Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

August 15, 2005

Reporters Reporting on Reporters: Why no good news from Iraq?

Filed under: — Different River @ 8:29 pm

Normally, I find it really annoying and self-serving when reporters write news stories about themselves or each other. However, this article is exception, both for its candidness and for the fact that it appeared in the New York Times, not to mention that it is mostly devoid of the self-congratulation of colleagues or ridiculing of competitors typical of articles about the media in the media.

August 15, 2005

Editors Ponder How to Present a Broad Picture of Iraq

By Katharine Q. Seelye

Rosemary Goudreau, the editorial page editor of The Tampa Tribune, has received the same e-mail message a dozen times over the last year.

“Did you know that 47 countries have re-established their embassies in Iraq?” the anonymous polemic asks, in part. “Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated?”

“Of course we didn’t know!” the message concludes. “Our media doesn’t tell us!”

Ms. Goudreau’s newspaper, like most dailies in America, relies largely on The Associated Press for its coverage of the Iraq war. So she finally forwarded the e-mail message to Mike Silverman, managing editor of The A.P., asking if there was a way to check these assertions and to put them into context. Like many other journalists, Mr. Silverman had also received a copy of the message.

Ms. Goudreau’s query prompted an unusual discussion last month in New York at a regular meeting of editors whose newspapers are members of The Associated Press. Some editors expressed concern that a kind of bunker mentality was preventing reporters in Iraq from getting out and explaining the bigger picture beyond the daily death tolls.

“The bottom-line question was, people wanted to know if we’re making progress in Iraq,” Ms. Goudreau said, and the A.P. articles were not helping to answer that question.

OK, there is a temporary break from candidness:

“It was uncomfortable questioning The A.P., knowing that Iraq is such a dangerous place,” she said. “But there’s a perception that we’re not telling the whole story.”

During the period of active “major combat” in April-May 2003, reporters had no problem criticizing embedded reporters who wrote positive stories for allegedly becoming too emotionally tied to the soldiers and marines they were living and traveling with — even though Iraq was surely even more dangerous then than it is now.

Mr. Silverman said in an interview that he was aware of that perception. “Other editors said they get calls from readers who are hearing stories from returning troops of the good things they have accomplished while there, and readers find that at odds with the generally gloomy portrayal in the papers of what’s going on in Iraq,” he said.

Mr. Silverman said the editors were asking for help in making sense of the situation. “I was glad to have that discussion with the editors because they have to deal with the perception that the media is emphasizing the negative,” he said.

“We’re there to report the good and the bad and we try to give due weight to everything going on,” he said. “It is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news.”

With all due respect to Mr. Silverman, it is you editors who decide what dominated the news!

If you want the “explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries” to stop dominating the news, you are perfectly capable of taking it off the front page and burying it behind the comics, like you did with the Soviet massacre of the Azerbaijanis in the 1980s, and like the New York Times did with the Holocaust in 1943.

In fact, a little farther down in the article, you point this out yourself:

Mr. Silverman also said the wire service would make more effort to flag articles that look beyond the breaking news. As it turned out, he said, most of the information in the anonymous e-mail message had been reported by The A.P., but the details had been buried in articles or the articles had been overlooked.

So basically, this is not the fault of reporters on the ground, or of the danger in Iraq. The goodnews is going out on the wire. It’s the editors stateside — in other words, the people at this meeting — who are failing to put the good news on the front page.

As if to prove the point, Arthur Chrenkoff has been compiling a biweekly report on “Good News from Iraq” for OpinionJournal.com for an the past year. Arthur Chrenkoff is not braving the bombs in Iraq. He’s a blogger in Australia, and all he does is highlight the stories the mainstream media publish but don’t put on the front pages. (And stories Iraqi bloggers write,which are as accessible to newspaper editors as they are to Mr. Chrenkoff.)

This is really interesting — when the Internet first started impacting news (probably around the time Matt Drudge broke the story of the Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress), the established media has claimed that the Internet and (later) the bloggers are unreliable because they don’t have editors — anyone can publish anything, they can focus on isolated facts and ignore the whole picture, etc.. Now, the editors are complaining they can’t edit properly — that they can’t make report good news — while a blogger is doing just that, using the same stories available to the “real” editors. (Actually, he probably has a smaller set of stories available, since he only has what the news organizations post on the internet themselves.)

By the way, there’s one other thing in that article that’s hard to believe:

She also said that as Mr. Silverman and Kathleen Carroll, The A.P.’s executive editor, responded to the concerns, the editors realized that some questions were impossible to answer. For example, she said, the editors understood that it was much easier to add up the number of dead than to determine how many hospitals received power on a particular day or how many schools were built.

Now really, if there’s one thing our military can do better than they fight, it’s keep records. They write everything down. (Except maybe passwords and the like, but that’s not what we’re talking about.) I used to work for a company that did a lot of military work, and let me tell you, the Pentagon has got to have more file cabinets than any other building in the world — and they have other buildings just to hold the files they can’t fit in the Pentagon or their other offices.

And, every military unit above a certain level has a public affairs officer (a PAO, since they also have abbreviations for everything!) who will tell the media pretty much anything they want to know that isn’t classified, and even — in the case of embedded reporters — some stuff that is.

Building and repairing schools in Iraq is not classified. I’ve seen lots of reports on it. If the AP wants to know how many schools have been built, rebuilt, or repaired, all they have to do is find the PAO, and they’ll have a list of names, dates, and locations before they know it. Ditto for roads, power plants and power distribution, and anything else they want to know.

In short, if the AP reporters can’t find out how many schools are being built, it’s because they are lazy, don’t want to know, or don’t know who to ask. And if they don’t know who to ask — well, isn’t that a reporter’s job?

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