Chris Hedges on ‘Distorted’ War Coverage

By: Barbara Bedway

For Chris Hedges, the veteran journalist who has covered over a dozen conflicts around the globe, it’s clear that the U.S. military’s use of embedded reporters in Iraq has made the war easier to see and harder to understand. Yes, “print is doing a better job than TV,” he observes. “The broadcast media display all these retired generals and charts and graphs, it looks like a giant game of Risk [the board game]. I find it nauseating.” But even the print embeds have little choice but to “look at Iraq totally through the eyes of the U.S. military,” he points out. “That’s a very distorted and self-serving view.”

To Hedges, who is fluent in Arabic, this instantaneous “slice of war” reporting is bereft of context. Reporters have a difficult time interviewing Iraqi civilians, and many don’t even try, he says. “We don’t know what the Iraqis think.” The reporters are “talking about a country and culture they know nothing about.”

Hedges, author of the recent book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, now writes for the Metro section of The New York Times. He told E&P in February that he planned to stay out of war zones from now on.

Hedges, who covered the first Gulf War as a so-called “unilateral,” dislikes the term: “I prefer ‘independent’ to ‘unilateral.’ In my experience, reporters who freelance are better at war reporting. They have lots of drive and organizational skills and chutzpah.” The embeds, on the other hand, “are giving us postcards, not a real sense of the campaign and how it’s going. Any criticism of the war they have is going to be tepid, because they’re dependent on the military. Finding compliant reporters in your Washington bureau won’t get you good coverage.”

The best reporting in the current conflict, he says, has come in northern Iraq, from independent reporters “who have freedom to travel.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges that it may have become too dangerous to operate independently now in much of Iraq: “I know there are some who have given up. Good, independent reporters will push themselves to the limit. When reporters and photographers of that caliber say they can’t go on, they can’t go on. There will have to be rotations. Sleep deprivation itself renders your capacity to work difficult.”

Hedges believes the growing hostility between the Iraqis and Americans makes covering the war a far more dangerous job than reporters could have initially imagined: “My suspicion is that the Iraqis view it as an invasion and occupation, not a liberation. This resistance we are seeing may in fact just be the beginning of organized resistance, not the death throes of Saddam’s fedayeen. I’ve witnessed how insurgencies build in other conflicts — good guerilla leaders [could appear] who are unknown to us now. They know the landscape. 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. I fear what happened there will happen here.”

The real “shock and awe” may be that we’ve been lulled into a belief that we can wage war cost-free, according to Hedges: “We feel we can fight wars and others will die and we won’t. We lose track of what war is and what it can do to a society. The military had a great disquiet about the war plans, as far back as last fall. The press did not chase down that story.”

The best preparation for covering war does not lie in one-week boot camp training for journalists, Hedges says ruefully, but having a deep understanding of the humanities: “In seminary I studied a lot of ethics, so I was wary of utopian movements. I didn’t go to Latin America thinking the Sandinistas would bring us heaven and earth, as some reporters did. In seminary, we put so much time into studying human nature, how moral choices are made. I have a deep respect for Islam that I learned in seminary — I don’t look at Arabs as two-dimensional figures. I’m a great believer in the humanities. If you know Shakespeare, you know human nature.”

See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.

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