Journalists Criticize Media’s War Coverage

El Vaquero Editor in Chief

Three prominent journalists were critical of the media’s coverage of the war on Iraq in a recent panel discussion at Occidental College
The panel, presented by The New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and Occidental College, met on Oct. 24 to discuss key issues concerning the press’s coverage of the war at an event open to the public.

Members of the panel included Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books; he authored “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.”

Mark Danner is a staff writer at the New Yorker, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley. He is also the author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror.”

The third panelist, Robert Silvers is coeditor of the New York Review of Books.

The thrust of the panel’s comments was the press’s inadequacies in war coverage and “how the press blew it in the run-up to the war,” said Massing.

The panel, moderated by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, mainly agreed that the press is guilty of what Massing called a “failure to hold people in power accountable and ask the right questions.”

“The press has always been thought to be in a kick-ass mode against people in power,” said Massing. But he doesn’t think the press has been faithful enough to setting an agenda about the important aspects of the war and its ramifications. “This is going to be studied in journalism schools for years; at least I hope.”

Danner believes part of the problem is evident in the fact that journalists are more cautious of any bold moves that would seemingly endorse a political ideology, or worse, a politician. “[Journalists] feel politically vulnerable when they take a side of a political candidate,” he said. “[Especially] if you become unpopular or seem unpatriotic.”

Ruthanne Salido, who teaches journalism at Glendale and Pasadena city colleges, has seen unfair judgment calls recently in the media, including with the recent election. “I think that in an effort to be fair, the media sometimes have been a little too accommodating of the far right’s agenda,” said Salido.

“For example, the media gave far too much coverage to the ill-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who questioned Kerry’s record in Vietnam. Kerry’s service was honored by the government and this little group shows up and says, ‘No sireeeee!’ and the media lap it up.”
The panel paid close attention to media coverage and handling of the prison abuse by American soldiers in Iraq, which was made known to the public in the spring. They believe unanimously that the press did an inadequate job of emphasizing the significance of Abu Ghraib.
“Scandal is a word that when you use it, it already puts the event in past tense,” said Danner. But he was most concerned with the lack of action that has been taken since the abuse scandal both by the public and the media.

“We’ve known about [the abuse]…we know all about what went on,” he said. “The pictures became symbols of…as the government put it…a few bad apples…but we know that this stuff has been systematic and was ordered by high ranking officials…people continue to die…this has all been well-documented,” said Danner. “What exactly then is supposed to happen?”

Along with the other panelists, Danner believes there was a great failure in the handling of the prison abuse scandal in both the press’ underscoring of the facts and the public’s weak outcry. “It’s a scandal that’s uncovered and sits there in our face…the question is what are we going to do about it?”

Silver agreed that the abuse was not treated with enough consideration given the magnitude of the scandal. “I wish it was true that Abu Ghraib had gotten the attention it deserved but it hasn’t,” he said. “You’ve probably noticed that it hasn’t been mentioned in any of the presidential debates…I feel we’re still in the dark.”

Danner commented that the work of a journalist can only go so far in making long-lasting social changes. He insists the public must also take the extra step toward correcting social and governmental injustice.

“What happens when we read these stories about what our government has done in the name of protecting us? Part of it, it seems to me, dissolves on the public,” said Danner. “It’s up to people to make changes in their government … there’s a point in which [a journalist’s job to cover the truth] ends and that point is approaching in the next few days.”

The discussion about Abu Ghraib made a natural segue to the topic of Iraqi civilian causalities. According to Danner there have been an estimated 10 to 20,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. Given the smaller size of Iraq, Danner said this number can be proportionally equal to 110 to 220,000 American civilians.

In fact Lancet, a British medical journal, estimated in a recent study on their Web site that nearly 100,000 more Iraqi civilians have been killed than was originally projected by the United States.
American soldiers in Iraq, according to Danner, are expected to knock down doors in the middle of the night, shove their feet into the backs of the males in the house, which is considered to be a great insult the Arab culture, and then place them in prisons like Abu Ghraib. He said 10,000 Iraqis are held in these prisons and 90 percent of them have no connection whatsoever with the insurgency.

For Danner, these points lead him to criticize the progress of the war. “Make no mistake, the U.S. is losing the war because it doesn’t have the international support to get the intelligence to capture the bad guys.

He believes civilian loss is one of the most detrimental effects of war and can determine whether a country is on the winning or losing side. “If you go and kill civilians you are losing the war even if you take over the city for an election,” he said. “Because when you’re killing civilians, you’re creating enemies.”

Danner applied this idea to specific examples from the war on Iraq. “If you kill people in Fallujah, you can’t hold Fallujah except by killing more people and at the end of the day you ask what are you really doing there?”

Massing did, however, give some credit and acknowledgment to the press for what it was able to do. “They’re very courageous people and they’re working under difficult circumstances,” he said. “The elite press has done a very good job of reporting how bad things have gotten,” said Massing of the what he considers to be the top tier of the media including CNN, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
Salido agrees the press has made some advancements in recent events and thinks it might be newspapers’ low readership which prevents news from picking up further momentum. “I think the print media in particular have come out with one revelation after another about the administration’s handling of the Iraq and al-Qaeda situations,” she said. “Yet this coverage seems to have had little effect on the electorate — possibly because people just don’t read newspapers much anymore.”

At the panel discussion, Massing also acknowledged that the stream of information for journalists has been severely strained. The press “wants access,” he said and believes the lack of information available is partly the fault of executive administrations since the Vietnam War. “Their briefings have stopped. You can’t even get e-mails of people to get in contact with them,” said Massing. “I’m stunned at the amount of information that is s shut down.”

But, he added, “it’s the press’ concern about seeming too negative” that he believes prohibited them from applying the right kind and amount of attention to the war. “What’re they missing?” he asked.
“It’s not doing a sophisticated enough of a job,” he said of the coverage of what the country is doing wrong militarily and diplomatically.

Mona Field, who teaches political science at GCC, doesn’t think this is too far from the truth. “It appears that most journalists in Iraq are so concerned for their personal safety that they rarely get out of their hotels to see the real situation, and so Americans get almost no useful information about the actual state of civil collapse in Iraq,” she said.

Danner furthered this point with his discussion of the first amendment and how it does nothing to ensure that the press will use it for quality reporting. “The first amendment doesn’t tell the press what it should do and how it should act,” he said.