In War, the 'Truth' Hurts

By: Brian Orloff Some of the media's toughest critics on Iraq war coverage are soldiers themselves. Paul Rieckhoff, 29, as a U.S. Army first lieutenant and junior officer, was a rifle platoon leader in Iraq last year. Returning home, he founded Operation Truth, aiming to tell the public the truth of the war from a soldier's perspective, often through the media.

"I came back from Iraq a year ago and was frustrated with the way the dialogue was going in this country," Rieckhoff says at his New York City office. "Mainly, there weren't any soldiers represented. You had four-star generals or policy wonks and people on TV who had generally never been to Iraq. Rarely involved in the dialogue were people who had actually been there, especially lower-level people."

Operation Truth's mission is to spotlight soldiers in news reports, connecting reporters to its network of over 400 soldiers, both active duty and vets, and arranged by ZIP code for local angles. "I think the press coverage has improved slightly in the last few months, but altogether in the past year it has been pretty poor," he says. "The sheer number of people they have in Iraq has declined dramatically from the time they started coverage of the war."

Even with reporters on the scene, the ongoing system of embedding reporters actually limits the stories they can tell. "You need access from the military for your story," Rieckhoff says. "At its very foundation, as long as the military is controlling access to your story, you've got to play ball. Not to say that they're totally in bed, but you have to play along. If you don't, next time they'll deny you access.

"I've seen how [journalists] have really been intimidated by the military and by the White House," he continues. "Also, I think they're at times intimidated by a need to protect the soldiers."

Rieckhoff quickly supplies an example: "A reporter from a major magazine wrote a story about a group of guys in Fallujah. There was a soldier having nightmares and problems and [the writer] came home and started to tell the unit a little bit about what her story was evolving into and people within his chain of command said, 'You cannot do that. You are going to make him look bad. You're going to make us all look weak ? he's a poor representation.'

"She actually altered her story to better protect him," he continues, "which is fine morally but at its very basic journalistic integrity, it's absolutely bankrupt. And unfortunately, that's not rare."

Another criticism: The media too often report the same story. Few journalists, he says, seek new leads or launch investigative stories from inside Iraq. Too many reporters, he adds, "are afraid to leave the compound and they only leave the compound under military guard ? and they're not running around undercover with cameras aggressively covering the Iraqi side of things. We don't hear from Iraqi civilians very often." American reporters would face grave threats but also get true scoops and provide a very necessary service, he says. As it is, he asserts, "you have to go look to Al Jazeera to get that side represented."

Operation Truth, which has connected soldiers with journalists from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and National Public Radio, among other outlets, employs five staffers and has an advisory board whose members include Jesse Ventura and Paul Bucha, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Issues that Rieckhoff says are ripe for exploring in the media include the high number of wounded soldiers, the true number of military suicides, the Kurdish region, and more feature stories about the ways soldiers are deeply affected by the war.

Journalists, he adds, "haven't protected, or embraced, or really publicized" soldiers who have come forward with stories. Many troops are worried that speaking out "is going to affect their career, their families, their livelihood ? and they're scared. The press should be trying to propel those voices and encourage those voices, not necessarily sculpt them, but give them a platform."

Rieckhoff, however, applauds blogging from inside Iraq as providing a necessary lens into the lives of Iraqi civilians largely absent from mainstream reports. He says he also appreciated The New York Times' recently revisiting the protective "armor" issue: "It's great they brought it out again. But it's like drive-through news. They hit it and they're gone." He acknowledges that local reporters have visited factories and reported on local armor production, but most of those stories did not receive national play.

Rieckhoff requests that Iraq reporters at least provide "full disclosure," as they have a responsibility to their readers to fully explain what it means to be a reporter, either embedded or stuck in an isolated compound. Sometimes they "have to be crafty in their access, but the problem is they don't tell the audience that," he explains. Giving people "the impression that they know what the hell is going on I think is almost more dangerous than not knowing what's going on at all." He adds, "If you're not willing to really dig down and find the story, that's fine, but don't act like you are. Stand up and say, 'We only did the story in 20 minutes using the same source that everybody in the Green Zone uses.'"

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