My son's friend Todd Jones just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. At a celebratory gathering at his parents' home, we chatted a while and I asked him what he thought were the biggest problems facing the military. Without hesitating, he shot back: "The terrorists, and the media."
In a rare moment of balance on CBS, Army Captain Christopher Vick echoed that sentiment: "I think it's hard for Americans to get up every day and turn on the news and see the horrible things that are going on here, because there's no focus on the good things that go on. What they see is another car bomb went off." This kind of coverage is exactly what the terrorists are seeking to achieve, believes Vick.
Mark Yost, who served in the Navy during the Reagan years, caused a stir in media circles for stating the obvious in an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "to judge by the dispatches, all the Iraqis do is stand outside markets and government buildings waiting to be blown up."
On CNN's "Reliable Sources," host Howard Kurtz asked Frank Sesno, a former Washington bureau chief for CNN, about the Yost column. Sesno acknowledged you get more depth from print coverage, but suggested "even then, the bias is towards that which is going wrong, that which is blowing up and that which is not working." He said Americans ask: "Is anything getting rebuilt? Are they really democrats over there? How engaged are the Sunnis? Could I see an interview with any of these founding fathers and founding mothers of this new emerging country? Can you find that? You'll have a hard time doing it."
He's not kidding. In late June, Iraqi prime minister Ibraham al-Jafari came to Washington. On June 24, he appeared with President Bush at the White House and gave a speech at the National Press Club. But try and find Jafari's name in a Nexis search of TV news. Of the Big Three, only CBS seemed to notice him in Washington - on their little-seen Saturday morning show.
One cable-news exception was MSNBC's "Hardball" on June 23, in which NBC White House reporter David Gregory, substitute-hosting for Chris Matthews, kept trying to bait Jafari with negative questions about the Iraq "quagmire." Jafari was especially upset at Gregory's consistent use of the word "insurgents," insisting that this word would suggest the fighters are Iraqis, which many are not, and they have a broad base of popular support, which they do not.
Even when Jafari's name popped up in other stories, it was but a brief mention en route to another quagmire story. On May 16, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer noted that Jafari made a surprise visit to the country's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. "He told the prime minister to bring more Sunnis into the government to help unify the country. But the latest round of killing seems intended to stir up civil war." Schieffer moved on to yet another relentless-violence story.
NBC had only one story mentioning Jafari since he was selected by Parliament as prime minister in late April. On June 2, he was almost an afterthought in a story anchor Brian Williams pitched. "So what are American soldiers and Iraqi police supposed to do in the face of this violence, especially these suicide attacks? As NBC's Jim Maceda reports tonight, the latest crackdown on the insurgency in Baghdad sounds impressive, but many Iraqis are wondering where it is."
Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff has been a one-man band bringing the undercovered good news from Iraq, often featured on the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal site. Even the New York Times op-ed page featured one of his good-news listings in a graphic presentation on May 13. But here comes the reality check: How many of Chrenkoff's listed developments had previously appeared in the Times? The good news seldom gets in, and when it does, it's buried under negative headlines.
For example, Chrenkoff's chart for the Times noted that on April 11, 65 suspected terrorists were arrested in Baghdad in the biggest joint American-Iraqi raids to date. That was included in "all the news that's fit to print," but deep in an April 13 Times story headlined "Car Bomb Near Convoy in Mosul Kills 4 Iraqis."
You already know the media's response to the criticism: It's not their job to lead the cheers, but to "tell the truth." That "truth," in their eyes, is the war was an unjustified, costly, and ill-planned quagmire. Our news media can proclaim it is not their job to help President Bush win the war on terrorists in Iraq. But their job ought to be to cover all of Iraq, and not just show the American people a stilted nightly horror movie, a dinner plate of Terrorist Helper.