It seems that the professional media guidelines currently require coverage of Iraq to focus on ongoing insurgency, death counts, and sectarian violence, and that the media characterize the newly formed democratic Iraqi government as largely ineffectual. September 4th’s major headlines covering “Iraq parliament returns, but still no benchmark law” (Reuters), “Iraq parliament back; weighs no key laws” (Associated Press), and “Iraqi Parliament Ends Recess, Faces US Pressure to pass Laws” (Bloomberg). In anticipation of possible news of progress in Iraq, the media has already framed General Petraeus’ testimony as a front for Bush’s pro-war political stance. With the media repeating its endless mantra of ‘Bush misled us into the war,’ ‘Iraq is a quagmire,’ and ‘Democracy cannot survive in the Middle East,’ it sometimes appears that political motivations are primarily driving the Iraq war discussion. However institutional considerations may partially account for the uniform negative coverage.
Susan Phalen, State Department Senior Advisor for Iraq Communications, explained to a Clare Boothe Luce and Heritage Foundation audience in late August that the violence in Iraq geographically restricts reporters to Baghdad, sequestering them away from events occurring throughout the country. In a synergistic relationship, logistical concerns and the added prestige of happenings within Baghdad combine to encourage reporters to remain within the country’s capital. “We cannot guarantee when we fly to Mosul that we will be back that afternoon. And [reporters] have to be back that afternoon to be on the air, or to make the deadline for their newspaper. . .There will always be, I think, a little bit of a hesitation to leave Baghdad, because that’s where everything is happening. You can go cover the rest of the stories, but if I can’t guarantee that after we cover this date palm festival that we’re all going to be back in Baghdad that night, it’s sometimes hard to get the journalists to go,” explains Phalen.
However, Phalen argues that danger is no excuse for poor reporting in Iraq. “If you’re going to go to Iraq, and assume that amount of risk, you might as well do the job you’re there to do,” (emphasis added) she says. Indeed, Iraqi tensions did not dissuade reporters from covering the January, October, and December elections in 2005; such a feat required them not only to deploy throughout the nation, but to leave the protection of the coalition forces, placing themselves instead under the dubious protection of the Iraq army and police forces.
Susan Phalen works with the State Department to supply military escort services to American and foreign reporters, thereby ensuring that the international press corps is able to cover more civilian-oriented, local news stories, such as the September 2006 Diyala date festival or the opening of the Independent Radio Television News Station in Iraq (IRTN). However, while these military escorts do overcome geographic and safety concerns, they fail to overcome reporters’ initial ideological prejudices, and often foment suspicion over government ‘hand-picked’ news stories. The ‘staged’ atmosphere of some of these trips raises suspicions that the government may be deliberately trying to sway news coverage of the Iraq war through positive propaganda.
News coverage is heavily driven by a need for sensationalism, and bad news about Iraq may simply be more marketable. Also, progress is hard to measure, because it involves intangibles such as civil society, democracy, and unity. However, when asked if Iraq reporting was simply the sum of institutional factors or ideologically motivated, Phalen responded that “I think you need to peel back that onion a layer or two. . .” The media response to the September 2006 Diyala date festival may serve as a microcosm of this tension between sensationalism, political bias, and facts.
Los Angeles Times writer Solomon Moore focused on what Phalen terms ‘the kinetic story’ by highlighting the security concerns facing date farmers in Diyala. Utilizing withering criticism, Moore’s article, “Under Guard, Dates Make a Comeback,” also dismisses coalition-fostered 70% increase in date yields because they were 50% of prewar yields, and described the ‘festival’ as possibly “a bit of an overstatement.” “The exhibition hall was surrounded by Iraqi security forces, and eight Humvees were parked outside its tall walls,” he argues, “. . .inside, there appeared to be more empty seats than full. Those browsing on baskets of the sticky, sweet fruit were mostly American troops or State Department employees.” Moore fails to mention that the festival was organized by the Iraqis themselves, and that the State Department officials were only visitors. Not surprising, Moore’s article was posted on Antiwar.com, which advertises itself as “your best source for antiwar news, viewpoints, and activities.”
A Google archives search for “Diyala date festival” reveals two major American outlets covering the September festival: Moore’s article and Washington Post writer Sudarsan Raghavan’s “For Iraqi Farmers, A Harvest of Hope.” Raghavan’s article highlights the economic significance of dates—Iraq’s second largest export market, after oil. Both articles focus intensively on violence within the Diyala province. More positive accounts of the festival can, predictably, be found at the Operation Iraqi Freedom website, at the State Department website, or at Newsblaze.com. The Newsblaze.com article, “Date Festival Marks Successful Harvest,” was written by Sergeant Zach Mott of the 4th Infantry Division. In contrast, Diyala truck bombings and kidnappings receive routine coverage. Phalen lamented the kinetic focus of Moore’s article, saying, “they both heard the exact same thing. One newspaper got it spectacularly wrong; one newspaper got it completely right.”