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Monday, 10 March 2008 18:47

Greg Mitchell Got It Right When So Many Others in the Media Got Iraq Wrong

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

It's funny that, with all the claims of how successful the surge is, you haven't seen a big surge in the amount of on-the-ground reporting by American journalists. You would think, if things were so calm there, that you'd be getting a tremendous surge in the on-the-scene reporting by Americans. But they still seem to be mainly relying on their Iraqi staffers. That seems to be a tip-off that things are not so hunkey-dory.

-- Greg Mitchell, author, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq

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Greg Mitchell, editor of the newspaper business trade publication, Editor and Publisher, has doggedly reported on how the mainstream media botched the pre-Iraq War coverage, and the follow-up, for many years.

We e-mail back and forth with Greg from time to time and his indignation at how superficial and wrong most of the reporting on Iraq was remained strong. Most journalists, even if they saw the errors in the mainstream media reporting, kept quiet. It doesn't gain you a lot of friends in your profession when you point out their flaws. But Mitchell felt his calling was to the truth, not to participate in a cover-up.

Now he has a book out about the flawed Iraq War coverage: So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.

As another colleague, Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News, writes:

How cool is this? Bruce Springsteen wants you to buy this book -- this book being the new "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq" by my friend Greg Mitchell, the editor of Editor and Publisher who hobnobbed with rock 'n' roll glitterati during his stint at the legendary magazine Crawdaddy! Springsteen says in a brief (i.e., it's a lot more concise than "Jungleland") preface that Mitchell's book "is to remind us that we all need to be more questioning, skeptical and savvy than ever in assessing information that's presented to us. And we ought to teach our children to do the same."

"So Wrong for So Long" is certainly a big start in the right direction. Using a variety of writing techniques and approaches that stretch over five agonizing years of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the collected works touch on the wide scope of journalistic malpractice that stretches to the present, including the early ignoring of Abu Ghraib, civilian casualties, Haditha, and military suicides, among others. One thing stood out as a recurring and awful theme: That it didn't have to be this way, that America's journalists had plenty of information that was readily available in late 2002 and early 2003 to show that the case for the war was partly overhyped but mostly bogus.

Mitchell deserves our thanks for exposing how journalism, for the most part, failed us.

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BuzzFlash: Greg, at Editor & Publisher, you've covered the coverage of the Iraq war over the years, and been quite critical of that coverage. Now you have a book out on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war, called So Wrong For So Long: How the Press, the Pundits - and the President - Failed on Iraq. And you have a Preface by Bruce Springsteen and Foreword by Joseph L. Galloway, a couple of interesting people who certainly have given their imprimaturs and words to your book. But it's the fifth anniversary. The war is still going on. Has the press stopped getting it wrong?

Greg Mitchell: Well, everything's relative, isn't it? Going back for three years now, there's been a lot more tougher coverage from Iraq. I always try to differentiate between the often brave, and sort of tough-minded reporters who have really stuck their necks out, literally, in Iraq. And there are some columns in the book that hail some of their work.

Not all the coverage from Iraq has been terrific, of course. But the bigger complaint is with a lot of the reporting from Washington, and a lot of the pundits and the editorial writers. What's different about this book is that it's really, I think, the first history of the entire war, because it really covers five years, going from the last months in the run-up to the war, right up through last November. It's from the run-up to well into the surge, past the Petraeus report last fall. So if you look at the 75 chapters, it really is a chronological accounting of the entire war for five years. And I don't think there's anything else like that.

There have been many books about the WMD scandal and the failures of Rumsfeld in the early years of the occupation, but I don't think there's anything in books that covers five years. And of course, in this case, it's through the lens of the media coverage. Because the media was covering everything, you can, in a way, tell a history through the media coverage. And as you said, the book is critical of much of the coverage.

BuzzFlash: Obviously, most of the progressive left including BuzzFlash has been critical of the mainstream media coverage of the war. I recall that suddenly a year or so back the Pentagon and the White House went from calling those who are attacking U.S. troops in Iraq "insurgents" to calling them al-Qaida. In the matter of a day, it just happened. And within a day, the media was calling them al-Qaida.

Greg Mitchell: Right.

BuzzFlash: How does something happen so uncritically when anyone who has been reading about this knows that the Pentagon has confirmed that less than 5%, and possibly only 2% of those who are fighting against American forces, are indeed al-Qaida. That has been confirmed periodically by the Pentagon between pronouncements that we're fighting al-Qaida.

Greg Mitchell: Well, the main message of the book is that the press has not been skeptical enough, right down to the present day. There's relative degrees of skepticism, but in general, it's what they teach you in the first year of journalism school -- to be skeptical and probe officials and don't take things at face value. If someone has a dog in a fight, as they say, or, is in a position to make a defensive or self-serving statement, then take it with a grain of salt.

Yet, in relation to the war, the top reporters at the top newspapers and TV networks have often taken what the Pentagon or the Secretary of State or the White House has to say, printed it, and then maybe looked into it. So I'm always looking for the words in the stories where it'd, say, the Pentagon "claimed," or the Pentagon "asserted," and this could not be confirmed. Instead, they just report it as it seems to be the case. That's my biggest complaint with all the coverage. It certainly was reflected in the WMD coverage, or lack of coverage. And it is a problem.

Again, I think reporters have gotten tougher overall. I think they were embarrassed by what happened in the run up to the war so there has been overall tougher reporting. But as in the example you cite, there's too much going along with how things are pictured. In fact, I remember - I mean, The New York Times went halfway in pulling back after they were reporting the al-Qaida thing. Then they actually ran sort of a correction or an editor's note saying that they were going to be labeling it al-Qaida -- units connected to al-Qaida and Mesopotamia or something complicated like that. But it was disingenuous. And we were linking it to the earlier reports that had this all directed by bin Laden. So there's more of an awareness. But too often, they're still going along with what's the official line.

BuzzFlash: Another thing that comes up, with those of us who look at reports out of Iraq, or out of Washington about Iraq, we remember certain things and tend to be surprised because the mainstream media doesn't seem to -- it seems to have a short attention span.

Greg Mitchell: Right.

BuzzFlash: For instance, again to bring up the al-Qaida issue, the Pentagon admits that less than 5% of the fighters are al-Qaida. And the Pentagon has admitted this again from time to time, in between asserting other things, and that most of them come from Saudi Arabia. And yet Saudi Arabia is Bush's best buddy, and everything is excused with Saudi Arabia.

Greg Mitchell: I just read that they're executing a woman for witchcraft. Are you asking why does the media seem to repeatedly let Saudi Arabia off the hook?

BuzzFlash: It's more than that. It's that they tend to take the story of the day from the Pentagon or from whomever is briefing them in the green zone in Iraq and they write about that story of the day as if it's fact. And they don't compare it to what someone said last week.

Greg Mitchell: As you said, it is a short attention span. They've got to cover something, and then they move on. It's a problem, particularly in this area, because there is a lack of understanding among most people about what's really going on there. If you take the example of Basra -- I mean, what is really going on in Basra? You read that the British pulled out because things were better. And then you read that the city's really been taken over by militias, and it's horrible, and women are back wearing veils and everything else.

So there really is a need for continuity. And the problem in Iraq is that it's still so dangerous that most of the reporting is still being done by Iraqis who are sent out by their American counterparts. It's funny that, with all the claims of how successful the surge is, you haven't seen a big surge in the amount of on-the-ground reporting by American journalists. You would think, if things were so calm there, that you'd be getting a tremendous surge in the on-the-scene reporting by Americans. But they still seem to be mainly relying on their Iraqi staffers. That seems to be a tip-off that things are not so hunkey-dory.

BuzzFlash: There are some very brave reporters. A lot of them have been killed in Iraq for venturing out. Some who went into Falujah were killed. But a lot of reporters just basically stay in the Green Zone and get briefed by the Pentagon.

Greg Mitchell: It's a little more proactive than that, because they do have their Iraqi staffers who are very active in going out, and taking direction, and going around. They have people around the country who file reports. They do get briefed by the Pentagon, but they're also informed by other things. I'd have to be there to be able to judge whether they've pulled back too much, and that they should be out more. But it's hard to judge, given the level of violence, whether it's fair to criticize them for not getting out and around more.

BuzzFlash: There was a period when, for about every two months, there was an announcement that the U.S. military had killed or captured the number-two al-Qaida leader in Iraq. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but over the course of years, it seemed that there were fifty number-two al-Qaida leaders.

Greg Mitchell: Well, they kept replacing them when they got bumped off.

BuzzFlash: I guess so. And they never say "alleged" al-Qaida leader, they usually just will take what the Pentagon says, and they will say, at the end of a long sentence, the military said, or the military revealed at a briefing. The attribution comes at the end. They don't say claimed, and they don't say unconfirmed, or they don't point out that the same thing was said a month ago. That's what I mean.

Journalists are afraid to seem like they're too hard-assed, too negative, too critical, too liberal, if you will. Too anti-war. So they bend over backwards to tell it straight down the line and print just what the officials say. Then, maybe somewhere down the page, there's maybe some skepticism about it, or some critic points out something else. But the lead is still the official announcement. I just wish there was more of this skepticism expressed right at the outset. And something to point to the pattern of deception that we have seen.

BuzzFlash: You bring up a good point. In the history of the war in Iraq, there has been very little in terms of mainstream media coverage, other than The New York Times and Washington Post sort of saying mea culpa. The New York Times said it for Judith Miller, and then they go back to writing generally uncritically. Let me bring up another example. You read a headline from an Associated Press or Reuters article, and it says "32 insurgents killed today by U.S. military."

Greg Mitchell: Right.

BuzzFlash: How do we know those are insurgents if we bombed them? Their bodies are probably to smithereens. How would one know they're insurgents? And why doesn't it say alleged insurgents? How could one prove that these are insurgents, whatever insurgents are?

Greg Mitchell: Of course, headlines often simplify what's in the story, so you have to look at the headline and see how they describe it in the lead. They probably said the U.S. forces struck and killed 32 insurgents this morning in a suburb of Baghdad -- comma -- according to military sources. And then they'd go on from there. So there is an attribution there. But it doesn't say this could not be confirmed by any witnesses at the scene.

Sometimes -- and again, this is different than four years ago -- we do see, now, maybe in the second or third or fourth paragraph, that witnesses said that among the dead were three children and a baby, or four women. Or, witnesses have said that this was not an insurgent hangout but a coffee shop with a range of community people. You do see that. So that's an improvement.

But you're right - nine times out of ten, it just is reported as whatever the Pentagon says. And there's very little ability to check that. You do have these cases where there are Iraqis who can be reached or the Iraqi reporters can get out there. And they do. They have had revelations about the killing of innocent people. But it's still just a small, small number of reports.

BuzzFlash: Isn't this a pattern that also held in the Vietnam War? They could decimate a village and then say, okay, 120 Viet Cong were killed. That also included women and children, but no one could really verify that because a patrol went out. They didn't have a reporter with them. They came back and they announced, okay, we killed 120 Viet Cong.

Greg Mitchell: Right. That was used to justify what they were doing. They could say we're actually making progress because we killed this amount this week. But, you know, the actual numbers killed is not tallied as prominently as it was in Vietnam. But it is still used to justify these attacks.

BuzzFlash: Now let me add another assumption here -- this was the most fleeting of things in the press. I recall about a year ago reading a poll in the Washington Post of Iraqis that 61 percent supported attacks on American troops.

Greg Mitchell: Right.

BuzzFlash: Now I'm not saying a poll is at all sacred. Particularly given the conditions in Iraq.

Greg Mitchell: But there have been several polls that have shown much the same thing. That wasn't just one poll.

BuzzFlash: So how does the press put that in context? Everything the Administration is saying is basically wrong. The Bush Administration is saying we're bringing democracy. The people want us. We're saving this nation. And the polls show that actually a majority of the people support the so-called insurgents.

And the vast majority see the U.S. as an occupying force, which is totally contradictory to the narrative that the Bush Administration has been successful in peddling.

Greg Mitchell: Actually I haven't seen any recent poll on that. The polls that I remember, as you said, were a year or two ago. It was so horrendous that even Bill O'Reilly and a couple other people like that said publicly, the Iraqis don't want us there? Okay, let's pull out. I'm changing my view on this. Basically - screw them. Because that got so much attention in about a 24-hour period. Then it was forgotten, of course.

But I haven't seen the same kind of polls, let's say, in the last six months. I think the question would be, with the surge narrative that we're seeing, whether there are polls that still show the same thing? If so, they should be getting much more publicity.

I think McCain was asked recently about this specifically -- this kind of angle. And he said, as some of the military people have said, of course they want us to leave at some point. But they're very grateful for us staying there now, or staying there until things are really calmed down. They would say there's no contradiction there. Yes, they want us to go. But they're really not in such a hurry any more.

BuzzFlash: Going back to our taking the first steps in the Iraq war -- where did the media go wrong?

Greg Mitchell: Well, in some ways, that's the most familiar part of the book. There have been a number of books that have looked at that, so 95% of my book really picks up from that point to see what has gone so wrong for so long in the five years since.

But it also has a good summary and treatment of the run up to the war. Basically, Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N was a tremendous turning point. People forget there was a lot of protest, and a lot of criticism of the rush to war. There were many newspaper editorials. Certainly there were huge demonstrations in the streets where people were saying: look, you're in too big of a rush. We don't want the war now, or there's no need for war. And people kind of forget that now.

But the mainstream reporting on TV and newspapers was very much, you know, here's the evidence. And Saddam's covering up stuff. The biggest scandal in the whole thing -- it still is stated by the President on down -- was that Saddam "wouldn't let inspectors in." Of course, the inspectors were there for weeks and had found nothing. They finally left only when the deadline for the invasion came. That, to me, is probably the biggest untold or misreported aspect of it, as the years have gone on, this notion that the inspectors were not in there. They were there and, in fact, they were finding absolutely nothing. And they were right. YThe French were right. The inspectors were right. The U.N. was right. And it was the U.S. that was wrong.

BuzzFlash: How many journalists are equipped to make sense of this? Are there many American journalists who have the ability to understand the complexity of Iraqi society, of the different factions there, where you not only have the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, but then, of course, factions within the Shiite and Sunni groups. It's a tremendously complicated picture for which you really need specialists.

Greg Mitchell: Well, one of the things I'm most proud of is that, at Editor & Publisher, in the run-up to the war, we ran article after article that was raising all these questions. We had three separate interviews with Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter and war correspondent. He repeatedly was warning about the pitfalls of the war. I quote him several times in the book, ands we quoted him at the time. He was constantly raising the issue you just raised -- where, even if they're well meaning, the American reporters are just not trained. They don't know the language. They don't know the religious background. They may do the best they can, but they don't speak the language. They're not really prepared to cover this kind of war. So you're going to get the kind of superficial or rah-rah coverage which we saw.

The reporters liked being embedded with the troops because they spoke English, and they were protected. And they were able to get the real human interest kind of story that plays very well. They were doing the best they could, let's say, but not really being equipped to do what was needed. That's why the Chris Hedges things were really prescient. And he even said that Iraq's going to turn into our West Bank, which is exactly what has happened.

BuzzFlash: Now we have been there five years, and John McCain says we could be there a hundred years. Has the press just sort of settled in and the American public's attention has kind of turned away from Iraq? It's on the economy now. What is happening with the Iraq coverage right now?

Greg Mitchell: It certainly has been supplanted by political campaign coverage. There's no doubt about that. But as far as the political campaign coverage, even that will change once you have the two candidates. We've already seen McCain and the Democrats starting to fire at each other over the war. All you have to do is listen to McCain and Obama or Clinton for five minutes, and you'll see the tremendous conflict there. So, certainly, this autumn it'll be a hot issue.

In the mean time, I just think it's tough to cover ""the surge in the sense that allegedly what is aimed at is producing political progress in Iraq. And it's not really seen. It's easier to write something if Sadr's army is slaughtering people in the streets -- that's easier to cover. It's very hard to cover the political machinations there behind the scenes. All you can do is, every few days, say this person threatened to shut down the legislature, or, still no progress on the oil bill, or something like that. It doesn't make for real scintillating coverage. But, obviously, with all these grandiose claims being made about the surge, there needs to be very tight fact-checking on what's going on.

BuzzFlash: How do you cover something like Anbar province? This was a province that Bush singled out as a success of the surge, of the attempt to get tribal leaders to cooperate with the United States. There's been a lot of discussion about how successful that is, and particularly how tenuous it is.

Greg Mitchell: Long range, yes.

BuzzFlash: If you were a journalist, how do you begin to really understand that, given the difficulties of going into this remote province in Iraq and trying to make sense of it?

Greg Mitchell: Well, they tend to make short trips. And again, I go back to what I had said earlier. If things had calmed down so much, we should be seeing reports every day from there, which I don't really see. So I'm not really sure what the disconnect is there. Maybe it's still too dangerous to get to Anbar. Anbar is safe, but you can't get there. But you'd expect to see more reporting on exactly what's going on there.

But again, the important thing is not the day-to-day progress today, but what's going to happen in the near future with the people who were our enemies, but now they're our friends, and they are fully armed. If we eventually do reduce or pull out, what's going to happen? This could all be a charade to get Bush out of office with a more positive feeling about the war. And then a year from now, or three years from now, or six years from now, we've made things worse because we've armed the bad guys. But how do you cover that today? The pundits can write about it in a column, but it's pretty tough for the reporters to cover.

BuzzFlash: What's difficult in this and complex to cover, is you have the situation that there is some contention that the Sadr army and their sort of cease fire, are probably the major reason that there have been fewer deaths in Iraq, or at least a large factor. But how does one prove that or explore that?

Greg Mitchell: The only way you could really prove anything is if you lifted the cease fire, and things suddenly plunged back into the way they were a year ago. Then you'd say this was a simple thing. You had a cease fire so it made the surge look good. And now you see that it's all a sham. Short of that, I don't know how to prove anything. I don't know how much he's continuing the cease fire because the American presence is so much stronger. How much of it is he just is afraid he was going to get arrested and he's just looking after himself and looking at the long haul -- looking five, ten, twenty years down the road. I don't know. They may maintain the cease fire and the violence will continue at a lower level. Maybe we'll never see a giant upsurge. Or it could happen any time.

BuzzFlash: Given how critical you've been in your book and your articles of the media coverage of Iraq, what are your suggestions? How can the media better approach a complex situation like this?

Greg Mitchell: I think it's fairly simple -- just to be skeptical. We've seen some improvement in the reporting -- whenever the threats against Syria or Iran have been ratcheted up. I'm sure you and a lot of other people are not thrilled with a lot of the coverage, but I think that you probably recognize that there was more skepticism voiced, a little less cheer leading, pretty much across the board. I think if that can be maintained or even increased, that's all anyone could ask for.

Just be more skeptical. And, you know, I lived through the Vietnam and the Watergate era. I remember in the Seventies there was a tremendous surge of investigative reporting, a tremendous sense of don't trust officials. It was don't trust what the government was saying. Everyone was down on the FBI, on the CIA, certainly the White House, the Pentagon -- very skeptical of all these people for quite a few years. And then that faded.

You come into the Eighties, and the Nineties, and up to today, and that sort of went away. We have to again hammer the lessons of the war, and the WMD scandal and everything else. You have to keep it alive so that reporters will act differently in the future.

BuzzFlash: Greg, thank you very much. We highly recommend your book, and we'll be selling it on BuzzFlash.

Greg Mitchell: Okay, very good. Thanks a lot.

BuzzFlash: Thank you.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Resources

www.editorandpublisher.com

New book shows the media didn't have to blow it on Iraq (Attytood)

www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/about_us

Mitchell fires shots, sings praise, names names (IraqSlogger)

Buy the book here.

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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