Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The media's war in (and out of) Iraq

Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian uses the kidnappping of Douglas Wood to lay into the media for supporting the insurgents' cause.

It's a fairly well-worn line, and the nut of it is this:

"The terrorists want US, Australian and British troops out of Iraq and will rely on a media-fuelled compassion campaign to achieve that goal. And driven by daily deadlines, ratings and its instinctive objection to the Iraq war, the media will no doubt comply."
Albrechtsen picks up on the use of the word "quagmire" in various media reports and links it to the way the Vietnam war was characterised accusing the media of hitting the "replay button".

Sure, Vietnam was a link that the media made early and often during the Iraq occupation. It's hardly surprising that this was the case, but now things have changed. In the current New York Times magazine Peter Maas writes: "The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam, to which it has often been compared, but El Salvador, where a right-wing government backed by the United States fought a leftist insurgency in a 12-year war beginning in 1980."

I don't image the Times is a favourite read of Ms Albrechtsen's but Maas goes to great lengths to do what she asks, namely report "not just the daily horrors of war, but also stories that provide for a longer view". And the longer view is not pretty.

But Albrechtsen has a counter-strategy. "The bad news angle is too seductive. Even when the Iraqi parliament approved a new cabinet last week, much of the media's tone was bleak. For The Sydney Morning Herald's Paul McGeough, it was a case of the 'war-weary Iraqis' heaving a 'sigh of relief' over the endorsement of a 'government of sorts'."

The bad news angle is too seductive? Well, yes it is. In Iraq. It might suit's interests to have a good news page about Iraq, but the idea hasn't caught on elsewhere. For the rest McGeough's characterisation of the new democracy in Iraq is hardly gratuitous.

Last weekend McGeough wrote: "The democratisation process imposed on Iraq by the Americans has involved a series of short-term appointed or elected administrations, in which most of the players have had more of an eye on surviving into the next round than on the needs of their economically crippled and insurgency-bloodied nation."

That sounds like a little more than "the usual haggle-fest that goes on in democracies when positions of power are up for grabs" as Albrechtsen would have us believe.

Albrechtsen's accusation that the media is doing the insurgents' work by running a "compassion campaign" on behalf of Douglas Woods is clearly calculated but nevertheless odd. Is she suggesting that the media should do the opposite? The Defence Minister and the Foreign Minister are already doing that.

It's her job to provoke reactions with her opinions so here are a few facts in response, a few things worth knowing about the US government (borrowed from Eric Alterman's MSNBC blog):

Sometimes they do their own torturing, here.
Sometimes they like to get others to do their torturing for them, here.
They fight dirty wars, involving terrorist tactics, here.
And they are weakening the military, here, making it impossible to face up to genuine threats here, like this one, here, making the country less safe, here.

The minimum effect of this sort of information is to raise serious questions about the conduct of the war in Iraq. But it's also evidence of good reporting with a view to the longer term value of journalism as the first draft of history.

No comments: