June 23, 2004
War coverage interruptedBy Douglas Hanson
Guess which major newspaper:
— focuses on inside the beltway issues.
OK, this is unfair, so let me give you another hint: the name of the paper has the word Times in the it. You're right, that's unfair, too. Here's another hint: it's a conservative daily.
If that last hint didn't do it for you, then you will be amazed to find that it's The Washington Times.
The Times is the conservative counterpart to The Washington Post (a.k.a, The Ministry of Truth), and, as such, usually provides much—needed balance to the gloom and doom accounts from the leftist mainstream media. The paper routinely reminds its readers how the positive news in the War on Terror is not getting through the wall of the biased liberal media. Yet the paper itself relies on the Associated Press (AP) for the vast majority of its war reporting in theater.
For example, the Times published an article this Sunday entitled Air strike aimed at Zarqawi cell kills Iraqis, by a reporter named Betsy Pisik. In the article was a paragraph that said
'At 9:30 a.m., a U.S. plane shot two missiles on this residential area," Fallujah police Chief Sabbar al—Janabi told the Associated Press as he surveyed the wreckage. "Scores were killed and injured. This picture speaks for itself'.
Meanwhile, the actual AP story says
"At 9:30 a.m., a U.S. plane shot two missiles on this residential area," said the Fallujah police chief, Sabbar al—Janabi, as he surveyed the wreckage. "Scores were killed and injured. This picture speaks for itself."
In the same Washington Times piece, Pisik goes on to say that
Zarqawi, a Jordanian—born militant thought to have ties to al Qaeda, has been blamed for a string of car bombings across Iraq, including the Thursday blast that killed 35 persons and wounded 145 at an Iraqi military—recruiting center in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the AP story says
Al—Zarqawi has been blamed for the string of car bombs across Iraq, including the Thursday blast that killed 35 people and wounded 145 at an Iraqi military recruiting center in Baghdad.
While the Times article states at the bottom that 'This article is based in part on wire service reports,' any informed reader would have to wonder about the value added to a reworked AP piece written by someone who is a half a world away from the battlefield. At least Fox News and Geraldo actually go to where the action is. If this is the extent of the reporting that the only conservative daily in DC can do, it should come as no surprise that the success stories in the War on Terror are not getting out to the American people, and to the movers and shakers in our nation's Capital.
However, the Times does have Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, two excellent reporters on the scene in Washington covering defense issues. The problem is that these two experienced pros are focused on the Pentagon — the very top end of the spectrum. In their most recent Inside the Ring column from Friday, June 18, readers were treated to DoD—level happenings that, ultimately, the commanders and soldiers in the field, and their stateside family members, would not really care about. On the plus side, readers were told about how Coalition forces had confiscated 32 tiny and ingenious insurgent car bombs. However, the rest of the column was devoted to topics such as SecDef Rumsfeld's management style, an Undersecretary of Defense for Policy's rationale for not having adequately planned for post—war Iraq, and a confirmation from the ever—ubiquitous 'US official' hanging around DC somewhere, of a North Korean missile test that had already been reported in a South Korean paper.
All of this so—called 'inside' top—level information is interesting to beltway types, but these politico—military machinations don't amount to a hill of beans in getting the true stories from the War on Terror out to the public.
What is most disconcerting, is that the Times finds it necessary to report on combat actions using a major wire service which employs large numbers of Middle Eastern and Central Asian reporters. Ostensibly, this is done so that they can gain access to the locals, and easily travel around the countryside. And, in their effort to remain 'neutral,' it seems no AP reporter has accompanied a Coalition unit in the field recently, to write articles from the soldiers' perspective. Currently, this job is left almost entirely to military public affairs personnel.
At its best, the current approach of the Washington Times yields articles such as Rowan Scarborough piece today, entitled Army unit claims victory over sheik. The article chronicles an important victory of the Army's First Armored Division over the so—called Mahdi Army of Muqtada al—Sadr. But it carries no dateline, so probably it was written in Washington, on the basis of information supplied by Scarborough's excellent Pentagon sources. Because of this, it is able to convey the facts, but lacks compelling narrative quality, such as could be provided by correspondent on—the—spot, with vivid descriptive prose, anecdotes, and quotations from our troops. The sort of article readers would remember, and which might even convince other editors to run it on a syndication basis.
As one can imagine, this is certainly not the best way to get 'equal time' for the Coalition viewpoint in a major East Coast publication. Perhaps the Washington Times has financial constraints that prohibit it from sending correspondents to the field with Coalition units. While cost may be a factor, the Times does, however, share this same lack of field presence with its more financially well—off liberal counterparts. They lack a forward presence in the combat zones for a different reason: the units don't trust them. As early as August of 2003, units were turning away correspondents from US and Coalition papers who arrived unexpectedly in operational areas without prior coordination and a public affairs escort. And, quite frankly, soldiers were already well aware of the 'gotcha' methods of the leftist press, and would flat—out not put up with any reporter in or near their unit areas.
But we are at war. And to a surprisingly large extent, it is an information war. The home front, where America's resolve is being tested, may well be the battlefield where the war is won or lost. Certainly, our enemy seems to think so, promising by the theatrical dimensions of their actions to ensnare America in an endless quagmire, so the public will tire of a steady stream of casualties and bad news, and demand an end to conflict, no matter how successful we actually are in theatre.
It worked that way in Vietnam, where the Tet Offensive was a combat disaster for our opponents, but became a PR victory for them on our home front. Our current enemy has studied that conflict closely, and realizes that the only way they can prevail over our infinitely superior physical combat capability is to convince the American public that the war is futile.
In this quest, the enemy has surveyed the terrain on the home front, and cannily takes advantage of a landscape featuring major media outlets hostile to crediting any success to the current political leadership. The press, in other words, is an adjunct combat instrument, capable of influencing, if not determining, the ultimate victor.
The Washington Times has fought bravely and well in the past, against difficult odds, to establish itself as a credible alternative to the predictably—biased would—be local monopoly of the Washington Post. Its success in doing so has had an impact far beyond its local market.
But now, it is called to a higher, more demanding, and sometimes physically hazardous duty, to provide print information realistically portraying the actual mix of facts on the ground in Iraq. In other words, the whole context, not just the events manufactured by our enemy in order to discourage our public. Car bombings, but also school and hospital openings. Electricity outages, but greater availability than before the war. Street demonstrations, but also traffic jams comprised of people for the first time in decades able to afford and drive their own cars.
The stakes are too high for the Times and other publications which 'get it' to ignore the dire need to publish the truth about our forces' successful operations in the war.
Simply put, it's time for these newspapers to put a budding Ernie Pyle or Joe Galloway out in the field with our service men and women. The names of these World War II and Vietnam correspondents can now be found in a place of honor in our history books. Let's not forget that we are also making history today.
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent