Muted Messages

In most cases, the media do not contrive the stories they report. Iraq, after all, is scarred by car bombings, chaos and killings. But major media outlets do seem to depict U.S. efforts in Iraq in the very worst light by emphasizing some facts, stretching others and burying more. The result is a distorted picture.

For example, when a British journal guessed that 655,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since 2003, the press dutifully made that the headline and didn't report the study's serious flaws in methodology. Even Iraq Body Count, an antiwar group that estimates 78,000 civilian deaths, expressed "considerable cause for skepticism."

Similarly, hidden deep within an Associated Press story headlined "U.S. March Toll Nearly Twice Iraq Forces," we learned that the AP decided not to include Iraqi security troops in its tally, even though they accounted for 164 of the 209 Iraqi members killed that month. Columnist Ben Johnson aptly renamed the once-venerable news organization "Associated Prevaricators."

Speaking of casualty figures, The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto reminds us that 20 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq is from non?hostile causes. Some don't even happen in Iraq. Two U.S. sailors added to the list of those killed in Iraq were actually killed in Bahrain in "a non-combat related incident," by a fellow serviceman. That piece of information didn't make its way into the nightly news or morning paper.

Neither did some significant items from retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez's speech to members of the Pentagon press corps. While half the speech was a harsh critique of the war, the other half was a devastating indictment of the media. Sanchez upbraided the press for "perpetuating the corrosive partisan politics that is destroying our country and killing our servicemembers who are at war." Yet the only item major press outlets reported was Sanchez's description of Iraq as a "nightmare."

Thanks to the troop surge, that nightmare may be ending. Yet as the surge stabilized central Iraq, McClatchy newspapers actually ran a story bemoaning the sharp drop in burials at Iraq's largest cemetery. In other words, even good news is bad news.

But good news is no news, too. To his credit, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz criticized the media's silence on positive post-surge developments, noting that when the Pentagon released a string of good news in late 2007 "the media paid little attention." If casualties were going up, he concluded, "that would have made some front pages."

It pays to recall that in 2006, when CNN received video of snipers killing U.S. troops - video from "intermediaries" connected to the insurgency - it broadcast the footage to an international audience. Ever concerned about being manipulated by the Pentagon, CNN's producers apparently didn't contemplate the propaganda coup they delivered for America's enemies.

According to the Media Research Center (MRC), three-fifths of all CNN stories on the war "emphasized setbacks, misdeeds or pessimism about progress in Iraq." Another MRC study reveals that, in one nine-month period, four negative stories about Iraq appeared for each positive story on ABC, NBC or CBS. In that same period, MRC found only eight stories devoted to heroism and 79 stories "focused on allegations of combat mistakes or outright misconduct."

A case in point is the media's consensus that U.S. troops had perpetrated a "Haditha massacre," without according the accused even a fraction of the objectivity reserved for terrorists. Recall the Orwellian decision by Reuters not to label people engaged in terrorism as "terrorists."

Sadly, some media outlets actually have contrived the stories they report. Consider The New Republic, which published an anonymous soldier's tale of U.S. brutality and depravity. Spurred by The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, bloggers found so many holes in the dispatches that the author ultimately recanted his claims in a sworn statement.

"While we may not get accurate ‘reporting' from Iraq," Goldfarb says, "those who would distort the facts to fit some ideological agenda are likely to be unmasked in short order."

Indeed, the American people are catching on. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of Americans are unsure about the media's Iraq reporting, or believe it is inaccurate.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all the fake news and bad news is that there is good news to report. The American Enterprise Institute's Frederick Kagan highlights the inspiring post-surge successes: car-bombing deaths went down by 81 percent, casualties down 77 percent, terrorist operations down 59 percent, and Iraqis observed their most peaceful Ramadan in three years.

There's more:

Some 3,400 schools have been rehabilitated since 2003, and 809 new schools are under construction. The coalition is building 142 primary health?care centers that will serve 6 million Iraqis.Iraq's infrastructure is delivering more drinking water and electricity than Saddam Hussein's regime ever did.Iraq's GDP was $25.7 billion in 2004, grew to $48 billion in 2006, and hit $61 billion in 2007.

It's no wonder that most Iraqis say they are optimistic about the future, but only the British press cared to report that.

Likewise, The London Telegraph recently tracked the coalition's stunning success in Anbar province, where the allies have crushed al?Qaida. Noting that coalition patrols "are hailed with cries of salaam (peace) and habibi (friend)," the Telegraph devoted a series to Anbar's amazing turnaround.

As Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi diplomat, observed in these very pages, "When you're in Iraq, it's very easy to be quite optimistic about the future. It's when you leave Iraq, and all you know about what's happening is what you read in the press, that you become pessimistic."

So supplement your news diet with information from the State Department, Multinational Forces-Iraq and firsthand accounts from the troops themselves.

Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.


Attacks climb during withdrawal talk

A surprising study by researchers based at Harvard University finds that "in periods after a spike in war-critical statements, insurgent attacks increase by 5 to 10 percent."

Titled "Is There an ‘Emboldenment' Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq," the study concludes that "insurgent groups respond rationally to expected probability of U.S. withdrawal," that "insurgent organizations - even those motivated by religious or ideological goals - are strategic actors," and "there is a small but measurable cost to open public debate in the form of higher attacks in the short term."