Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The missing piece

News, by definition, usually is bad news. Thousands of passenger jets ply the world's skies every day and touch down safely. You don't read about that in the newspaper. But when one doesn't, that's front-page news.

Yet journalism, to be valid, has to be more than just a daily reaction to splattered blood. Gene Roberts, the great managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, used to say, “Great stories don’t break, they ooze.”

The airliner crash is news because it breaks the normal course of things. In Iraq after the fall of Saddam, there is no normal course of things. But the inertia of journalism grinds on. Explosions and violence rule the coverage, in part because, by reflex, that's what journalists know how to do, know what to see. The violent stories punch their way to the top of every newscast. Flames, screams, mayhem, sometimes on a gruesome scale.

Yet it is equally true that every day in Iraq, many places enjoy peace and prosperity, have clean water and electricity and modern schools that they never had before. Souks bustle and wheat grows and children play. But that is not news. Or is it?

Because now "bad news" is itself the news story. People want to know if the Iraq experiment is working. Every day they open a newspaper or flick on the news, they see the graphic evidence that tells them it is not.

Tonight, my boss gave me a page to fill. He told me to put the "Iraq military wrap" on it. I knew exactly what he meant: The AP's Iraq story is all about skirmishes and car-bombs. It runs every day. So does at least one sidebar (US-Iraq or UN-Iraq) on the political squabbling.

Where's the "reconstruction wrap?" Where's the story on the rebuilding: how well it's going, or isn't; what is getting done, what is not getting done?

Roberts' dictum wasn't about good news or bad news. It was about great stories, real stories, history in the present tense.

This editorial column, by Rod Dreher, a writer for The Dallas Morning News, is behind a password wall, but it's excellent.

It's titled Q: What's wrong with this picture? A: It's the only one like it we could find.

It's accompanied by an AP photo which bears the caption "Marine Sgt. William Perry of Texarkana, Texas, passed out school supplies at the Anwal Elementary School in Kandari, Iraq, on May 11."

Dreher opens by asking, "Are the news media giving Americans an accurate picture of what's really going on in Iraq?"

Not according to the American people, who say they've seen too many photos of Abu Ghraib prison abuses. A CBS News poll released on May 24 revealed that 61 percent of those polled believe the news media are spending too much time on the Abu Ghraib story. This jibes with what some of us on the editorial board have been hearing more and more: that average Americans believe the news media are obsessed with bad news from Iraq and aren't paying enough attention to the good things going on there.

We decided to search photo wire service archives for the past month, looking for images of U.S. soldiers engaged in helping Iraqis instead of shooting at them. We were startled to discover that the photo accompanying this text was the only image of its kind that moved on the wires in recent weeks. This newspaper's photo department told me that if news photographers aren't shooting those pictures, it's because media back home aren't interested in those stories.

He goes on to make the right point: "It is understandable that breaking news eats up the limited journalistic resources on the ground, but this means that Americans are not getting the complete story from their media."

He then gives a list of the good news that "oozes" out of Iraq. Some of it -- much of it -- I've posted up here in other places: the more than 2,500 schools have been rebuilt or renovated, with 1,500 more scheduled to be completed by year's end (UNICEF report), the propaganda-free textbooks (no more "Baba Saddam, we love you!"). Health-care spending 26 times what it was under Saddam, restoration of the marshlands, the national polls that show, according to the pollsters, "a strikingly optimistic people, expressing growing interest in politics, broad rejection of political violence, rising trust in the Iraqi police and army and preference for an inclusive and democratic government."

He rightly reminds his readers of the big picture, in a sentence which arguably could be a nut-graph in any story out of Iraq: "Whatever mistakes American occupiers have made in Iraq –- and there have been many of them -– the fact remains that the mass murderer who ran Iraq into the ground was overthrown and is now in jail awaiting trial."

An interesting aspect of his article is that he directs his readers to "check out one of the increasingly popular Internet web logs from English-speaking Iraqis living in the country and sharing their reporting and perspectives." He mentions some of the ones I have linked over on the righthand side of this page.

I'm not saying Dreher is copping out. I think he's pretty courageous to address this issue directly. But what does it say when someone representing a major media outlet in this country concedes that the rest of the Iraq story is missing, is going to remain missing, and refers his readers to average Iraqi citizens' Web logs? To me, that's a dereliction of the responsibility that we ought to feel in the First Amendment.

He also cites Jay Rosen's Web log. Rosen, head of New York University's journalism department, recently wrote his own analysis of the missing coverage from Iraq.

He takes a slightly different approach. He couches his critique not so much as good news weighed against bad news, but as noticing that a key piece of the information puzzle is missing.

What I'm missing from the news coverage I consume is not "positive" stories or the cheery news out of Iraq-- it's the re-building story in its totality, good, bad and middling. We need to sever that narrative... what are we doing to re-build Iraq, what are the Iraqi's doing, how is it going, how can we tell?

His conclusion?

The news from Iraq is not too negative; it's too narrow. Bit by bit, and for reasons probably sound at the time, the press allowed its coverage from Iraq to develop as a military story, in which the "security situation" is the base line reality, and threats of violence -- or if not violence, tensions that could fracture the society -- overshadow other things going on. Second place in that narrative goes to the jockeying for political control and influence in the "new" Iraq, especially among the known factions.

Both are essential. Both are truth. But smart journalists could have recognized before the war began that these two stories, responsibly reported, would not be enough to inform Americans about what's going on in the country their own country invaded, promising to re-build it after the fall of Saddam. (A moral promise implicating all of us.) The re-building of Iraq is complicated, sprawling, thick with life -- and a difficult thing to inform us about, especially given the language barrier. It is far less dramatic than a bombing, way more elusive than a briefing.

The entire population of Iraq is a player in the re-building story, not just the political class or clergy. And to get the story requires close attention to changes in daily life -- normal life -- all around the country, including the repair of public infrastructure and the recovery of institutions that make normalcy possible. Then there's the story of bottom-up democracy, the building of which was promised to Iraq, and to the soliders who fought to free Iraq.

Rosen, too, is frustrated because, after tuning in to Iraq for a year, "I learned something about the prosecution of the ongoing war, and a lot about the scandal in the military because of Abu Ghraib. I know a great deal about the politics of the war back in Washington, and among the Bush team. But I have almost no clear picture of daily life and the struggle for normalcy in Iraq after it fell to ruin under Saddam and during the war. Depite spot coverage here and there, including Iraqi-in-the-street stories, I don't know from my own press where the re-building effort actually stands."

And he, too, reports that the source he turns to for this information is the Internet. Specifically, "Iraqi blogs."

The leader of one of the half-dozen top journalism schools in the United States of America gets his real news about Iraq from Zeyad, Alaa, Muhammad, Omar, a dentist, a housewife, people who write for free in their Web cafes in Basra and Baghdad. What about the rest of us?

Rosen looks to the upcoming election and quotes Peter Levine: "A citizen's main responsibility is to decide whether the Bush Administration has done a good job so far, and to vote accordingly this November."

The truth about Iraq after Saddam needed three legs to stand on, and it only got two: the military and security story, the jockeying for power and influence. There ought to have been, from the start, at least a partial preoccupation with re-building Iraq, the recovery of daily life, including the development of measures to chart progress, a task well within the reach of the American press.

On the whole that narrative went missing. It was not inevitable this would happen, but if it did happen, the omission might yet be corrected, or at the very least reflected on when the ombudsmen of the nation sit down and read their mail, or pen their Sunday columns. Did American journalists give the re-building and democracy-building story their best shot? And if they didn't, is there yet time to make a new judgment, put forward a better argument, and set things right in the news from Iraq?