Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2003 / 20 Kislev, 5764

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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With Saddam capture, my media colleagues should now be ashamed of themselves | To its credit, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the newspaper I work for, ran on its front page Dec. 11 a photograph of a protest demonstration that had taken place in Baghdad earlier in the day.

Al Jazeera, the Arab TV network, estimated the size of the crowd at more than 10,000, which would make it among the largest demonstrations in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled. And it was only one of three. Protest marches also were held in Ar Ramadi and Baquba.

But few news organizations paid them much heed. Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw didn't mention them. The wire services and the New York Times dismissed the protests in a paragraph or two buried deep in stories which led with the customary reports of guerrilla attacks on Coalition forces, which on this day were neither large nor successful.

Since the networks and CNN routinely give air time to any group of several hundred or more who gather in front of the Palestine hotel to shake their fists, media disinterest in this massive protest would be puzzling ...were it not for what the protesters were protesting against. Australian journalist Tim Blair called it: "news so good it can't be mentioned."

The protesters, you see, weren't protesting against the Americans.

"It wasn't just against terrorism," said the Iraqi web logger Zeyad, who was there. "It was against the Arab media, against the interference of neighboring countries, against dictatorships, against Wahhabism, against oppression, and of course against the Baath and Saddam."

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The demonstrations were large enough to be newsworthy on the basis of their size alone. But they are noteworthy for two other reasons:

The first is that it took courage for these people to come out. Nothing bad ever happens to those who shake their fists at the Americans, because they can be sure the Coalition will take no reprisals for mere protest. But these marchers could have been attacked at any time by the guns and bombs of those most in the news media choose to call "insurgents."

"Ten thousand people in these circumstances, when even getting from one point in the city to another requires a heroic effort, not to mention the risk of life, why this is equivalent to a million in normal times," said the Iraqi web logger Alaa.

The second is that major demonstrations took place in Ar Ramadi, on the western edge of the Sunni Triangle, and in Baquba, where Americans frequently have been ambushed. This indicates that those the media choose to call "insurgents" have much opposition even among the Sunni minority. Noah Oppenheim, a producer for MSNBC who spent a month in Iraq, thinks he knows why the media chose not to note these noteworthy things.

Television journalists in Iraq do little actual reporting, Oppenheim said in the Weekly Standard. They rely on accounts from the AP and Reuters news services. The wires emphasize bad news, and make little effort to put events into context.

"If a bomb has exploded or an American soldier has been killed, that is the day's major event," Oppenheim said. "Barring that, an alarming comment from an American official...will suffice."

"Once the wires have dictated the day's headline, television correspondents sometimes venture into the field," he said. "However, the purpose of leaving their fortress hotels is rarely to collect information. Sometimes they'll solicit a soundbite that fits their preconceived notion of the day's narrative. More often than not, they simply need a scenic backdrop from which to recite their lines."

Beyond this structural failure, there is a problem of attitude, Oppenheim said: "Most journalists did not support this war to begin with, and feel vindicated when the effort stumbles."

Bill Johnson, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News recently arrived in Iraq, was surprised at how peaceful the capital city is:

"This is not the Baghdad everyone has told us to fear, the one they have for months shown on television at home," he said. "Not a single car exploded. There were no dead bodies that needed to be stepped over."

The war in Iraq is being won everywhere except in the news accounts of it.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2003, Jack Kelly