Accuracy in Media

A recent issue of Newsweek carries a long investigative report on the reconstruction of post-war Iraq. Entitled “The $87 Billion Money Pit,” the article chronicles the difficulties encountered by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in restoring services throughout the country. The authors, Rod Nordland and Michael Hirsh, blame all the “problems” on a lack of prewar planning and alleged overspending, favoritism, and corruption in the awarding of war reconstruction contracts.

To illustrate their case, the authors emphasize the difficulties the Coalition has had restoring power in Iraq. They claim that “Iraqis” tell them that after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein restored Iraq’s electrical power grid in only three months. But, they write, the Coalition has yet to match that in six months after the end of combat. Only in the past few weeks, they report, has Iraq achieved power comparable to pre-war levels. They admit that Saddam didn’t have to worry about sabotage and that the infrastructure was in better shape than now. But they also insist that Saddam had far fewer resources at his command.

But Newsweek’s story was challenged on a number of Internet websites. Several charged that the analogy to Saddam’s restoration of power is highly misleading. One commentator, reportedly writing from Baghdad, agrees that in 1991 Saddam Hussein got the power restored quickly?but only in Baghdad and only because he wanted it on before his birthday celebration. To do so, he had to divert power from other regions of Iraq. Consequently, these regions had only twelve to sixteen hours of power a day throughout the 1990s

Earlier this summer, two news outlets made the same point. In late July, USA Today reported on the difficulties with restoring power. A senior U.S. advisor told reporter Glen Carey that before the war Baghdad had consumed 40% of Iraq’s electricity and got 20-24 hours of power daily. Outside of Baghdad, however, other cities got by on 8 to 15 hours of power a day. Similarly, the U.K. Observer reported that Saddam allocated electricity to those regions most loyal to him and starved those that weren’t. Under Saddam, for example, Shia farmers in southern Iraq received so little electricity that they could only irrigate their fields one hour per day.

The CPA, however, has a policy of distributing electricity more evenly around the country. Iraqi cities are now on a power-sharing system, whereby power is turned on in three-hour cycles. Shia farmers, according to the Observer, now get up to six hours of power daily in their region.

Denial of the former levels of electricity, however, has produced much complaining, particularly in Baghdad where residents aren’t used to sweltering summers without air conditioning. And, as many have noted, few journalists venture outside Baghdad and that is likely to make their reporting on such topics as the electricity crisis distorted. So why did Newsweek choose to emphasize this misleading factoid? If the magazine can’t get this relatively simple story right, why credit the rest of its critique of U. S. policy in Iraq?




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