

Keep writing....

Anonymous said...

Good idea Dennis - having our government have a guiding hand in what our "free" press writes. If you don't like the message attack the messenger. Shades of the old Soviet Union and Pravda. An off-the-record sitdown with the President? Why the need to go off-the-record ? Then again why did the President and Vice-President ask to testify together and NOT under oath when they appeared before the 9/11 commission ? This administration seems to have an ongoing problem with things like facts and the truth as in the case of the "bad intelligence" before the war. A story that is spun with half-truths and playing fast and loose with the facts serves the public ? Did it ever occur to you that there actually might be more bad news that is not being reported out of Iraq as well? We know to the number how many of our brave soldiers we have tragically lost in this war. How often do you hear the number of civilian casualties over there? Any reason we never hear about this or is this information unimportant? Sometimes the truth is a very sobering thing to deal with - creating stories to sell this war and soften the tragic events occurring daily over in Iraq serve no purpose. The American people were fed enough "stories" during the runup to this war. You claim the medias credibility is "strained". If the media has a strain the leadership of our country has a double hernia. Did the media claim "we will be greeted as liberators", "the insurgency is in its last throes", "we know where the weapons are", and "mission accomplished"? Yet you feel the media is the only one with a credibilty issue - interesting. One last comment - you state criticizing the work of war correspondents might put you at "peril". Just wonder what the families of the 86 reporters who lost their lives reporting this war would have to say about your concerns.

Michael B said...

Is there enough good news in Iraq to justify America's occupying that land?

This is a question mostly for the Iraqi people to answer. We can promote freedom in Iraq by listening to -- and acting on -- their answer.

In other words, the Iraqi people should have an opportunity in a referendum to let us know when they want our troops to leave their country. And we should leave, possibly sooner, but certainly no later than the Iraqi people want.

Anonymous said...

I spent 5 months in southern Iraq working shoulder to shoulder with the locals rebuilding dilapidated power generation machinery. UN sanctions and Baghdad funding allocations seemed to be the root cause of these power generators being in the state of disrepair that we found them in.

I have nothing but pictures of me with Iraqi guys putting their arms on my shoulders or us sitting down together for lunch. When we got road bombed a couple times in this supposedly "calm" area of Iraq, the locals had nothing but a serious circle of concern about our safety and told us they had dedicated their prayers to our well-being. They offered to help protect us in any manner possible... even safeguard us in their homes if our private security firm would allow it. There was no Shia and Sunni animosity that we saw... everyone was caring, courteous, and loving towards each other as well as to us. I was surprised to learn who the Sunni were in the mostly Shia region... never would have known unless I asked. It didn't make any difference to them.

I've been back for almost a year now and wish I could return somehow to work with them. But contracts are being concluded and work focus is shifting. I even wrote a book about my experiences there... no one is interested in publishing it. But I understand that this is typical in the book publishing industry. Actually, a southern Iraq story would probably be shot down as "non-typical" of the Iraqi experience and given little credibility.

The things my Iraqi hosts wanted me to know was that they are thankful for our troops and our rebuild help, that all of Iraq contains a majority of good people that are thankful, and they assured me whether I was in Basra or Baghdad, the warm hosting from the local working-class Iraqis' that I experienced would be equivalent.

When they get a few extra bucks, the guys still call me a couple times a month to see how I'm doing and if I'm going to come back to Iraq and work with them. They never ask for anything or request that I send anything to them... just want to know how I'm doing and how is my family. I miss them and they miss me. They crave the cultural exchange.

They always wondered though... why would we ever consider NOT helping them? Their specific comment was "You are America... you are blessed by God... why would you NOT help us?"

Keep up the good work Dennis... I spread positive feedback by word of mouth whenever possible. It was undoubtedly the best experience of my life.

bobhora said...

Excellent piece Mr. Byrne and right on target! I wish the media were more objective and self-critical when it comes to their coverage.

As offensive as it may be, I have difficultly believing that more than a handful of journalists in the mainstream media - and no one at the New York Times - actually wants us to win in Iraq. Bush hatred has become a pathology for most of them and it affects all they do.

Anonymous said...

First, how can you claim a liberal media bias when conservatives dominate cable news, the radio, and half of our newspapers? I guess the liberal media bias you refer to is really called the "truth" or "facts". Is the newshour w/ Jim Leher liberal? That's the way news used to be, though I imagine you think it's liberal to present factual accounts of events.

Second, there isn't a lot of good news to come out of Iraq for 2 reasons: there is not a lot of good news to come out of Iraq, and the journalists there that want to report good news can't because the country is so fucked up they could get killed, there have been 80 killed so far, remember??!!

Third, if the media is only reporting the bad news, why don't the liberal media outlets you claim have a bias show all of the coffins coming into Dover? Why don't they show the wounded soldiers with their legs blown off? Why not show the Iraqi kids that have been hurt or killed? Seriously, the media has been nice in its coverage of this war and if American saw the really bad news, which is the true death and destruction, I think we would be out of there faster than you can say "evolution".

And finally, you're a Chicago guy, if someone blew up Old St. Pat's and say, 60 people were killed, women and children, would you, as a reporter/journalist write the next day that Old St. Pat's was destroyed or would you write about the Dan Ryan construction? Which story would get the headlines? It's common sense.

Thanks again Dennis, I look forward to reading your article to reinforce my belief that most conservatives are plain dumb and believe anything the Busheviks tell you and your other sheep.

Jim B. said...

Hello Mr. Byrne:

I think you tried hard in your article to convince me and others that there are positive stories in Iraq, and I'm sure that you are right, but they always seem to be literally blown away by the latest horror -- an IED or suicide bomber who kills scores of people. I just can't get past the bad news there. I feel stuck and depressed and frustrated by the whole mess. And, all the while, the President dons his dark-hued rose-colored glasses and swears that things are a lot better than they seem. This, from a man who's not told it straight since he entered the White House.

By the way, on another note, your other recent article -- "Absence of moral authority" -- was superb. I'm an ex-Roman Catholic, and I've been following many of the scandals in the church. I'm sympathetic to Cardinal George and his plight and his sense of remorse over the mishandling of pedophiles (based on the independent report), but now I feel that he must get it right from this point on or step down. He'll not get another chance. Your last sentence hit like a hammer to the skull. Again, it was one of the best pieces that I've read in the Trib. lately.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that you consider that prewar Iraq supplied vastly greater amounts of energy and security to it's people. Also, please consider the reality that Iraq now has what they consider a
"lost" generation, in that masses of children no longer attend school due to the threats of violence. Consider that villages in northern Iraq, long home to Christians and secure, no longer are safe.

These are just a few of the realities. To suggest that we are building rather than rebuilding is offensive. You seem to think that Iraq is now suddenly a better place because a contained despot no longer rules. You apparantly have never studied tribalism and regionalism beyond geopolitical fantasies.

Take a tour over there, at least 6 weeks worth, and then tell me how the good news outweighs the bad.

My best to you

Ed Priz said...

I really have difficulty with the hypocricy of Americans who have decided, at this late date, that the movement of people into this country has to be limited by whatever drastic and draconian means they can think of. The United States was created by, and expanded by, successive waves of people who came from somewhere else.

Personally, I think our country is a lot better off with an influx of hard-working people who are willing to take risks to achieve financial and personal freedom and opportunity, just as we were in the past when waves of desperate Irish, Italian, German, and other European immigrants sought refuge and advancement here.

Anonymous said...

There are times when two people witness the same event and upon relating it to a third person who was not present it will sound as though they are talking about two entirely different events. Dennis Byrne provides a great perspective. Yes, on any given day there is tragedy and death but there are as is pointed out positive news as well. There is the news of water, power and schools that are operating to report. There are each of the successful elections that took place and the news of Iraqi military and police taking more of an active role in the future of Iraq. On any given day an infantry company will conduct 12-15 combat patrols completing the mission they are assigned often without incident. We see acts of kindness and generosity displayed not just by our honorable service members but by the Iraqi people as well. When a tragedy occurs we see acts of heroism and in some cases sacrifice. In all fairness to our military, our citizens and the entire country we must report all aspects of the war. This is necessary so people can make an informed decision about the events that occur each day. Thanks again to Dennis Byrne and all those who report the news for their perspective. Thanks to our Veterans and elected officials who have given us the opportunity to express our opinion and disagree without fear from reprisal. Thanks to those who have fallen and their families who remember them. Thanks to America where the system isn't perfect but it gets better everyday.

William Lord said...

Mr Byrne is correct in claiming there is a bias in the national media. The literally billions of dollars unaccounted for in the so-called Iraq reconstruction is mostly absent from the mainstram corpaorate own media. You have to go to radical sources such as NPR or the BBC to find any detailed coverage. Of course, we know that conservatives stand for small government and fiscal responsibility or so I have heard. Maybe there is a trickle down process in Iraq that benefits us all that I don't understand. Can anyone out there explain it?