IF WE WIND UP losing the war in Iraq, as now appears likely (though not inevitable), many conservatives know who to blame: the press, or, in blogger-speak, the MSM (mainstream news media). Just as it did during the Vietnam War, a myth is likely to develop in which America’s valiant fighting men and women were stabbed in the back by unpatriotic, even treasonous, reporters.
Administration spokesmen and many soldiers have been saying for years that things aren’t so bad in Iraq. “If you just watched what’s happening every time there’s a bomb going off in Baghdad, you’d think the whole country’s aflame,” Donald Rumsfeld declared for the umpteenth time just before leaving office. “But you fly over it, and that’s just simply not the case.”
Such protestations are natural from someone who’s likely to go down in history as Robert McNamara redux. But this refrain has been taken up by even the most sophisticated and disinterested observers on the right. James Q. Wilson, a longtime professor at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine, published a scathing essay in the autumn issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal in which he complained that “positive stories about progress in Iraq were just a small fraction of all the broadcasts.” He went on to draw an analogy with the Tet offensive in 1968, which the press widely reported as an American failure even though it was a military defeat for North Vietnam.
“We won the Second World War in Europe and Japan,” he concluded, “but we lost in Vietnam and are in danger of losing in Iraq and Lebanon in the newspapers, magazines and television programs we enjoy.”
Actually, it’s not at all clear that the Vietnam War was lost in the media. Reporters were initially gung-ho about the war; they went into opposition only after it became clear that the military and the Johnson administration had no plan for victory.
In any case, the Tet analogy is dubious, because it is hard to find any signs of U.S. progress in the Iraq conflict comparable to the devastation the Viet Cong suffered in 1968.
Even if you go by the Bush administration’s own assessment, conditions today are bleak. In November, the Defense Department issued a congressionally mandated report that found that violence was “escalating” to “the highest [levels] on record.” Meanwhile, the report found, attempts at national reconciliation have “shown little progress.” In short, the apocalyptic condition of Iraq (at least of the non-Kurdish regions) is not an invention of the news media. It’s reality.
THAT ISN’T TO deny that there has been some biased, slipshod news coverage. To my mind, there has been too much emphasis on American casualties and American abuses, both of which are low by historical standards. There has been too much Baghdad-centric reporting, which slights differing conditions in outlying regions. And, of course, in Iraq, as elsewhere, media coverage inevitably focuses on daily disasters at the expense of long-term trends.
Initially, I thought that this institutional bias toward sensationalism distorted public understanding of the war. But by now the dismal conditions on the ground have caught up with, if not surpassed, the media’s bleak outlook.
Whatever the shortcomings of some reporting, there has been a lot of first-rate coverage by a heroic corps of correspondents that has persevered in the face of terrible danger. (At least 109 journalists have been killed and many others wounded or kidnapped, making this the deadliest conflict on record for the Fourth Estate.) I am thinking of reporters such as John Burns, Dexter Filkins and Michael Gordon of the New York Times; Greg Jaffe and Michael Philips of the Wall Street Journal; Tom Ricks of the Washington Post; Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times and former Times reporter John Daniszewski; Sean Naylor of Army Times; Bing West and Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly; and George Packer of the New Yorker. They’ve risked their necks to get the truth -- and not, as Rumsfeld suggested, by flying over Iraq.
If you wanted to figure out what was happening over the last four years, you would have been infinitely better off paying attention to their writing than to what the president or his top generals were saying. If we fail to achieve our goals in Iraq -- which the administration defines as a “unified, stable, democratic and secure nation” -- it won’t be the fault of the ink-stained wretches or even their blow-dried TV counterparts. To argue otherwise deflects blame from those who deserve it, in the upper echelons of the administration and the armed forces. Perhaps that’s the point.