Tuesday, October 21, 2008

International assessment of Iraq war coverage

Al Jazeera English's must-see weekly program Inside Iraq this week focused on an assessment of worldwide media coverage of the Iraq war and occupation. The panel consisted of an American independent journalist, Robert Dreyfuss; an Israeli journalist, Akiva Eldar; and an Egyptian journalist (and former AP reporter), Nadia Abou El-Magd. They pulled no punches in their analysis of both American and Middle Eastern media over the last 6 years. Embedded video and transcript follow below the fold.

Viewing note: This Wednesday, 2008-10-22 at 19:00 GMT (3pm Eastern, noon Pacific), Al Jazeera English is having a special edition of Inside Iraq, featuring top military advisors to US Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, debating the best policy for Iraq, moving forward. The host of Inside Iraq is Jasim Azzawi, who was a translator for the US State Department before joining Al Jazeera English. Definitely a "must-see" program.

Inside Iraq, original air date 2008-10-17, ©2008 Al Jazeera English

Jasim Azzawi: Hello, welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. For all of 5 years, Iraq has gripped the attention of the world media. Journalists have reported on every aspect of arguably the biggest story of the 21st century. But are we getting an accurate picture of events in Iraq? What role, if any, did the American media play in the run-up to the war? Could the war have been averted with more accurate coverage, and have journalists and editors mixed personal ideology and national interest in covering the story of Iraq?

[correspondent]: The Iraq War has put the role of the media under close scrutiny. The war has highlighted stark differences in media perspectives across the world. What the American public saw on their tv screens was often vastly different from what audiences in the Middle East saw on Arabic satellite tv channels. Critics say the period of time between the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq represents one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media. They claim that the American media effectively galvanized public opinion that led the US and its allies to go to war.

Robert Wirsing, Georgetown University: There's no question that an intimidating atmosphere, corrosive atmosphere was created — systematically, deliberately created — to help in the job of mobilizing American media behind this effort to persuade the American people that there was a compelling reason, a compelling need, for the United States to invade Iraq.

[correspondent]: Six years into the war, questions are still being asked if the media has provided fair and objective reporting in Iraq. The US has often accused Arabic-language channels of being selective in their news coverage, and whipping up anti-American sentiments. However, similar charges have been leveled against the US media, accused of supporting the American occupation of Iraq by providing half-truths about the violence and chaos in the country.

Wirsing: Most media narratives about the war in Iraq tend to focus on media issues, tactics out of which we fought and so forth. There's very little discussion — there is some, but there is relatively little discussion in the media about deeper questions relating to the role, why the US is in there at all, why American lives are being sacrificed, why huge sums of money that the US is spending should be — it should be on the front burner. It should be a matter of enormous importance in the media and elsewhere, but that's not the case.

[correspondent]: The US media, which stands accused of not doing enough before the war, today seems to be taking a more rigorous editorial position. In a world of satellite tv channels, Internet access, web logs, and citizen journalism, where media technology has facilitated the dissemination of news and information, the focus on Iraq and how it is reported is more intense than ever.

Jasim Azzawi: In this episode, we are looking for three different perspectives. I'm delighted to welcome from Washington, D.C., Robert Dreyfuss, who is an independent journalist, and from Tel Aviv by Akiva Aldar (a.k.a. Akiva Eldar) (עקיבא אלדר), a senior columnist with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (הארץ‎), and from Cairo by Cairo bureau chief of the UAE newspaper The National [read the excellent editorial "No reason to gloat about American woes"], Nadia Abu Almagd (a.k.a. Nadia Abou El-Magd). Welcome to Inside Iraq. Akiva Eldar, as a senior columnist and a reporter on Iraq, when you write, do you look at Iraq through the prism of Israeli national interest? As Akiva Eldar sits and writes, as Akiva, or as an Israeli?

Akiva Eldar: Good question. Uh, both. First of all, of course my readers are interested in Iraq as a neighboring country, as an Arab country, as a potential partner for peace, maybe even an oil supplier — you know, after the war, we were even playing with the idea to reopen the old oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa — so, naturally, what a newspaper wants to offer its readers is information which is relevant to them, and people, of course, are looking into what's in it for them, once we will be able to establish normal relationship with Iraq. As a political analyst, I see Iraq as a member of the Arab League, which has launched the Arab Peace Initiative after the Saudi peace initiative back in March 2002, and as also a country that will affect the stability in the Middle East, but on the other hand, I'm also asking myself, How can Israel continue by pursuing the peace process with the Palestinians or with the Syrians to help our American friends to put an end to their problems in Iraq, because it's very clear to us Israelis that what's good for America is good for Israel.

Jasim Azzawi: The frankness, as articulated by Akiva, is rather refreshing. That begs the question: Did the American journalists roll over for President Bush on the eve of the war, Robert?

Robert Dreyfuss: There's no question that the media, despite maybe some early suspicions, were completely in the tank — swallowed hook, line and sinker — the President's initial rationalization for why we had to go to Iraq. He claimed — President Bush claimed that Iraq was a mortal threat that had weapons of mass destruction, that was in league with al Qaeda, and of course he implied that Iraq has some relationship to what happened on September 11th. All of this was completely bogus, and you can discuss whether it was a lie or whether it was an error, but in either case the media didn't challenge the facts. Now, personally, I was involved on the side of that. I wrote a number of articles, the first profile of Ahmed Chalabi, for instance, in the American media, and other pieces about the war between the Pentagon and the CIA, over whether it was a good idea to attack Iraq and so forth. The media caved in entirely and became a cheerleader for the war. They succumbed to this patriotic — even jingoistic — march to war that took place, up until the war. Afterwards, as it became clear that the war was bogging down and the weapons of mass destruction didn't show up and so forth, the media began to do its job. Unfortunately, now, today, I would say the American media has almost eliminated Iraq from its pages. Today, the New York Times doesn't have a single story about Iraq.

Jasim Azzawi: I shall come to a decline in the coverage as well as perhaps, ostensibly, the interest of the American public in Iraq. You've been to Iraq several times — I think 6 times — before and after the war. When you look at Iraq, how do you look at it, again? Do you look at it through the eyes of an Arab journalist, or as an independent journalist? How do you look at it?

Nadia Abou El-Magd: What I've always believed in, even in the dark Iraq, that journalists should try as much as possible to be objective, regardless of nationality. I was very interested to see what's in Iraq; I was more, maybe as an Arab in this sense, I was more skeptic[al] about this mass — weapons of mass destruction, and there was amazed how it was taken sort of like for granted by many international media, which is usually more critical in the all of that, but even I was in Iraq during the inspectors were there and stuff, and everybody was sort of like, the question was not whether they have weapons of mass destruction, it was like whether we are going to find them, so I think this has changed, and every time I went to Iraq it was sort of like a different story, and I think we also said we are going to talk about the coverage that — how now, even many journalists who are in Iraq are not actually in the street, and how this has sort of — must be affecting their reporting and for the violence and for the dangers that are in there. But again, to go back to the beginning of your question, I had sort of like mixed feelings about — I had no illusions about who Saddam was and what he did to the Iraqi people, but I was not sure that this was the right way to take him out of power and of the implications —

Jasim Azzawi: So, you separated it from Saddam: Saddam might be a brutal dictator, but he knew in advance that the destruction to Iraq might be far wider than people anticipated. Akiva Eldar, there is some sort of correlation between the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Do you relate to that? Do you kind of make a comparison?

Akiva Eldar: I think that the American occupation and specifically the violation of the human rights in Iraq itself or in Guantánamo, makes it in a way consciously or unconsciously easier for the Israelis to live with the occupation and violation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, without even having to mention it. Now it's easier to defend —

Jasim Azzawi: So, if the Americans are doing it, then it is OK for the Israelis to do it, too? Is that it?

Akiva Eldar: Actually, in a way, it makes people feel more comfortable, because, you know, we are looking at America as the icon of the struggle for human rights and democracy in the Middle East, so you don't need to mention it, but it's there. It's up there, and it makes people in Israel make them feel a little better with the occupation, and I think that in a way it makes it more difficult for the Americans to put pressure on Israel and to twist Israeli arms when it comes to violation of human rights, settlements, checkpoints, road blocks — because perhaps they don't like to be faced with questions — who are you to tell us? What you are doing in Iraq is much worse than what we are doing here. So, of course it has a clear effect and it's right there.

Jasim Azzawi: Akiva, thank you for that comment. When we come back, I'm going to ask Robert Dreyfuss what's behind the decline in American interest in the story of Iraq. Stay with us.
"War fatigue also struck journalists who find it hard to translate the ongoing battles to an American audience caught between an economic downturn and a pending presidential election." — The American Journalism Review
[commercial break]
"It's not the war in Iraq that's revolutionising the Middle East — it's the media." — Marc Lynch, Author and Expert on Media and the Middle East
Jasim Azzawi: Welcome back to Inside Iraq. We are talking about media perspective, how journalists and media organizations bring different perspective during the coverage of Iraq, with Nadia Abu Magd, Akiva Eldar, and Robert Dreyfuss. Robert Dreyfuss, what lies behind the ostensible recent decline in American interest of the Iraq story? Did the Americans walk away from the story, or the press walked away from Iraq?

Robert Dreyfuss: Well, I think largely the press is following the public interest here, and Americans, I'm sad to say, have stopped caring about Iraq because the level of violence is down, in particular the number of Americans killed every month has declined sharply, so Americans have stopped thinking about Iraq. It's almost as if they don't care over here how many Iraqis are killed, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, that the state has been reduced to rubble, that the economy and the institutions were dismantled and destroyed. The fact that Americans aren't dying has caused the public to shift its attention away from the war. The fact that the Iraqi government is now in the hands, largely, of people who are agents of Iran or at least allies of Iran next door, the precise paradoxical opposite of what President Bush tried to accomplish, allegedly, in going into Iraq, doesn't register here at all, and so Americans have focused on the decline in violence and of course I think we know now that masks the fact that Iraq is still poised to explode, not just over Kirkuk, which could blow up at any time, but also over the coming assault against the Sons of Iraq, the Awakening or Sawa movement, which, again, is poised to explode — there's a lot of problems in Iraq, and Americans aren't paying attention at all. It's just faded away from the front pages. I mean, I think most Americans have turned the page. They initially were big supporters of the war and now they've decided it wasn't worth fighting.

Jasim Azzawi: Nadia, Robert has been brutally frank in his assessment about how the American media is looking at Iraq. As an Egyptian journalist, when you look at it, do you also look on the positive side of Iraq, now that Iraq, everybody tells us, is a democracy, [political] parties abound, newspapers are thriving, and Iraqis can express themselves. Do you look at that with skepticism, or do you give the Iraqi government, as well as the American enterprise in Iraq, the benefit of the doubt, that there is a negative side, but at the same time there's a positive aspect to it?

Nadia Abou El-Magd: I think it's very difficult to talk about positive when you talk about Iraq, or see what's happening still in Iraq. Very, very difficult, indeed. The fact that Saddam has disappeared from the picture doesn't mean that what is existing now is democracy, and even if it was democracy, which it isn't, I mean, how can you justify all of this violence and the ethnic cleansing and the killing and the whole state. It's not a state any more. So, it's very difficult to talk about positive when you have such a very negative picture, all aspects.

Jasim Azzawi: Before I go to Akiva, Robert, argue for me the point why Iraq, in your opinion, is not a democracy, as we are told day in and day out by the Bush Administration.

Robert Dreyfuss: Well, you know, the political parties in Iraq are basically mafias, they're not really political parties. Almost none of them have any deep roots in the country. The main political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is a militia-based party that doesn't have real popular support. The Al Dawa Party is a party of intellectuals that has no real base in the population. The Sunnis, the Iraqi Islamic Party, was elected with 2% of the Sunnis voting in that last election, and represents almost no one, so they're gonna be swept away in the provincial elections coming up. The people in local provinces are mostly reliant on local militias and armed groups to protect them. Teh same is true in the north where the Kurds are anything but a democracy. The two Kurdish parties, again, are like two mafias that run that part of the country. So, it's a complete and utter mess. It's built around violence.

Jasim Azzawi: Point well taken, Robert. Akiva, when I invited you for this show, you told me that the Israelis are not interested in Iraq any more, absolutely whatsoever. Is it because Iraq is no longer a threat to Israel? We remember back in 1991 when Saddam lobbed several missiles onto Israel. Is it because the threat from the east is gone, or is it because of domestic Israeli policy, they are not interested in this American quagmire in Iraq?

Akiva Eldar: I think both. Actually the Israelis are looking further southeast to Iran right now, and, as you know, President Ahmadinejad was addressing the UN and made some very naughty remarks towards Israel, and the Israelis, of course, are very concerned about the nuclear program, and they also look at this threat of the Shi'ite Crescent going all the way, as you mentioned before, from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon with Hezbollah and Hamas and this is the way the Israelis are seeing Iraq. They see Iraq as part of the Iranian Shi'ite threat, since I think the Israeli media doesn't believe that the Americans will be able to get out with Iraq, leaving behind them a democratic state. So, we are concerned about the risk and the possibility that Iraq will be part of this Iranian huge front that Israel will have to face, so it's not Iraq proper, it's Iraq as part of a very troubling puzzle, if you like, in the Middle East.

Jasim Azzawi: Before I finish this program with Robert Dreyfuss, let me just go to Nadia. Nadia, how [are] the Egyptian newspapers in general — especially the big ones like Al Ahram [English edition, édition française], El Akhbar, and Al Shaab — covering Iraq right now? Are the Egyptians giving the benefit of the doubt to the new regime in Iraq, or do they look at it askance with a negative, negative coverage?

Nadia Abou El-Magd: No, I don't think there is any, they're not giving any benefit of the doubt to the new government. It's almost like what it has been, there's many "I told you so," that many Egyptians were opposed to this war in Iraq, and for them every day proved that they were right. I mean, it's reported about all of these explosions and all of these Iraqis dying and stuff, but they're not happy with the new government or with how things are in Iraq, which is very difficult for anybody to be happy [about]. And the other thing is, there is also a lot of sensitivity to Shi'ites and stuff, so the fact that the government, as Robert said, it's run by allies to Iran and stuff, making Egyptians nervous about that.

Jasim Azzawi: Robert, I am going to close this show with you. I'll take you back to the eve of the war. Explain to me, how is it possible that the American media, world renowned for investigative journalism and asking hard questions — need I remind our viewers that Woodward and Bernstein, they brought the Nixon Administration down — this question of WMD's and the mushroom cloud, nuclear capabilities of Iraq — how did it escape the American media, or did they have an axe to grind?

Robert Dreyfuss: No, what happened was very, very simple. We had just been attacked on September 11th. The country was traumatized. Millions of Americans could only think about revenge, and basically that meant going after anybody who looked like he was anti-American and had a mustache, and as you know, Saddam had a mustache. And so, when President Bush, who had the political power of King Kong at that point, said, "We're gonna go after Iraq," the public overwhelmingly fell in line, and the media, unfortunately, was simply unable to stand up to that avalanche. There were a few brave souls that tried, but especially on television it was overwhelming, the owners of the television channels put tremendous pressure on reporters not to investigate because it was hurting their ratings, because Americans were so revved up for war that they were turning off channels that presented criticism of the war. So, Bush used that momentum to go to war and it's a shameful blot on American journalistic history that more reporters, except for the lonely few, weren't able to stand up to that.

Jasim Azzawi: Independent journalist Robert Dreyfuss; Akiva Eldar, senior columnist with Ha'aretz; Nadia Abou El-Magd, Cairo bureau chief of the UAE newspaper The National — thank you for being guests on Inside Iraq. To access the show and send us your comments, please go to aljazeera.net/english. Join me next week when we take another look Inside Iraq; until then, good bye.

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