All bad news, all the time

Jack Kelly writes at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It is not that long and so good I have posted it in its entirety. 


In covering Iraq, mainstream media give terrorists a boost

More than 8,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have deserted since the Iraq war began, USA Today reported Tuesday.

"Some lawyers who represent deserters say the war in Iraq is driving more soldiers to question their service and that the Pentagon is cracking down on deserters to discourage antiwar sentiment," wrote reporter Bill Nichols.

" ‘The last thing (Pentagon officials) want is for people to think … that this is like Vietnam,’ said Tod Ensign, head of Citizen Soldier, an antiwar group that offers legal aid to deserters."

Mr. Ensign is full of horse manure, as Mr. Nichols demonstrates in his story. The data show desertions have plunged since 9/11, and are much lower than during the Vietnam war.

The Army, Navy and Air Force reported 7,978 desertions in the 2001 fiscal year, but only 3,456 in 2005, Mr. Nichols noted. In 1971, the Army reported 33,094 desertions, 3.4 percent of its total force. In 2005, desertions represented just 0.24 percent of 1.4 million of active service members.

Mr. Nichols also quoted military spokesmen who said most deserters desert for reasons unconnected with political protest, and most return voluntarily.

Though it ran under a headline that emphasized the negative, the USA Today story is an example of journalism as it ought to be. Mr. Nichols reported a fact relevant to the war on terror, and put it into context.

The opposite is true of "reporting" by most news organizations in the wake of the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra Feb. 22. Journalists who accused President Bush of "cherrypicking" intelligence to support the war in Iraq have cherrypicked facts and quotes to give the false impression there is civil war in Iraq.

"Much of the reporting has exaggerated the situation," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday. "The number of attacks on mosques had been exaggerated. The number of Iraqi deaths had been exaggerated. The behavior of the Iraqi security forces had been mischaracterized."

For instance, The Washington Post reported on Feb. 25 that 120 Sunni mosques had been attacked in retaliation for the destruction of the Golden Mosque, holy to the Shiites. In a March 3 news conference, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said:

"We can confirm attacks on about 30 mosques around the country, with less than 10 of those mosques moderately damaged, and only two or three severely damaged. We visited eight mosques (in Baghdad) that were reportedly damaged. We found one broken window in those eight mosques."

Exaggeration and misinformation are hallmarks of chaotic situations, and it is hard for journalists who do most of their reporting from the safety of their hotels to sort fact from fiction. But Secretary Rumsfeld noticed a pattern in the errors:

"Interestingly, all the exaggerations seem to be on one side," he said. "The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and give heart to the terrorists."

Here is how The Washington Post reported what Gen. Casey said above:

"He said 350 Iraqi civilians had died in a surge of sectarian killings, militia violence and revenge attacks on about 30 mosques around the country after the bombing."

This incensed "Greyhawk," the Army officer who runs the Web log Mudville Gazette: "The media is free to dispute the general’s claims," Greyhawk wrote. "But in this case they aren’t, they are simply using his words selectively to support their own previously published fictions."

There is sectarian violence in Iraq — as there is in India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland — but no civil war.

The Iraqi army held together and performed well in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Mosque, reports Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and writer who was embedded with U.S. troops during the troubles. The Iraqi army deployed more than 100,000 troops, who kept order without killing a single civilian, he noted.

Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders continue to negotiate forming a national unity government. (Two days after declaring negotiations were "in ruins," Edward Wong of The New York Times had to write: "The main Sunni Arab political bloc is close to returning to suspended talks.")

There is no civil war in Iraq, but al-Qaida would dearly love to provoke one. Knowledge of that fact should make journalists more careful about separating rumor from fact. But many apparently have chosen instead to act as the propaganda arm of our enemies.


 


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