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September 7, 2007
The 'Fix' in War Reporting
No way to cover a war, that's for sure:
A British colleague of mine was sent by his newspaper to Iraq in 2005, just before the July 7 bombings in London. After that attack, his editor asked him to canvass “ordinary Iraqis” for their reaction. The resulting article reported that all but one of the twelve Baghdadis my colleague spoke to were delighted that Londoners had been blown up. This seemed a surprisingly high proportion, so I asked him a few days later just who these interviewees were and how he’d found them.Here you have in a nutshell the enormous problems the press has had in covering the war.
With slight sheepishness, he admitted that all the Iraqis he’d canvassed were Sunni Arabs. In other words, his straw poll had been confined to members of a minority that makes up less than 25 percent of the Iraqi population — the same minority that dominated the country for 80 years, that feels humiliated by the empowerment of the Shiite-Kurd majority, and that forms the basis of the anti-coalition insurgency.
How had the British reporter come to meet these interviewees? It turned out that they had been selected by his interpreter and his “fixer.” I asked him to tell me about these persons — good interpreters and fixers being costly and hard to find. Well, my colleague said with an enthusiastic smile, “Ahmed,” his excellent fixer, had done sterling work for him since 2003 and before, when he had been employed by Saddam’s ministry of information. As for his interpreter, “Muhammad” — also terrific — he’d been a colonel in the Republican Guard. Both, it hardly need be said, are Sunnis and former members of the Baath party.
No one is saying that it isn't dangerous in Iraq - not with more than 75 journalists killed since the war started. No one is saying that reporters shouldn't be relying on these "fixers" or stringers in order to flesh out stories.
But as we have seen time and time again, the information gathered by these stringers has been open to question regarding accuracy and truthfulness. And what many of us have been questioning for years - the objectivity and even the loyalty of these stringers to the government of Iraq - become even more legitimate after reading this excellent, insightful article.
Many of the freelancers,interpeters, and fixers that Western journalists rely upon are Sunnis. Many of them were familiar to journalists from the Saddam Hussein era when Sunnis were a privileged minority. They resent the empowerment of Shiites that was brought about by the toppling of Hussein. Even worse, many of them are of Palestinain heritage. Therefore, we get interviews of carefully selected "typical" Iraqis who bear a grudge and are very desirous of American defeat.Spot on. Who vets these stringers and interpreters? Is any effort made to insure that a minimum standard of objectivity is met?
Beyond that, what kind of confirmations are gotten from other sources before stories brought to the reporter by stringers and fixers are run? How much do reporters trust these people? How much do editors back home trust the reporter?
These are questions that the press has failed to answer - possibly because no one is asking them but also because their is a lack of introspective analysis in the media about Iraq War coverage that I find extremely troubling. Is it any wonder there have been so many instances of faked stories, faked photos, faked or made up atrocities?
The press has a lot to answer for regarding their coverage of this war. In an age where the media sees its role as one that should tell "both sides" of the conflict while disbelieving anything and everything told to them by the military or the government, they have fallen into a propaganda trap set by the enemy - in effect, becoming unwitting partners with people who are killing our soldiers on the battlefield.
I don't know if there is a better way to cover a war. I'm not a journalist and can't really say. But those who are responsible for thinking about these things must begin carrying out a rigorous self examination of methods and motivations in the coverage of this war. There is no more important story. And it must be told as professionally and as truthfully as humanly possible.
Hat Tip: Ed Lasky