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Old 05-19-2007   #1
Sargent
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Default A "radical" view of the press coverage of Iraq

This opinion piece was published in the Army Times, 23 April.

Quote:
U.S. media reports fairly on success, failure in Iraq
By Gian P. Gentile


From my foxhole-view as a tactical battalion commander in western Baghdad in 2006, the American press, although not perfect, has reported the reality of the Iraq war.

Contrary to what most believe in the American military, as well as some conservative columnists and a few politicians, the American press does give a reasonably full, fair and balanced picture of what is happening in Iraq.

The war in Iraq is complex, difficult, deadly and heartbreaking, but with glimmers of hope and success that sometimes shine through the death and violence. Do we expect the press to only report the good and not the bad? Now, sadly, the bad tends to outweigh the good, and I, as a soldier and citizen, want the press to report the war accordingly. [snip]
Here's the link to the rest of the story.

http://www.armytimes.com/community/o...entile_070416/


I attended the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History when Gentile ran it. He's quite a character, very bright, very intellectually engaged in the subject matter, both as a historian in his own right and as a practitioner. He's also the guy who wrote the book that cut the WWII Airpower Survey down to size.

On a comical note, we had possibly the most awkward conversation that, with any two other people, could have ended terribly. He came up to me one evening, midway through the seminar, and opened the conversation with, "Hey, what size is your bed?" Now, I cocked my head to the side, trying desperately to figure out where this was going, and answered, tentatively, "Uh, king size, sir." He then goes on to explain that, given a screw-up with the hotel, some of the fellows were being moved to a different motel, but one of the women who had volunteered to switch had changed her mind, and so he wanted to know whether I would be willing to bunk up with her. If I had a king-size bed, that would make it easier. At which point I got a little impish, and replied, "Well, sir, it's certainly big enough for two, but not for three!" I went on to explain that my husband was coming back from a 2 year unaccompanied tour to Okinawa the next night, and was going to come visit me for the evening. He got a little dejected looking, and I knew he couldn't ask me to move, so I offered to switch rooms outright. He was so relieved. In this day and age, it's not often that a conversation can open with a query about a woman's bed and end with a comment about a threesome without a lawsuit or brouhaha ensuing.
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Old 05-19-2007   #2
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The author of the article, in the terms he framed it, is accurate. I agree with him that "in general" the press is pretty accurate, fair, balanced, and all that happy stuff.

But "in general" serial killers are just regular guys, like you or me.

The people in the press that I've met, tend to mean well and work hard, but only up to a point. In general, though, when dealing with complex, sensitive subjects (with which they tend to have a poor knowledge base), there is a tendency for members of the press to dismiss important details as "trivial" and their resultant articles/features miss the point completely, or paint a picture that is correct to the letter, but violates the essense of what actually happens.

It's a matter of knowledge base and talent. Unfortunately, those with the correct knowledge base tend to lack journalistic skill, while those with journalistic skill tend to not have a good subject knowledge base. Or if they have a good subject knowledge base, they acquired it because they have an agenda.

Of course, the press, like all other walks of life, is inhabited by many who lack knowledge and talent.
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Old 05-19-2007   #3
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I don't necessarily disagree with your critique of the press. What little press coverage there is of Fallujah is almost always wrong in some details, large and small, mostly because they aren't in the city much -- it's too dangerous.

And you rightly acknowledge that this is not the point of Gentile's article. However, to assess the problems that you bring up would require a book length treatment of the subject. Gentile only sought knock at the notion that the press unfairly reports only the bad news in Iraq. And I would submit that we can't get to the point of dealing with the problems you bring up until we knock down the shibboleth that Gentile is attacking:

Quote:
Contrary to what most believe in the American military, as well as some conservative columnists and a few politicians, the American press does give a reasonably full, fair and balanced picture of what is happening in Iraq.
Point of fact, I think that the press, on the whole, is so scared of being labelled as unpatriotic -- if not downright traitorous -- that there is often a knee-jerk flail to tell _any_ good story that can be found. I rarely watch the news, but by some twist of fate I happened to be watching the day that the piece Gentile refers to aired. I found the coverage of the garbage situation a bit like commenting that a dead body's hair was well-coiffed.

By way of contrast, look at the almost entire lack of coverage of the process of bringing home the fallen. Consider how it was covered in the case of Lt. Travis Manion:

Quote:
A six-man Marine honor guard stood by as the helicopter eased down from the afternoon sky. It carefully transferred Manion's body to a gray hearse waiting outside Hangar 680 - a ritual seldom shown in public....

Yesterday's transfer of the flag-draped silver casket was a scene the Pentagon has often taken pains to shield from public view during the Iraq war. It was displayed at the request of Manion's family, who cast the day as a celebration of his return.

"His passion and dedication are an inspiration to us, even as we mourn his passing from this Earth," the family said in a statement.
[from "A sad homecoming for fallen Marine," The Philadelphia Enquirer, 4 May 2007]
http://www.philly.com/inquirer/local...en_Marine.html



There is a video on the web of the ceremony. It's gut-wrenching, but it's also the human side of the war. Why shouldn't the American public see this? Most people aren't serving, the least they can do is be forced to confront some of the real costs involved. Such coverage doesn't have to be a critique of the policy, but it's part of the reality. But there's a fear that such coverage will be assumed to be "negative" that it's being left out of the public story of this war.

So, let's take down the big lie so we can get at the small, and vastly more important, truths of the problem. I think Gentile's piece can be a starting point for that process.

Last edited by Sargent; 05-20-2007 at 04:38 AM.
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Old 05-19-2007   #4
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Hi Sargent,

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Originally Posted by Sargent View Post
There is a video on the web of the ceremony. It's gut-wrenching, but it's also the human side of the war. Why shouldn't the American public see this? Most people aren't serving, the least they can do is be forced to confront some of the real costs involved. Such coverage doesn't have to be a critique of the policy, but it's part of the reality. But there's a fear that such coverage will be assumed to be "negative" that it's being left out of the public story of this war.
I must admit that I have found he US press' reluctance to show material like this to be puzzling. Cori had mentioned elsewhere that the Canadian press was more likely to show images like this, and that is definitely true. Press coverage of fallen Canadian soldiers starts with the report of their death, reactions of their comrades in the AO and at their home base, follows them back to Canada, covers their funerals, etc.

I fully realize that part of the difference is based on the shear number of casualties, but I think a lot of it has to do with two other factors: a) the open debate on the war here (multi-party vs. two-party) and b) the resurgent control of PR by the Canadian Forces. All through this, we see a fairly consistent "message", and the reactions from the population seems to mirror it.

I'm mentioning the Canadian example because I think it can be instructive for the US military in how to produce a "message" that is a) true and b) matches the current needs.

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Old 05-19-2007   #5
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I also think in this case that the media in the US is afraid of its own history. During Vietnam media outlets were often accused of using footage like this to "spin" the coverage of the war in a particular direction. And with Fox News standing ready (too ready according to some) to call other outlets to task, I think they're afraid of that possibility. We may have a two-party system (something I think is a major failing of the American political system as it's evolved over the years), but we now have something close to a multi-polar media network. And I don't think they know how to handle it....
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Old 05-20-2007   #6
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A couple of years back one of the network news shows (my recollection is that it was Nightline) was going to spend a substantial amount of airtime simply reading the names of the fallen. They were pretty savagely attacked -- the accusation being that it was a political move to do so.

I participate in a small blog network that features one soldier or marine every week, most of the time someone who has been killed in action. Ironically, the reaction has been almost entirely negative. I get emails from folks on the left complaining that I'm "glorifying the war", and emails from folks on the right saying I'm unpatriotic to highlight the fact that peope are actually getting killed.

At some point the partisan political attacks need to step aside in favor of some common sense and shared concern for our country.
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Old 05-20-2007   #7
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Miles, I think with the media's late 1960s to present history, the burden of proof needs to be completely on them, when it comes to running what appeared to be a flagrant exploitation of dead soldiers for their own political gain, as it appeared to my eyes. They need to PROVE to me that they are not just using dead soldiers to sell news time/promote an agenda.

I have no idea when I quit trusting the media, but I do not trust them. (Dan Rather faked memo, exploding pickup trucks, Hiring terrorists as "news sources", retouching AP photos, operational pause=QUAGMIRE!, global warming hype, Everything is Bush/Rove's fault, etc...)

The problem isn't that the press is divorced from reality/lacks skill/is pushing an agenda, the problem is that Joe Six Pack perceives that they are and doesn't trust them, so when they DO run an accurate news item which reveals an embarrassing truth, the political commentators on both sides of the political aisle are able to make it "un-happen."

As Sargent points out, at least indirectly, is that the conditions are right for various parties to do a post-Versailles German "Stabbed in the Back" as an entity, instead of learning from our mistakes through an honest assessment. And, God forbid we fail to learn from this.
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Old 05-21-2007   #8
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Default The Canadian Example

To be clear, when I had earlier written that the Canadian press seemed more willing to "show more" than the American press of bodies, I was in that case referring to, you know, bodies, as in images of bodies in extremis, images akin to those from Mogadishu, where dead American soldiers are being dragged through the streets, or the Fallujah images, where the contractors mutilated bodies were hung from bridges.

What about the kind of stories under discussion here, of the rituals surrounding the treatment of our honored dead, a different category altogether? First, I don't know it's true such stories have been entirely missing from the American press, or as absent as suggested here. (Although your impression of how much attention this category has received, and this is speculative on my part, may have something to do with where you live. If you're in an area where there are a number of military bases, you may have seen more of these stories, but it may be that they're handled primarily by the local press. Certainly they are more present in the print press.)

Second, I agree with Marc that there's no question the Canadian press focuses on this more. My sense is impressionistic, to be sure, since I don't see the Canadian press every day, but my sense matches with Marc's: it looks to me that there's coverage when a casket leaves Afghanistan, when it arrives in Canada, and then of the funeral itself. The question you have to ask yourself is whether that's an appropriate degree of coverage. Don't get me wrong: I'm all about due recognition for the military. But when there isn't adequate coverage of what the mission is for, and what the mission is accomplishing, then this becomes all about loss, loss, loss, and a way to push that message into the public's consciousness in the most brutally emotional way possible.

Let me be blunt: there is a strain of rhetoric afoot in both countries which infantalizes the troops, which frames them as victims, so that an inversion takes place. They are no longer trained professionals, whose job it is to defend the nation, but poor (probably in both senses of the word) "kids," who need us to defend them, by bringing them out of harm's way. The Canadian coverage of every single funeral ritual fits into this overall rhetorical theme -- and it's one thing to honor our fallen, but I don't know how you sustain a war when the nation are led to feel each loss in this way. It isn't about respect, it isn't about how deeply you feel the tragedy of each loss, it's about the quality of the emotion, if that makes sense, whether the focus is only on the loss itself -- a life, a promise unfulfilled -- or something more.

I've argued before that, for the American public, combat casualties remain acceptable so long as there is a belief that they are justified. I don't know what the research says about Canadian public opinion, but I can't imagine it's that far different, and I have also noticed that there is often in the Canadian coverage a focus on the casualties to a neglect of what has been accomplished (much as in our own coverage.)

This is in part a function of the fact that, unless things have changed very recently, the Canadian press are not allowed to go "outside the wire," whether they want to or not, by their editors and producers. My understanding is that this has created some real tensions between their press and their military, as it has sometimes seemed that their press is simply waiting for patrols to return so they can get a casualty count. So while I'm sure there's a robust debate over the mission in Canada, the question is how well informed that debate is by adeq. coverage of what the Canadian forces are out in the field doing. My information may be a few months out of date, but it is certainly the case that this has been a limitation on the coverage in the past. I would ask the Canadians participating here -- how often do you see news reports filed by CBC or other broadcast reporters embedded with the troops?
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Old 05-21-2007   #9
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Interesting Wikipedia entry on the "Dover test." Is the ban on photos at Dover AFB still in place?
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Old 05-21-2007   #10
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Default Dover

To the best of my knowledge it is, however, far too much is made of it, IMHO. First, a large set of pictures was released in one set in response to a FOIA request (and, really, how many pics of caskets on a plane does the press need? That's one of those images where file footage works for them.) I'm fairly sure a second set was leaked by a woman working for a private contractor, who was then fired (and, if I remember correctly, received a great deal of positive press for her choice.) Second, of course, the press can always ask families if they can film or photograph funerals, and obviously many families are open to having press photographers present. (What's lost there, of course, is the shot of rows of multiple caskets, but, again, how many of those shots do you need to make the point?) Third, I'm fairly sure that since Arlington is public, the press can film funerals there even without a family's permission if they stay a certain respectful distance away, although I don't remember what that distance is.

All of that said, I'm not sure the reg makes all that much sense. It was put in place a number of years ago (Desert Storm, I believe) and the amount of negative press regarding the reg probably massively trumps the number of pictures that would be shot there because, again, how many repetitive shots would the press want of the same iconic image? At some pt it just becomes enough. Keeping the reg in place, on the other hand, makes it look as if the administration/military feel as if they've got something to hide.
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Old 05-22-2007   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Cori View Post
To the best of my knowledge it is, however, far too much is made of it, IMHO. First, a large set of pictures was released in one set in response to a FOIA request (and, really, how many pics of caskets on a plane does the press need? That's one of those images where file footage works for them.) I'm fairly sure a second set was leaked by a woman working for a private contractor, who was then fired (and, if I remember correctly, received a great deal of positive press for her choice.) Second, of course, the press can always ask families if they can film or photograph funerals, and obviously many families are open to having press photographers present. (What's lost there, of course, is the shot of rows of multiple caskets, but, again, how many of those shots do you need to make the point?) Third, I'm fairly sure that since Arlington is public, the press can film funerals there even without a family's permission if they stay a certain respectful distance away, although I don't remember what that distance is.

All of that said, I'm not sure the reg makes all that much sense. It was put in place a number of years ago (Desert Storm, I believe) and the amount of negative press regarding the reg probably massively trumps the number of pictures that would be shot there because, again, how many repetitive shots would the press want of the same iconic image? At some pt it just becomes enough. Keeping the reg in place, on the other hand, makes it look as if the administration/military feel as if they've got something to hide.

I suppose it becomes enough if the point is to comment on the policy. It's never enough if you are simply talking about recognizing the sacrifices of individuals and families. I don't think taking account of the human toll of war is necessarily negative -- in some respects it's downright humane -- but it is profound, and it ought to give pause, if only for the humility it instills.

I've never agreed with the Iraq policy, but I've gazed upon the contents of two coffins and sat by a couple of hospital beds in the last three weeks. I still don't agree with the policy, but I understand far more about the strength of a commitment to things far greater than today's policy than I did before these experiences.
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Old 05-22-2007   #12
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In disagree with the article somewhat for a couple of reasons:

Taken as a whole, Broadcast/print/"new"/local/national/international media, Gentile's satement is accurate, and media types, especially national will cite this. Whne you go down the "rat-hole", you discover hwo the data points are skewed, and this is where I first take issue with Gentile's statement:

Local media provides the most in-depth and honest coverage of what actually happens on the ground. Local media is often there because of a local angle (NG/USAR unit operating or major military base in local area). Bottomline they are covering the actions because of localn interest do to the servicemembers being part of the local community. The reporting tends to generally serve as an informative piece for the locals. Local boradcast tries to do the saem, but they usually do not have the resources (time) to go as in depth.

National Media seeks to shape opinion more than just inform. The broadcast media is further constrained by competing priorities hwich further cuts down on depth. fFurthermore, the national media is Bagdhad centric, unless on specific tasker because they have to be ready to respond to breaking news from where ever in Iraq (look at the background shots when the correspondants are on, they are almost all the same) . This leads to shortcuts that go along with 120mm was saying. National print is better, because they have more than 2 minutes of airtime, but they are also trying to shape opinion, not inform, but you need a compelling story for column space, and somethings work better than others, or they serve an agenda. Broadcast media makes this clear and you can say they very different opinions between TV and radio participation, but that should be suprising to nobody around here.

New media provides some compelling and accurate reports from all over (mIchale Yon, for example). However, there are issues with verification and authenticity at times, but hey its a new technology, and it will take some time to mature (This has incredible potential).

My second issue with Gentile, is the "location, location, location" line from real estate. In Bagdhad you have a wide variety of national media avilable with all kinds of different opinions and perspectives on the US campaign/policy in Iraq. f you are not in Bagdhad, you do not see this kind of coverage. So I would contend that while Gentile made an accurate statement for what he saw in Bagdhad, I disagree with it based on what I saw in other parts of Iraq where I was.

Finally, 120mm brought up some very prescient points about the media. As much as military members have generalizations made about us based on some not so stellar acts by fellow servicemembers, I do not think that media understands that their image is not so hot based on points that 120mm pointed out, of which the failure to condem the Dan Rather crew on such an egregious foul as Bush NG story (opinions aside about Bush) is a great example. They ran a story presenting fraudulent documents as factual evidence to meet an agenda, and that is wrong regardless of who is/was President. This leaves some credibility issues the media has to sort out at the national levels.

A couple of thoughts I have on this. IF all of the reporters and media pundits are such experts on how to conduct war and when to conduct it, then shouldn't they be open to my opinions and thoughts on how to craft a newstory/broadcast. Is the reciprocity of expertise not a two way street?

Aslo the deep thought (which is pretty shallow): If the first three "estates" of scoitey are considered divine and formed of God's will, and the media describes itself as the "Fourth Estate" the who created the Fourth Estate? (I think I hear the church lady yelling an answer)
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Old 05-22-2007   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jimbo View Post
My second issue with Gentile, is the "location, location, location" line from real estate. In Bagdhad you have a wide variety of national media avilable with all kinds of different opinions and perspectives on the US campaign/policy in Iraq. f you are not in Bagdhad, you do not see this kind of coverage. So I would contend that while Gentile made an accurate statement for what he saw in Bagdhad, I disagree with it based on what I saw in other parts of Iraq where I was.
The media aren't really in any other areas of Iraq. Even military reporting from these areas gets things wrong. I get more information on my husband's AO from jihadist or jihadist-sympathetic sites than I do from various American media outlets. They are there and have an interest to tell the story. All I need to do is reorient the skew, which isn't that hard -- their filter is pretty obvious. To be perfectly honest, I don't think it would help the "cause" much to tell the story from where he is. Yes, there are some nice uplifting points about the budding relationships between the American and Iraqi forces and such, but the rest is fairly dismal.

However, not getting the details correct, or not even covering the story to begin with, is different from telling only one side of the story to skew opinion to one political opinion or another. Again, that was Gentile's thesis -- that the media with which he dealt did not only tell the bad news so as to turn opinion against the war, but there was enough bad news that to _not_ tell it would be equally biased.
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Old 05-22-2007   #14
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If anyone's interested in what an inexperienced, uneducated in Small Wars/Counterinsuirgency (but am working on it), average American citizen's opinion is, here's my thoughts.
I disagree with the article. Most of the media (in America anyway) is slanted Left and is very defeatist. As one who gets a lot of his information from the media (including military reports), it takes some work and time to get the whole story. Most average Americans are not news junkies like myself. Most get their information from the "big 3 (ABC, CBS, NBC) or their local newspaper. Yes, it is the individual's responsibility to educate one's self to the truth. But it is also the media's responsibility to report the truth in a balanced fashion. As far as the MSM, I just don't see it (when I watch it, I prefer FOX over the others, but they aren't off the hook with this either).

Here's an example: I'll ask some guy at work "Are we losing in Iraq?". He will answer yes and tell me how Brian Williams says it's a quagmire. I'll then show him the press releases on the mnf-Iraq web site and point out all the articles about capturing/detaining/killing terrorists, finding weapons stashes, and buildings/infrastructure going up. I can see the surprise in his eyes, then I ask if he 's ever heard any of these on the evening news.

I think most people just don't take or have the time to dig around for news and rely on the 6 o'clock news for their information. When I do watch it, I get infuriated..although, most of the time, I just watch to test myself if I can pick out the misinformation...even taking notes. I get a kick out of the stories they do about troops or future troops, and they are trying really hard to put a negative spin on it, but it's not working. That makes me laugh.

I'm not one who thinks everything is rosy and going fine in Iraq or in the GWOT. I am fully aware it is a WAR. But I am sick and tired of the constant negative barrage and the ignoring of the good things. Fact of the matter is, most of the average American public gets their information from these media sources and IMHO, it's pathetic as well as alarming how the news is presented. If American support is waning, it's not Bush's fault (although he could have done a much better job countering the negative propaganda), it's not the Soldiers' fault, it's mainly the fault of the media. As one who is lookng in from the outside, the only similarity I see between Iraq and Viet Nam is how the media portrays it. According to them, we lost.
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