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May 3, 2004

Iraq and the press: discussion

I chaired a public discussion today about the media and Iraq. The speakers were:

  • Susan Moeller, a former photo-journalist and now a Journalism professor at Maryland who has written a fine paper on media coverage of weapons of mass destruction. Susan has also taught at Harvard, Princeton, Islamabad, and elsewhere and has published two highly relevant books, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, and Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat; and

  • Christopher Hanson, also a Journalism professor at Maryland and a former reporter who covered the first Gulf War and the civil war in Rwanda from the field. Chris is interviewed here.
  • I talked about why the quality of press coverage matters, in the first place.

    It's hard to summarize a wide-ranging and serious conversation, other than to say that everyone is deeply critical of reporting about Iraq. Everyone would like to read broader and more substantive stories, not about the daily body-count but rather about the status of Iraq's infrastructure, or about Iraqi culture and history, or about the reasons for the diverse opinions that Arabs hold. We would at least like to know: how many Iraqis have working electricity today?

    Here are some additional points that struck me as particularly useful:

  • The policy of "embedding" reporters with military units has made them reliant on their sources, but this is nothing new--it's the problem that usually afflicts "beat" reporters, who become close to the experts and officials in their area of coverage.

  • All the critical questions that should have been asked about the War were asked before the invasion began, but not conspicuously. They appeared once on p. 18 or p. 25, while the Administration's line apppeared daily on the front page.

  • Reporters take their cues from conflicts among political elites. When there's little dissent among elected leaders, the press cannot (or doesn't know how to) create stories that are independent of the official line. Thus the lack of Democratic dissent before the War prevented the press from developing critical articles. Howard Kurtz makes the same point to the BBC today

  • When editors and reporters learn that the public is misinformed about a topic that they are covering, some reply (explicitly): "We don't educate. Our job is to uncover new information." They don't take responsibility for the public's failure to understand the "big picture."
  • Whenever I hear that there is a lack of substantive news coverage (for instance, about the state of the Iraqi infrastructure today), I always wonder what factors are to blame: the cost of researching such stories; the (perceived) lack of audience demand for substantive news; a lack of skills in the press corps; or some kind of editorial bias among editors and publishers.

    May 3, 2004 2:50 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism | Comments


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