Monday, June 21, 2004

Missing in Iraq: Thing Two

The other story I'm missing from Iraq is the reconstruction. When we invaded Iraq we said we'd do three things: overthrow Saddam, install a responsible government, and get the country back on its feet again after years of neglect.

Yet the third "leg" of that mission is utterly AWOL in the news coverage. The AP-IRAQ budget story that moves on the newswire every single day always is topped with another RPG attack on coalition forces, or another IED blast that kills another U.S. soldier. Then you get a few paragraphs on political squabbling. Those are newsworthy, yes. But I want the rest, too.

Thi is not a pleading for "good news." It can be bad -- such as the number of hours the power still isn't on in some places -- but, please, tell me about it. It's just as important as Abu Ghraib. You do read about blackouts, of course, but the articles never offer the context that tells you the power's out because some fuckwits rained mortars on the grid again. And they focus on Baghdad, not the rest of the country, where power is, I am told, much better than it ever was.

Every once in a great while you'll stumble across a statistic, buried deep in a story, about the number of schools that have been rebuilt in the past year, the number of people who have clean drinking water for the first time in their lives. It's usually just a set-up to a "but" clause lamenting the tragic problems we've caused, or how much the Iraqis hate us.

This is bias by neglect. But there's an active element in the bias, too. It gets more clear to me with each twist in the news cycle.

The media reaction to the 9-11 Commission preliminary reports last week was so over the top -- and so flat-out wrong -- that I can only think the editors wrote the headlines before they saw the facts of the story (don't laugh, I had a boss in West Chester who used to do that). Somehow the editors saw the words "no evidence that Saddam and al Qaida cooperated on attacks against the U.S.," and they read "no connection between Saddam and al Qaida."

On Thursday, the headline in the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" was, Saddam, al-Qaida Not Linked. Sept. 11 Panel's Conclusion at Odds with Administration. In the "Pittsburgh Tribune-Review," the banner headline read, 9/11 Panel Debunks Saddam Link. Report: No Evidence of al-Qaida Ties. Our headline was, 9-11 panel finds no al-Qaida-Saddam tie.

I had another huge knock-down drag-out with a co-worker yesterday over that. I had to haul him back to the archives and show him the story we ran later in the week in which even the ranking Democrat on the 9-11 commission said the media was way off the mark on this supposedly complete refutation of the administration by the panel. Here's Lee Hamilton's quote:

"I must say I have trouble understanding the flack over this. The Vice President is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government. We don't disagree with that. What we have said is what the governor just said, we don't have any evidence of a cooperative, or a corroborative relationship between Saddam Hussein's government and these al Qaeda operatives with regard to the attacks on the United States. So it seems to me the sharp differences that the press has drawn, the media has drawn, are not that apparent to me."

No, you probably didn't read that quote. Neither did my rival editor -- who happens to be the wire editor. He refused to believe me until I showed it to him. We buried that story on page A5, on top of the truss ads. I don't think one person in 100 who saw the banner headline on page 1 the day before read that corrective to it. And you know what the headline read, on the story that contained it? Not, "Kean, Hamilton agree with Administration on Iraq," not "9-11 panel spanks media." It read "Bush defends Iraq-al-Qaida tie."

Meanwhile, the preliminary report demolished the received wisdom from the intellectual left that Osama, as a religious purist, would never dirty his holy hands by dealing with a secular fascist like Saddam. On Thursday, where were all those Wise Men who had pooh-poohed the suggestion that Osama would deign to work with Saddam? Were they muttering mea culpas and slinking away? Did they publish articles saying, "We didn't know jack about al Qaida"? No, the brazen fools had the audacity to stand right up there at the head of the pack, shouting, "Bush was wrong about Osama!"