A week before the presidential election, the National Press Club held a special forum to discuss the quality of media reporting on the Middle East. The panelists included David Ignatius of the Washington Post; Salameh Nematt, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Hayat, an Arabic language newspaper published in London; and Peter Bergen, author and one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed bin Laden. Some of the panelists’ observations were interesting, especially concerning what they said media had either failed to report or had reported in a distorted manner.
The panelists found that the recent election in Afghanistan was not treated by the media as the success it really was. Salameh Nematt, of Al-Hayat, said the election was historic, and that it appeared democracy was moving forward well in Afghanistan, and that as a result it would set an example to other countries in the area. Peter Bergen of CNN went so far as to call it an “astonishing success” and said “I can honestly use the word joy to describe the events surrounding the election.” While Bergen noted that the “dominoes of democracy” were not falling in Iraq just yet, he said the effect of democracy in Afghanistan had the potential to affect other countries, even Pakistan and Iran. How was Bergen’s view received when he wrote a previous positive report on the election? “I got a lot of hate mail,” he said, adding that people accused him of promoting Republican Party propaganda.
On the other hand, there was a consensus among the panelists, including a representative of the American Enterprise Institute, that things were going bad in Iraq. David Ignatius of the Washington Post added that reporters being confined to Baghdad may have the peculiar effect of magnifying how bad it is. But Ignatius said if you travel to other areas outside of Baghdad like Kirkuk, Mosul and the southern areas, they are calmer.
Salameh Nematt, pointed out that most U.S. media coverage of Iraq between 1991 and 2003 has been poor. After 1991, he said most ignored Iraq, and the rest? Well, they went to Baghdad and were manipulated by Saddam Hussein. “I know that for a fact,” he said, “Because I saw U.S. and Western journalists allowing their stuff to be censored by the Ministry of Information.” He said the few who didn’t allow their reports to be censored were kicked out.
Saddam used the U.S. media to promote the message that American sanctions were destroying Iraqi civilians, Nematt said, but Saddam had $11 billion he had skimmed from the oil-for-food program that he didn’t use to alleviate the suffering of his own people. He said the media played into Saddam’s hands. CNN did a mea culpa and confessed, the Washington bureau chief noted, but others did not and they never admitted their reports were distorted.
Today, news coverage is limited because reporters cannot easily move around Iraq, the panelists said. Some have been called home by their news agencies because of the danger. The result: the American people are still being kept in the dark about real events in Iraq.