Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Why Media Matters

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit links to an exceptional piece of reporting by Michael Yon. Yon, as any reader of MILBLOGS knows well, is among the very few independent journalists self-embedding themselves within active combat zones. Arguably, the quality on Yon’s reporting surpasses anything else you can read. But often, his prose achieves the lyricism and beauty of free form verse.

That such writing also conveys a serious and critical message as well makes it all the more valuable. And I think, timeless; I’d nominate Yon’s work as essential content for any first draft of history of our efforts in Iraq.

In his latest report, Yon tells a vivid story of how British forces recently transferred authority for Maysan Province to the Iraqi government, the 4th of 18 provinces to be turned over.

With truly great reporting, a journalist tells the story by careful presentation of images and facts without the (unnecessary) intrusion of the author. The reporter serves as window, without edit, without embellishment, and without any verbal or emotional amplification. The story tells itself.

Yon does so here, at least through the majority of his piece. After a short background piece on recent violence and trouble in Maysan, Yon quickly reduces his report to a string of photos and captions, tied together with a very spare narrative.

As Yon tells his story, he explains that he’s reading General David Petraeus’ Ph.D. dissertation, “THE AMERICAN MILITARY AND THE LESSONS OF VIETNAM:
A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” GEN Petraeus evidently wrote this dissertation for his PhD from Princeton.

Yon quotes Petraeus:

Perceptions of reality, more so than objective reality, are crucial to the decisions of statesmen. What policy-makers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters—more than what actually occurred. . . .

Our enemies know this far better than we do. Not least, because so few practitioners of what can accurately be called journalism actually take the time to consider their effect on public perception, media manipulation, and propaganda – unless it suits their private, personal interests to do so.

Reading Yon, we can’t help but ask the question. Why hasn’t the story of Maysan, and the bigger story of the Iraqi struggle to preserve their democracy, been told in mainstream media (MSM)?

At the conclusion of the transfer of Maysan to the Iraqis, Yon reports:

And that was it: no big drama. The journalists all disappeared. The important political people went back to Baghdad or wherever, and few people seemed to notice that another Iraqi province was turned over. A sampling of the resulting coverage of the ceremony might explain why the handover of authority to Iraqis in a fourth province did not resound as loudly as one would think, given the phalanx of reporters and camera crews.

The transfer of authority did not even make the cut for news for most US publications and networks. Of those which included the story in their news reports, most mentioned it only as part of an overall report about the day’s activities in Iraq. Many of those included it in reports which were headlined or sandwiched with bad news about the violence in other parts of Iraq.

The Washington Post’s “Bombers Defy Security Push, Killing at least 158 in Baghdad” briefly mentions the transfer in a sentence in the seventeenth paragraph. Likewise, The New York Times’ “Bombings Kill at Least 171 Iraqis in Baghdad” mentions the transfer of the province somewhere in the sixth paragraph.
This general theme carried over in the UK media coverage as well. The Guardian offered “‘We’ll be in control by end of 2007’ say Maliki. [sic] In Baghdad, carnage continues.” The Independent headline blared “Hundreds killed on Baghdad’s day of bombs and blood.” Not to be outdone in the dramatic headline competition, The Mirror gave the world “BLOODIEST DAY: 191 dead and hundreds maimed as 5 bombs rock Baghdad.”
The BBC article titled “Iraq troops to take over security” reported on statements made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in the speech prepared for the Maysan ceremony, (delivered by Iraq’s National Security Minister) about the schedule for turning over additional provinces to the control of Iraqi security forces. But before describing the ceremony and without ever providing any details about the province or the Iraqi security forces who now control it, the article inventoried recent attacks and included a mention of the withdrawal of Sadr loyalists from the Iraqi parliament.

On the day after the ceremony, the BBC mentioned it in the sixth paragraph of an article titled “Two UK soldiers killed in Iraq.” The next day it was mentioned again in a BBC article titled “UK soldiers killed in Iraq named,” although this time it was relegated to a mention in the nineteenth paragraph. No details about the ceremony were given in either article, both of which also referenced recent US and UK military casualties, civilian casualties and sectarian violence.

Along with Alex Zavis’ “British Hand Over Province to Iraqi Control” in The Los Angeles Times, two other reporters wrote stories headlined with the transfer ceremony. The Telegraph’s Thomas Harding filed his “200 killed as province returns to Iraqi control” from Camp Sparrowhawk, although he didn’t get around to anything about the transfer ceremony until the 20th paragraph. James Hider’s piece in The Times, “British put the ‘Wild West’ back under control of Iraqis,” was the only other news story about the transfer that was actually about the transfer.

Yon offers no further comment on his fellow practitioners. He headed out on his next mission, one that would bring Yon and his British hosts into a blistering and deadly attack.

To read more about that, we’ll have to check back with Yon’s next report.

But do consider how much misinformation and distortion is caused by media that filters actual news events so selectively. Context must never be provided, unless its political context that underscores the “deeply unpopular war.” Good news can only be included if juxtaposed and overwhelmed by the blasts and bombs of the day. Victory can never be spoken, out of deference to a faux neutrality, or a inapt illogic that insists that success can only be a subjective determination, at all times avoided.

Yon, and his work clearly underscores why so many dismiss the traditional MSM as hopelessly biased, ineffective, and unworthy of representing any kind of social estate. Unless someone can suggest one all of their own, without consequence to the rest of humanity.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what malpractitioners have created for themselves. Thank goodness we no longer need them, with reporters like Yon.

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