I got this wonderful email from a 1st Lieutenant currently serving in Baghdad with the US Army, who I would prefer not to identify for reasons that will be obvious when you read his story. He has taken on a variety of tasks, including Public Affairs Officer, and in that capacity had a great deal of interaction with the media. I reprint it here, with his permission, having made no changes other than (at his request) correcting a few typos and removing identifying information.
By the time 1AD got to Baghdad, 27 April 03, nearly all of the embedded
media had gone home. The war was over and rebuilding is never as exciting. I
had to go to Brigade to have my first meeting with a Fox News crew around the
middle of May -- this is important because it shows the lowest echelon at which
news correspondents were operating at that time.
The Fox News crew laid out what qualified as "newsworthy: -- Women taking
an active leadership role in the new government, detainee/prisoner abuse
cases, any WMD news, and individual soldier contributions (such as one soldier
who bought school supplies and teddy bears for Iraqis out of his own pocket.)
These were the stories deemed airable and they wouldn't respond to anything
outside of that. The news crew wasn't bashful about its agenda and they made
it clear that they weren't going to respond to anything outside of those story
lines unless it was something really spectacular.
Fox stood out most as a network that knew what it was going to put out
before it even shot the footage. Other news organizations were more subtle
about what they wanted to cover but pretty much everyone had their stories
written before they showed up. To Al-Jazeera especially, the video footage was
merely a formality.
Most of the freelance photographers I met spent their time chasing the news
organizations and taking pictures along the way. They kept tabs on what media
publishers wanted (mainly newspapers and printed news) and hitchhiked rides
all over Baghdad with whoever had wheels and an empty seat. They were kind of
like the media hobos, many of them based out of Egypt and running around
Baghdad with nothing more than a backpack and a few hundred dollars for 2 weeks
at a stretch. I respect the freelancers most because they operate with no
support and on their own dollars -- that takes bravery. As far as their
contribution to the American public, freelancers live off what they sell and
they can only sell what the major networks are buying. They earn no points
Even as a soldier, I received a negative reaction from other soldiers as a
public affairs officer. Despite memos and talking points every few months
from the commanding general, soldiers do not and refuse to understand the role
of the media in Baghdad. Most soldiers feel like media groups are out to catch
them doing something wrong. They view a cameraman over their shoulder the
exact same way they would view their CO or 1st Sgt watching their every move.
One of two things contribute to this: 1) Most soldiers lack confidence in
themselves or -- more likely -- 2) Soldiers have come to believe through years of
service that they are far more likely get bit in the ass by minor mistakes
caught on film than they are to get commended on any major accomplishments that
get recorded. Many soldiers further (maybe correctly) assume it doesn't matter
what they do, the news will write what they want to write anyway.
The result of this attitude is that soldiers are more than willing to leave
a camera crew behind or claim "there's no room." If the CO doesn't make room
then there is certainly sure to be none. Young soldiers, including myself,
also desire to streamline operations as much as possible. Fewer people = less
moving parts = easier operating = higher chance of success. I happen to be
sensitive to the role of the media in American society but many officers and
senior NCOs are not; if I feel a slight inconvenience at having to plan for a
media group to ride along, I'm sure the feeling is overwhelming to someone who
doesn't want the media along anyways.
The accuracy of news reporting is affected by the fact that most reporters
are very poorly read on the subjects they are covering. Given that the
storyline is planned/ written before they show up (only dates/names need be
inserted) there is little motivation for them to actually become educated on
the world they are supposedly depicting.
Another major contributer to inaccuracy is most reporters are only in
country for a month at a stretch. Though some embedded reporters were around
long enough to establish a rapport with their units (during the war, before I
got here) that is no longer the case. Media embedded during the war were
learning at the same rate as their soldier escorts -- Iraq and warfighting was
new to everyone so there was little room for one to call the other
"inaccurate". These were also higher paid, more famous correspondents.
In post-war Iraq, reporters show very little interest in getting a story
right to a T. "Close enough" reporting is the norm. After all, does the
American public really care if CNN calls a Bradley Fighting Vehicle an M1? Or
if there were 13 detainees taken instead of 10? The American public probably
doesn't care and the story is close enough to not be called a lie. These minor
deficiencies in the facts are important however because they show a lack of
scholarship on the reporters' behalf.
Soldiers like to see themselves on TV but they also like to see things
broadcast correctly. When things are incorrect, it feeds their belief that the
reporters are reporting only what they want to report. This lessens soldiers'
overall hospitality towards the media and -- given enough time -- causes them to
leave camera crews standing in the motorpool.
The above paragraphs take some of the blame off of media groups for their
failure to accurately or thoroughly cover the goings-ons of post-war Iraq. But
I must say plainly, I believe the majority of the fault lies with the media
groups because of the way they plan their agendas before events take place.
The above dialogue just ensures I'm not entirely one-sided. News stories are
like soap operas and follow-on stories must pick-up where an old story left off
-- or be grotesque enough to start a new story-line on their own or act as an
aside to the network's running theme. America's recent "Reality TV" craze has
not been overlooked by News network producers; the nightly news and "Survivor"
may be more alike than dissimilar.
EDUCATION AND IRAQI EYE WITNESS ACCOUNTS
When taking the word of an Iraqi it is important to consider the education
level of the man and his ability to understand his world around him. Many
soldiers believe all Iraqis are outright liars but I believe they simply
misinterpret the things they see. Most Iraqis never progress beyong what we
would consider a 6th grade education. They have no knowledge of physics or
geometry (which explains why they can't hit 5 story buildings with mortars) and
they have no history besides that which the Ba'ath party taught (I have seen
text books with my own eyes that claim Saddam discovered flight). After 35
years of living in a country where maps and satellite TV were illegal and you
had to apply for a passport to leave your village, most Iraqis simply cannot
understand events that take place. Predjudices and stereotypes that have
been cultivated here for years further ruin Iraqis' ability to make decisions/
The average Iraqi has a 6th grade education. Although many Iraqis in
Baghdad go to school 4 days a week, a "full day of school" is 4 hours. Most
schools do not have air conditioners or even fans or even electricity. As the
senior platoon leader in Jisr-Diyala, Southern Baghdad, I assessed 23 schools
that taught about 10,000 children. Most of the schools had no paper, classes
of 35 kids in 20x15 ft rooms, and no bathrooms. I have a lot of video footage
of schools and public facilities that show abysmal education standards (a
friend of mine is a public school teacher in Fayetteville NC and I took a lot
of notes for her to use for comparison purposes.)
Many Iraqis in Jisr-Diyala believed American food gave us X-Ray vision and
that we had mechanical enhancements implanted in our bodies. Many Iraqis
believe our helicopters can see through rooftops into houses. In Iraqi basic
training, soldiers were taught to defeat "the electromagnetic shields on the
Abrahms tank by wrapping RPG rounds with wet socks."
Given that 80% of Iraqis are about as intellectually and emotionally
developed as an American 6th grader, we must be very careful in trusting the
average Iraqi's "eye-witness testimony." (AN ASIDE: Shortly after Ramadan and
before Christmas I had a contracted Iraqi employee swear to me on Allah and his
mother's life and all that was holy that the date was about Feb. 15. The
conversation originated with him claiming he hadn't been paid his monthly wage.
It ended when I learned he had no idea what day it was or when he was supposed
to be paid. My pay records clearly had his signature showing he was paid only
two week ago.)
How much news comes from Iraqi eye-witness accounts? I have stories by the
dozens of Iraqis outright lying or grossly misinterpreting sights, sounds, and
actions. Given that the media does not have to publicly cite its sources,
there is no way to know the odds of a story being accurate. This is good for
news networks that are pushing a storyline. It makes it easy for them to
decide which direction they'd like to lead the public and then find stories to
support that decision.
That's all I have time for for now. I know that a lot of what I've jotted
down here is undeveloped or not supported but if I sidetracked every claim with
a story I would soon have a thesis length email. I would be glad to expand in
detail on anything that I've written thus far. The media definitely reduced
its footprint here in Iraq around the beginning of May and it did it again at
the beginning of July. I can try for more quantifiable evidence from the
Brigade Public Affairs Branch if need be.
Feel free to publish or share anything I send you. Nothing I write is
secret or personal.