December 20, 2006

WE’RE STARTING TO SEE SOME MEDIA PUSHBACK on the Jamil Hussein story and on criticisms of media reporting from Iraq in general — Howard Kurtz has a roundup. But I think the media’s self-justification misses the point. Just because things are bad in Iraq doesn’t justify false reports using phony sources, something that the AP’s defenders seem to be suggesting. “Fake but accurate” isn’t a standard to be raising, is it? The fact is that we’ve seen a massive institutional failure on the part of the media.

Here’s what I said nearly three years ago that still seems about right:

HERE’S A LETTER TO THE EDITOR from a recently returned Iraq vet. Like many other such letters, it says that thngs are much better there than media reports suggest.

I tend to believe that — things are better almost everywhere (except Cuba) than media reports suggest., But as I’ve said before, the biggest problem with the Iraq reporting isn’t that it’s too negative, though it is, it’s that it doesn’t tell us what we need to know. The CERP issue, for example, was probably the most important single thing going on last summer/fall but it got very little attention from the media. Likewise, the big media were slow to follow up on Zeyad’s war-crime scoop. And I ran an email regarding problems at the CPA that haven’t been addressed by big media much, but that are quite important if they’re as bad as my reader suggests.

Despite last week’s hysteria, which made factional fighting — ugly but limited — out to be a massive popular uprising, it’s clear that the real issues in Iraq are political, not military. Is our government doing a good job? It’s hard to tell. And the tendency, knowing that the media are overplaying some negatives, is to apply Kentucky windage and assume that things in general are better than they say. This may be true, but it may also be true (as the above examples suggest, and as I’ve noted before on multiple occasions) that there’s not just good news, but bad news, going unreported.

That’s especially unfortunate, because good reporting doesn’t just inform ordinary folks like us. It’s also a check on reports that flow up within the chain of command, making sure that real problems get noticed and not papered over. I’m afraid that the White House, understandably tired of the unrelenting negativity that has given us the Brutal Afghan Winter of 2002, the Invasion-Killing Sandstorm of 2003, and the Mass Popular Uprising of 2004, may have started tuning out negative reports.

I think that’s bad, but given that there are good reasons (like, you know, open admissions) to suspect an agenda in media reporting on Iraq, it was an understandable factor. Journalists like to assume a quasi-official status with all their “fourth estate” talk, but they haven’t done a very good job of living up to the responsibilities that implies. “Fake but accurate” claims won’t help them.

UPDATE: Reader C.J. Burch emails: “I think at this point the question is, is the media, consciously or no, designing its coverage to make a bad situation appear worse? I also think that’s a question the media, all of it, is desperately trying to avoid. Because they know the answer.”

And Ron Wright emails: “OK life is difficult for everyone in Iraq. However the bottom line is folks need to get the facts straight. Either we have charred bodies and six burned mosques or we don’t. ”

Jamil Hussein says we do. But the AP can’t seem to produce him. So I’m guessing the answer is “we don’t.” Does that mean things are going well for the war? Nope. It just means that they’re going badly at the AP. As Burch suggests, that’s a distinction the AP and its defenders want us to ignore.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More on Jamil Hussein here.

MORE: It’s bad to push back at bloggers by misquoting them.

More here and here.

STILL MORE: Heh: It’s those layers of editors and fact-checkers again! “Our co-blogger Major Leggett sends this story about his unit, from the LA Times. He’s quoted in the article, which you wouldn’t know from the article itself — since he is identified as ‘Maj. Joel Garrett.’”