Media's hand in the Iraq war

My exchange with Iraq war blogger Bill Roggio raises a sensitive issue.

A few months ago in this space, I wrote about Bill Roggio, a blogger who covers US military campaigns, as an example of an online counterpoint to the mainstream media (MSM) coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On his blog, and in pieces for publications such as The Weekly Standard, Mr. Roggio offers a more positive view of the military campaigns. What follows is an e-mail discussion we had last week about the MSM's coverage of Iraq:

Chinni: I know you weren't particularly pleased with the media's coverage of Iraq as of December. Has it gotten better, worse, or more accurate since then?

Roggio: In some respects the media coverage in Iraq has improved, such as the recent spate of reporting on the remarkable success in suppressing Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Anbar Province. But as a whole, the coverage in Iraq lacks context, and reporters as a whole display a lack of knowledge of counterinsurgency and the role the media plays in an insurgency's information campaign.

For instance, the success in Anbar was immediately negated when Al Qaeda conducted a suicide attack in Ramadi in early May, and the Associated Press "reported" that the attack dealt "a blow to recent U.S. success in reclaiming the Sunni city from insurgents." Al Qaeda conducted the attack to generate such an opening paragraph. This type of reporting is all too common in Iraq.

In the media reporting, the Baghdad Security Plan (the troop surge) was practically declared a failure before it even began. Al Qaeda and insurgent groups have clearly reduced attacks in the capital (even though the full complement of forces are yet to arrive, and much of Baghdad has yet to be cleared) and increased attacks in the provinces. Yet these attacks are generally lumped together. The goal posts have been shifted, and Al Qaeda achieves the desired effect – Iraq is a failure.

Chinni: I agree that the press was largely – and quickly – critical of the troop surge. That may have something to do with the general change in the public attitude toward the war over the past year.

On the point of Ramadi, isn't the press right to say the bombing "dealt a blow" to claims that US forces had calmed the city?

If you are saying there is a difference between Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda, I understand. But aren't US forces basically fighting a hydra over there? As a guerrilla force, the insurgents' goal is to create mayhem, which is easier and more headline-grabbing than trying to establish calm.

Roggio: The Ramadi template has played out numerous times in Iraq. After a big operation in Tal Afar, the situation improved dramatically in the northern city. Tal Afar was declared a model of success by President Bush. Al Qaeda decided to pull off an occasional suicide attack in the city, so it could hang Tal Afar around the president's neck like an albatross. When attacks occur, you read, "A suicide attack killed X and wounded Y in Tal Afar, a city President Bush declared a model of success in Iraq...."

Does this mean Ramadi or Tal Afar are perfectly secure cities? No. But progress there has been dramatic, and there are only reports if something goes wrong. That is exactly what Al Qaeda in Iraq wishes to achieve.

Like it or not, the media is a part of the battlefield. Why do the media refuse to recognize their role as participants – even if passive – in this war?

There are numerous heads to the hydra. However, each poses a different level of threat. Al Qaeda is the most dangerous element as it seeks to ignite the sectarian violence and turn Iraqis against one another. They are responsible for the mass casualty suicide attacks. Even Sunni insurgent groups, which are by no means friends of the US, are beginning to recognize this.

Chinni: But regardless of who is doing the killing, it seems killing itself is the point now. So if attacks succeed in fomenting more violence, isn't it possible the violence itself may be more significant than who is behind it?

There is some truth to your point on the media's role as a participant. But doesn't the media's job include reporting those attacks? If you're saying the media aren't getting the whole picture, I doubt anyone would argue. Iraq, or any drawn-out insurgency, is close to impossible to grasp in its entirety, particularly in real time.

And there is a lot of bad news in Iraq beyond bombings. As the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index statistically shows, the country's schools and health system are in trouble, and unemployment is about 30 percent.

Still, from your perspective, the changing media landscape itself must be some consolation. People can always click on different websites for other perspectives.

Ten years ago, wouldn't have existed; now your reporting and views are out there with everyone else's.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.

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