By: Greg Mitchell
It was April 4, 2003, just a few days before the American forces seemed likely to take Baghdad. By then, it was clear the U.S. was headed for a relatively quick victory, but already there were troubling hints that the Iraqis might not be ready to welcome us with hugs and flowers. No one knew how unprepared the U.S. was for the occupation and few in the media were raising that question.
That night, I appeared with Bill Moyers on PBS on his show NOW. The interview would conclude with Bill Moyers asking, “Do you have a sense that when the battle is over, this story’s only begun?”
Here was my answer to that, and all that preceded it (drawn from my new book on Iraq and the media).
MOYERS: Do you think the public knows that the reporters who are embedded had to sign a contract with the Pentagon in order to be accepted for this role? That they had to agree to play by the rules?
MITCHELL: Well, it’s a good question whether they know but also whether they care. I think, as we found in polls over the years, that the American people… believe that there should be all sorts of restrictions. And, of course, everyone agrees that in war time there should be more restrictions. But the question is, to what degree? And we’ve seen in our interviews with editors in the past couple weeks, many cases of editors getting a lot of mail from readers who are upset about their coverage. And it shows that the people have a really different view about what the rights and the responsibilities of the press are.
MOYERS: I saw your story about USA TODAY the other day… the editor of USA TODAY got in trouble for this photograph, didn’t he?
MITCHELL: Well, they ran a photograph of some dead Iraqi soldiers on the front page. And a large number of readers, they told us, complained because on the same day they ran a photo inside of a U.S. soldier surrounded by happy Iraqi children. And so these people were saying, “Why wasn’t that photo on the front page instead of the dead Iraqi soldiers?”
And the executive editor of USA TODAY told us that, yeah, the reason was simple. It was a day of great bloodshed. One of those days of great pessimism. And he thought it would have been inappropriate and misleading to show this happy photo on the front page. So he went with the more grim photo.
Another example I’ll give you, the DALLAS MORNING NEWS editor told us that they’ve gotten a lot of complaints for showing dead civilians or damaged civilians of Iraqis on the on the front page. And he says that it’s viewed by the readers as an anti-war statement… showing the casualties on the other side is an anti-war statement. And that really goes against all the principles of press coverage that we believe in which is, you know, showing what is happening. And letting the people deal with it as they can.
MOYERS: Do you think that journalists can be objective about what they’re reporting when they are alongside the troops who are protecting them as they move forward?
MITCHELL: Well, I think that’s one of the problems. These reporters have been living with these troops. Reporting with them, getting to know them. And, of course, that’s all terrific. You know, no one could really be against that.
But in practice it could modify or adjust what they report about the actions….One of the problems in this whole campaign has been that originally we were told that the embedded reporters would only make up maybe half of the reporters who would be covering the conflict. The rest would be independent. But what’s happened is because of the dangers over there– almost all the reporters are the embedded reporters. So there’s very few free-roaming reporters who can report without any restrictions whatsoever.
But the problem is that the commentators on TV have almost from the beginning adopted a “we” attitude. They now are reporting, “We are advancing. We are taking fire. We are taking prisoners.”
So all objectivity has been dropped. And, as human beings, I think we could agree it’s understandable in this situation. But, as journalists, it’s not the best situation where commentators, anchormen– reporters in the field — are talking about this as a “we” rather than a U.S. mission or the U.S. soldiers.
MOYERS: Fox News has become the cheerleader for the government. What does it do to other news organizations when Fox proves that jingoism is more popular than journalism?
MITCHELL: I think the problem with that is that a lot of the other– particularly the cable news networks have– felt that they have to keep up with that. I think there’s a certain competition to show that they’re not soft on the war, that they don’t have any less patriotism than Fox. And we’ve seen it just this morning. I saw an interview on CNN with an Australian woman who had been in Baghdad and had just left. And the woman kept saying that, you know, she was amazed how much the Iraqi people, although they may not like Saddam Hussein, were very angry about the bombings.
Many of their children had been injured or killed….And the person who was the interviewer back in the U.S. asked her one aggressive question after another. After he finished talking to her, he then sort of editorialized on the air, saying– “Well, we’ve talked to countless people who say that the Iraqi civilians will welcome with open arms the American soldiers.”
Now that may or may not be true. But the point is that even after one of the rare kind of dissenting or contrary opinions was expressed, the anchor felt he had to then jump in and editorialize, saying, “You can disregard what this woman said. You know, we have other information.”
The press should report straight down the line. You know, let the people see all sides. Let the people get all the information as quickly as they can. And let the chips fall where they may….
MOYERS: What concerns you about what’s not being covered?
MITCHELL: My complaint is with the cable news networks that are on 24/7 and yet have found virtually no time to interview psychologists and theologians and other observers who could talk about what this is doing to us what this is doing to us as a country.
MOYERS: Do you see as much cheerleading in the print press as you do on television?
MITCHELL: No, I think the print press has played it more straight down the line. They’ve had a more variety of stories. They have had reports from Baghdad itself. More reports on what people are saying around the world. More reports on protests pro and con about the war. More range of editorial opinions. So I think the print press and newspapers have done a much better job, a more reflective job.
MOYERS: What do you think is stake for democracy and how we journalists cover this war?
MITCHELL: Edward R. Murrow had a quote on his wall in his office from Thoreau in which he said something like, “To speak the truth, you need two people. One to speak it and one to hear it.” And I think that sums up the relationship not only between the military and the press but the press and the American people. You know, the press often is reporting factual matters. And the public sometimes turns away from it. We entered this war, with upwards of half the people in the country believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack.
Now, how did that happen? Was that the media’s fault? Was it the government’s fault for putting out the stories? Or is the public sometimes not receptive, and the public wants to believe what the public wants to believe?
MOYERS: Last question. Do you have a sense that when the battle is over, this story’s only begun?
MITCHELL: I don’t think most Americans understand that this is going to be something that’s with us for years and decades, and I’m not sure we get a sense of that from the coverage which seems to be oriented towards next week or next month, when the battle will be over. The boys will start to come home, and it will be a glorious episode in our past rather than something that’s just the beginning of this story.
We’re really at the beginning of the story of the US and Iraq and the 21st century.
Mitchell’s new book is titled, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.” It includes a foreword by Joseph L. Galloway and a preface by Bruce Springsteen.