Media Incivility and Bias in Iraq

Robert Alt

April 20, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—Growing up during the gang wars in Los Angeles, watching the local network news was a gruesome affair. When a shooting occurred, the camera crews would literally focus on the pools of blood in the street, and if they could capture a chalk outline or an actual body bag, then all the better. I was reminded of this macabre voyeurism-masquerading-as-news by the media response to the tragic events Fallujah, in which four American contractors were killed and their bodies desecrated not once, but a thousand times over on the evening news and in the morning papers. The poor judgment exercised by the media in the handling of this event betrays not merely incivility, but a deep-seated and pervasive bias in the handling of the war in Iraq.

Beginning with the print media, the New York Times made the editorial decision to run a picture of a charred body hanging from a bridge on its front page. One wonders what the Times editorial meeting must have been like the day that picture was chosen. Did anyone suggest that running the picture might be insensitive to the family and friends of the deceased? Did anyone question whether this front page image might be a bit graphic sitting on the breakfast table when little Johnny came down for his Cheerios? And did anyone have the foresight to wonder whether running a picture like this on the front page might be exactly what the terrorists wanted—media attention being the raison d’etre of the recent “spectacular” attacks—and therefore ponder whether it was appropriate for the newspaper of record to be used as little more than a pawn by this gang of thugs?

The picture was inevitably chosen for its shock value, but there were numerous other pictures that would have shocked. The images of young Iraqis jumping up and down on the burning cars, or dancing in the streets after the Americans’ deaths would have inevitably served that purpose, without requiring the paper to join the terrorists in the act of parading the dead. The Times presumably is not hurting for “ratings” like some local news channel, so why sink to this level? The answer seems to be to enrage. Any of the other images mentioned would have shocked, but the sight of an American desecrated and left hanging from a bridge would appeal to the public passions like no other picture from the scene. It seems based on the paper’s general editorial position—a position that far too frequently spills over to its news pages—that the Times meant this rage to be directed not primarily toward the terrorists, but toward those politicians who brought us to this inhospitable land. Americans, however, showed sounder judgment than the editors of the Times following these horrors, calling not for the President’s head, but for firmer resolve and just retribution to those who committed these heinous acts. Indeed a recent Time/CNN poll found that 57 percent of respondents think the United States should “intensify” its military effort in Iraq.

Of course, the networks were not to be outdone by the print media. While a number of networks chose to air graphic scenes from Fallujah, one deserves special mention. Charlie Ryan and Rachel Levin of NBC contacted military officials in Baghdad immediately after the events in Fallujah to request an interview with a group of soldiers. A Coalition military source confirmed that the crew wished to show soldiers a graphic video of the events in Fallujah, and to record the soldiers’ responses. When military officials objected for obvious reasons to this “Clockwork Orange” proposal, the NBC reporters were incredulous, suggesting that the idea was somehow appropriate because the victims were not soldiers. Needless to say, the military officials did not find that distinction relevant.

In theory, it would be easy to dismiss the NBC proposal as a mere lapse in judgment, but in reality, it is a vivid example of a larger problem. The same kind of thinking that permits the NBC reporters to draw a line between how a soldier would view the killing of soldiers versus the killing of Americans allows other journalist to give credence—in the absence of any credible evidence—to the assertion that American soldiers are deliberately targeting women, children, and the elderly in Fallujah. In both acts, the media utterly misunderstands the humanity of the American soldier, who frequently puts himself in harms way to avoid civilian casualties.

At best, many reporters have trouble relating to the military and the soldiers, and at worst, they view the military, the soldiers, and their mission in Iraq with open contempt. Questions for military officials at briefings are often little more than pointed accusations based on rumor and gossip. When answers are given, many in the press pool express greater skepticism toward the military response than toward the innuendo which formed the basis for the question. Put simply, the reporters begin from a position of fundamental distrust of the military.

As case in point, in the wake of Fallujah numerous reporters have asked questions which accuse the Coalition of targeting, and indeed having a policy of targeting women and children. Aside from learning the first thing about Coalition rules of engagement and the dire consequences imposed for violating these protocols, these reporters would have done well to have met 22-year-old Specialist Hart from the 2d Battalion, 3d Field Artillery Regiment Gunners stationed in Adhamiya. Spc. Hart received a Purple Heart on his first day in Baghdad for a gunshot wound he suffered when his vehicle came under small arms fire and missile attack. Needless to say, Hart had seen many disturbing things during the course of his year in Iraq, but one thing clearly struck him the hardest: a girl of no more than eight or nine who was killed when her father attempted to run down a soldier at a checkpoint. The event happened many months ago, but the anguish still wrenched Hart’s face, and cracked his voice. Yes, Americans pulled the trigger, but this little girl, whose father had chosen to take her along on his suicide mission, was not the target. No one who talked to Specialist Hart would ever make that mistake. His pained words, and the silent testimony of the Marines who died in Fallujah because the military put them in harms way rather than risk more civilian casualties, bare witness as to the irresponsibility of journalists who report unsubstantiated claims about serious issues like the targeting of civilians.

While there are certainly reporters in Iraq attempting to do an evenhanded job under difficult conditions, too many allow their preconceived notions about the military, the President, and the justifications for the war to color their reporting. This may lead to poor judgment in cases like the depictions of the Fallujah contractors, or irresponsible reporting in the case of “targeting” reports. In both cases the American soldier, and the American people deserve better.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.