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Why is War Coverage So Darn Negative?

by Matt Taibbi

I READ AN hilarious letter to USA Today last week. It went like this:


I can no longer take the way the media are reporting the situation in Iraq.

I was under the impression that it was the media's job to report both sides of a story, which can and should include the good, bad and sometimes ugly.

I am so tired of seeing all of the bad things going on in Iraq. We all know that the situation can be much better.

Are you really telling me and everyone else that there is nothing good happening there? Why have I not heard any reporting from the Kurdish section in Iraq?

Every day, I read stories about the deaths of soldiers, civilians and even the enemies. Are you telling us that this is the only thing going on?

Why don't you let us know about some of the good things going on over there?

Justin Ringling, Westerly, R.I.

I looked up Justin after reading this. He is indeed listed in Westerly, RI, so he appears to be a real person. There is another Justin Ringling somewhere in the St. Louis area who made the honor roll at St. Dominic High in St. Charles County several years in a row, but I don't think that's my guy.

I called up Justin and left several messages, explaining that I thought I could help with his problem. No answer.

So I'm left to make this public appeal to Justin to come forward. The reason is that I have a proposal for him. I would like to offer to send him to Iraq at my own expense. I would also like to offer him (assuming my editors cooperate) all the column inches in The BEST that he desires to send the missing good news back to the deprived readership of the United States. [Editors' note: Consider it done.]

I have two conditions. The first is that he goes unarmed and unescorted. The second is that he wear, every day, a t-shirt emblazoned with the American flag on the front, and also bearing an Arabic inscription on the back that reads, "God Bless the U.S."

To ensure that he complies with these conditions, I am furthermore going to require that he adhere to a few simple editorial rules governing the copy he sends home. The first is that he write in the first person. The second is that he use the same lede to each of the columns he sends back. It should read like this:

Unarmed and unescorted, I walked into [insert name of city here] dressed in my t-shirt emblazoned with the American flag and the Arabic inscription "God Bless the U.S." in search of good news. I found…

Because Justin makes a good point. War is about so much more than the deaths of soldiers, civilians and even the enemy. Throughout the course of military conflicts, deep friendships can form, not only within the military but between civilians and aid workers, and also among displaced persons who might never have met otherwise.

Somewhere in Iraq today, a young woman has learned to bake a cake. But because the media insists on covering beheadings and torture, we will never hear about it. This failure is our collective failure as American citizens. Like Justin, we must learn to demand more from our media.

In all seriousness, there have been hints in the last week that a "blame the media" backlash might be in the works as a strategy for dealing with all the ugliness in Iraq. Republican Sen. James Inhofe, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, said last week: "As I watch this outrage—this outrage everyone seems to have about the treatment of these prisoners—I have to say…I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment… I'm also outraged by the press and the politicians and the political agendas that are being served by this… I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying."

Meanwhile, the talk radio/Town Hall columnist circuit has started in on the "Blame Canada" theme as regards the media, with Rush Limbaugh last week repeatedly harping that "one of the biggest impediments to winning the war is television and pictures."

Rush is right about this. Unless the entire audience is behind the venture, war makes pretty bad television. Not many Americans are going to be thrilled to watch video of armless children in the hospital after an American bombing raid (my father did one such report for NBC), or look at pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Nick Ut's famous "running girl" photo from the Vietnamese village of Trang Bang did a lot to undermine that war effort, mainly because ultimately Americans were not so angry with the Vietnamese for meddling in the affairs of their own country that they could really feel good about napalming little girls. As Newsweek uber-hack Jonathan Alter hinted last week, these same kinds of images now coming from Iraq might become acceptable if we could only learn to hate the enemy more:

Sympathy for the prisoners developed in this case because few were suspected terrorists… But imagine if these images had been of, say, Al Qaeda terrorists in captivity in Afghanistan in late 2001. There would have been no uproar at all. In fact, at that time, too many people (including me) were complacent about the use of psychological interrogation techniques that end up loosening the bonds of civilized behavior and making Americans look like hypocrites.

So that's really the choice. We either have to not see these things, or we have to have a reason to see them and not get upset about them. Although a large segment of the population has worked hard to make the second strategy work, insisting that the Iraqi prisoners are connected to the terrorists who blew up the Twin Towers and therefore deserved what they got, there unfortunately remains a large percentage of the population that will refuse under any circumstances to believe this. So in order to keep those people from bitching about the war, it would seem that the only way out would be to stop showing these pictures and start making a concerted effort to focus more on the happier side of the story.

We need an entirely new conception of journalism. We need the man who will go to Baghdad dressed in a t-shirt emblazoned with the American flag and find that woman who has baked that cake. We need the person who is strong enough to ignore bloodshed and local hostility and find that good-news story. Sadly, because I am an entrenched media cynic, I do not think that person could be me. But I think it could be Justin, which is why I'm willing to pay for him to go over there. At the very least, his reports would be masterpieces of comic art. Just imagine the headlines he would send home:


Thousands Unharmed; Woman Bakes Cake.

I think America needs this kind of news. How about it, Justin? Are you ready to serve your country?

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