By: Greg Mitchell
In the five years since the tragic U.S. intervention in Iraq began, many journalists for mainstream news outlets have certainly contributed tough and honest reporting. Too often, however, their efforts have either fallen short or been negated by a cascade of pro-war views expressed by pundits, analysts, and editorial writers at their own newspapers or broadcast/cable networks.
But allow me to focus on the positive by suggesting that many of the most critical and important journalistic voices exposing the criminal nature of, and the many costs of, this war have emerged from an “alternative” universe that includes former war correspondents, reporters for small newspapers or news services, comedians, aging rock ‘n rollers, and bloggers, among others. They’re all found in my new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.”
We can all name our favorite major paper or not-so-famous reporters who have covered the war in Iraq in ways that should have been far more common, or offered biting commentary here at home. A full list would be long indeed, but here, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, is my modest tip of the hat to just a few of my own favorites, based on what, to some, might seem an idiosyncratic definition of “journalist.”
The full version of what appears below was published earlier today at the vital Web site, TomDispatch:
Chris Hedges: Looking back at my extensive, and often critical, commentary on media coverage of the Iraq war over the past five years, I’m struck yet again by the way Chris Hedges stands out as a kind of prophet. The former New York Times war reporter was among the few who recognized from the start that taking Baghdad would be the easy part.
We interviewed him at Editor & Publisher (E&P) magazine, where I have long been editor, three times just before and after the war was launched. Speaking of the coming occupation of Iraq in April 2003, for example, he said: “It reminds me of what happened to the Israelis after taking over Gaza, moving among hostile populations. It’s 1967, and we’ve just become Israel.”
Mark Benjamin: He now writes tough pieces for Salon.com, but his vital early exposure of hidden damage to — and mistreatment of — our troops in Iraq in 2003-4, came when he worked for a well-known news service that these days might just as well be considered “underground” for all the influence it wields: United Press International.
In October 2003, for starters, he revealed that hundreds of soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga., were being kept in hot cement barracks without running water while they waited, for months at a time in some cases, for medical care. (Twelve days later he exposed ghastly conditions at Fort Knox in Kentucky.) The stories produced quick and measurable results rather than mere promises. Army Secretary Les Brownlee flew to Fort Stewart; new doctors were dispatched; and, within a month, the barracks had been closed. Pentagon officials later declared that they would spend $77 million the following year to help returning troops get better treatment.
And the media started paying more attention to the injured. The 2,000 non-fatal casualties to that moment had rarely been highlighted until Benjamin went to work.
Lee Pitts: Everyone remembers the uproar caused when, in early December 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that vehicles carrying our soldiers in Iraq were poorly armored — and his famous quote about going to war with the Army you have not the one you want. But did you know that the whole incident was sparked by a reporter for a local Tennessee paper?
Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times, embedded with a military unit based near that city, had learned in early December 2004 that Rumsfeld was slated to appear at a “town hall” gathering in Kuwait at which only soldiers would be allowed to ask questions. Already aware that the troops were angry about the lack of protection offered by their largely unarmored vehicles — they were finding scrap metal and adding their own ad hoc armor to their trucks and Humvees — he made sure Rumsfeld was challenged by arranging for a couple of soldiers whom he knew to be in a critical mood to get a chance at the microphone.
Stephen Colbert: Many fondly recall the Comedy Central star’s in-his-face mockery of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, D.C. in April 2006. But who remembers that he was just as critical of journalism’s Beltway boys (and girls) in the audience?
Here is the key passage: “Let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The president makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction.”
Neil Young: Rock star as journo? It essentially happened in 2006 when Neil Young, son of a famous Canadian sportswriter, hurriedly wrote and released (only online at first) his ripped-from-the headlines Living with War CD. He even proposed impeaching the president “for lying” (and “for spying”). In one of the songs in the collection, Young sang repeatedly: “Don’t need no more lies.”
He emphasized the prohibition against the media showing pictures of coffins with the American dead being returned from Iraq, singing: “Thousands of bodies in the ground/Brought home in boxes to a trumpet’s sound/No one sees them coming home that way/Thousands buried in the ground.” In another song: “More boxes covered in flags/ but I can’t see them on TV.”
McClatchy Baghdad Bloggers: With danger and violence in Baghdad keeping most Western reporters from venturing far outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, the U.S. media came to rely ever more heavily on Iraqi staffers and correspondents. More than a year ago, the McClatchy bureau in Baghdad launched a blog, Inside Iraq, written only by those Iraqis and, ever since, it’s provided some of the most valuable and brutally honest views of the war to be found anywhere.
The bureau’s bloggers exposed the horrid impact of the war simply by writing about their own lives: their grueling experiences getting to and from work, dealing with a lack of electricity and fuel, caring for wounded or grieving family members. At the end of 2007, six of the Iraqi women who worked in the bureau received the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award.
That’s a brief selection from my lengthy “best of” list. What about yours?
E&P Editor Greg Mitchell’s new book, the first probe of five years of the year, is titled “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.” To learn more or order, go to blog