Thursday, May 05, 2005

Media Failures

Richard Miniter explains the source of the media failures in Iraq.
Everyone frets about "intelligence failures", but no one worries about "media failures." We should. The myopia of the media could cost America and its allies the war in Iraq, by presenting an unbalanced picture that undermines public support for the war.

There are three types of media failures: a story bias, a location bias, and a source bias. These are systemic biases that cut across all media from CNN to FOX to the broadcast networks. These three biases taken together are often mistaken for an ideological prejudice (aka "liberal bias"), media failures are caused by a structural bias that is largely invisible to both the press and the public. READ MORE

Story bias

The press rightly covers the so-called insurgency's bomb attacks. (No one calls them what they are: anti-democratic terrorists.) But they do not prominently cover the American military's many counter-attacks. The same day that car bombs rocked Baghdad, the U. S. Marines successfully repulsed and defeated an "insurgent" invasion originating from Syria. So when the enemy scores, it is a story. When the allies prevail, it is not. This leaves the impression that Iraq is a quagmire and our soldiers are simply hapless victims who can't lay a glove on the terrorists. By artificially limiting what is considered a story, the media misses the big picture.

Location bias

The story bias is reinforced by the location bias. It is no accident that the general tone of the coverage changed when the major newspapers and networks stopped participating in the "embed" program. (The embed program is not dead; a U. S. Army Ranger officer told me in Baghdad that the military is actually begging journalists to participate.) So most reporters are simply not seeing (or collecting video) of American and allied military operations. They all but ignore them. And journalists who are not embedded rarely accompany allied forces.

The other element of location bias is that the press rarely wanders outside its walled compound. Of course, safety is the reason. Mark Bowden brilliantly describes the isolation of the press in the latest Atlantic Monthly. Many of my friends and colleagues who work in Iraq have complained about how isolated they feel. They rarely interact with ordinary Iraqis or see Iraqi police operations as they unfold.

Source bias

Finally, there is a source bias. Many networks use "fixers," Arabic speakers who bring local officials and community leaders to be interviewed (either "on background" or on the record). For better or worse, these fixers essentially decide who is interviewed. This is a standard enough arrangement, but is can easily lead to abuses. A broader diversity of sources would help the press present a more complex and balanced picture.

As a result of this source bias, the American media has overlooked key emerging figures such as Mithal al-Lovci, a liberal Iraqi politician, or the outgoing Iraqi Minister of Human Rights, who holds press conferences that the English-language press doesn't bother to attend.

If the CIA only covered one side, failed to leave its guarded redoubts and only interviewed selected sources, Congress (or ironically, the press) would crow about intelligence failures. Yet when the press makes identical mistakes, it gets a pass.
Richard is a respected journalist and the author of the best selling, Losing Bin Laden and Shadow Wars. His new blog is worth keeping an eye on.