Kurtz: "Have the media declared war on the war" in Iraq?

››› ››› JOE BROWN

In his March 27 column, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz asked, "Have the media declared war on the war [in Iraq]?" -- apparently ignoring the response CBS News' Lara Logan gave to a similar question he asked on the March 26 edition of his CNN program, Reliable Sources. In a detailed response, Logan flatly rebutted accusations repeated by Kurtz that the media have overemphasized the violence in Iraq.

In his March 27 Media Notes column, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz asked: "Have the media declared war on the war [in Iraq]?" In that column, as well as in a March 27 online chat, Kurtz apparently ignored the response CBS News correspondent Lara Logan gave to a similar question he asked on the March 26 edition of his CNN program, Reliable Sources. In a detailed response, Logan flatly rebutted accusations repeated by Kurtz that the media have overemphasized the violence in Iraq. Apparently ignoring Logan's rebuttal, Kurtz suggested that media coverage of the Iraq war is probably at least partially determined by "journalists' own views," as well as by the media's "value system (which long preceded this war) that violence is more newsworthy than anything else." He also argued that "the way [journalists] frame many stories about Iraq sliding toward civil war carries echoes of Vietnam," during which "the media coverage played a role in turning the country against the war." In support of his comparison of Iraq war coverage to Vietnam war coverage, Kurtz cited questions posed to President Bush at a March 21 press conference and media reports on the third anniversary of the Iraq war, in which journalists merely reported the conditions in Iraq.

In his March 27 column, Kurtz wrote:

In increasingly aggressive questions to President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney, in a growing focus on the death toll in Iraq, in downbeat assessments on the invasion's third anniversary, many journalists now reflect the view that the war has gone horribly wrong.

Although he acknowledged that "[p]erhaps" the media's coverage of the Iraq war "simply reflects the stark reality of the suicide bombings, roadside explosions and mosque attacks that have come to dominate the reporting from Iraq," he added that "perhaps, as Cheney put it on [CBS News'] 'Face the Nation,' journalists provide a distorted 'perception' of Iraq 'because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad.' " Additionally, Kurtz stated that "[w]hat is undeniable is that the tone of much of the coverage matches the public-opinion polls showing that a majority of the country has turned against the conflict."

Kurtz's suggestion that media coverage of the Iraq war reflects journalists' own assessments of the war and a media fixation on violence stands in contradiction to what Logan said on the March 26 edition of Reliable Sources -- that media reports of violence in Iraq reflect real security problems in the country. Responding to Kurtz, who noted that "Bush and Cheney essentially seem to be accusing you and your colleagues of carrying the terrorist message by reporting on so many of these attacks [in Iraq]," Logan stated:

LOGAN: Well, I think that's -- that is a very convenient way of looking at it. It doesn't reflect the value judgment that's implicit in that.

As a journalist, if an American soldier or an Iraqi person dies that day, you have to make a decision about how you weigh the value of reporting that news over the value of something that may be happening, say, a water plant that's being turned on that brings fresh water to 200 Iraqi people. I mean, you get accused of valuing human life in a certain way depending on how you report it.

And also, as I -- I mean, what I would point out -- is that you can't travel around this country anymore without military protection. You can't travel without armed guards. You're not free to go every time there's a school opening or there's some reconstruction project that's being done.

We don't have the ability to go out and cover those. If they want to see a fair picture of what's happening in Iraq, then you have to first start with the security issue.

When journalists are free to move around this country, then they will be free to report on everything that's going on. But as long as you're a prisoner of the terrible security situation here, then that's going to be reflected in your coverage.

Kurtz noted Logan's perspective in his column, stating: "The record shows that administration charges that reporters in Iraq are ignoring signs of progress are not true, although most journalists say the dangerous conditions make it difficult to talk to ordinary Iraqis." While Kurtz also took issue with an attack on journalists by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham -- "[w]hen news organizations focus overwhelmingly on insurgent attacks, Ingraham says, 'it begins to look like you're invested in America's defeat.' That sounds like political overstatement." -- Kurtz also stated that "sometimes the unrelenting violence has a way of intruding on the news agenda," as if reporting on the "unrelenting violence" is somehow inconsistent with the "news agenda."

Kurtz went further in his March 27 chat, expressing greater skepticism that the violence in Iraq deserves as much attention as journalists are devoting to it. Responding to a question about whether "the coverage [might] be turning negative simply because the war is starting to go very badly," Kurtz wrote:

Yes, it is entirely possible that continuous bad news in Iraq is driving the negative coverage -- the "stark reality" that I refer to in the third paragraph of this morning's column. But it's also fair to ask whether the car bombings and suicide attacks are the only important thing happening in Iraq, or whether the media have a value system (which long preceded this war) that violence is more newsworthy than anything else.

In providing this response, Kurtz again appeared to have completely ignored Logan's comments directly addressing why other "important thing[s] happening in Iraq" may not be adequately reported:

LOGAN: [O]ur own -- you know, our own editors back in New York are asking us the same things.

They read the same comments. You know, are there positive stories? Can you find them?

You don't think that I haven't been to the U.S. military and the State Department and the embassy and asked them over and over again, let's see the good stories, show us some of the good things that are going on. Oh, sorry, we can't take to you that school project, because if you put that on TV, they're going to be attacked, the teachers are going to be killed, the children might be victims of attack.

Oh, sorry, we can't show this reconstruction project because then that's going to expose it to sabotage. And the last time we had journalists down here, the plant was attacked.

I mean, security dominates every single thing that happens in this country. Reconstruction funds have been diverted to cover -- away from reconstruction to -- they've been diverted to security.

Soldiers, their lives are occupied most of the time with security issues. Iraqi civilians' lives are taken up most of the time with security issues.

So, how it is that security issues should not then dominate the media coverage coming out of here?

Responding to another question, Kurtz also suggested that "declining public support for the war, and the journalists' own views," as opposed to real security problems in Iraq, might be coloring war coverage:

Clearly the security situation, as I have written many times, makes it difficult for the courageous journalists there to move around and talk to ordinary Iraqis. And it may be that the violence has gotten so bad in recent months that that is the overwhelming reality of life in that country. But I also think it's fair to question whether declining public support for the war, and the journalists' own views, have played a role.

In his column, Kurtz further asserted that although "journalists certainly don't see themselves as antiwar ... the way they frame many stories about Iraq sliding toward civil war carries echoes of Vietnam, when the media coverage turned sharply critical as the country soured on that jungle war." In his chat, Kurtz more directly asserted that the media's coverage of Iraq might have a role in souring public opinion of the war effort, as it did in Vietnam. Kurtz wrote that "[i]f the media coverage in fact is turning sharply more skeptical, and in some cases hostile, that could have a major impact on the country as it did during the Vietnam War." He later added that although "[t]he Vietnam War was lost on the battlefield, and perhaps in the political decisions made in the White House and Pentagon ... no one who lived through that period, or has studied it, can deny that the media coverage played a role in turning the country against the war."

In support of his column's assertion that "the way [journalists] frame many stories about Iraq ... carries echoes of Vietnam," Kurtz asked readers to "[c]onsider the questions asked at Bush's news conference last week." Among the questions Kurtz cited was one posed to Bush by Hearst columnist Helen Thomas:

THOMAS: Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

Remarking on this question in his chat, Kurtz asserted that Thomas's references to casualties in Iraq and Bush's now-discredited rationales given for the war were "clearly the formulation of a person with strong views against the war." When a reader asked: "Isn't it the press's job to be skeptical, questioning, and comparing the record to the results?" Kurtz replied:

Absolutely. But the "real reason" question, in Helen's case, was preceded by her declaration about how many people had been killed and wounded in the war and how none of Bush's explanations have held up. That's fine if you agree with her view, but it's clearly the formulation of a person with strong views against the war.

In his column, Kurtz also noted that "[w]hen the networks did their three-year anniversary pieces [on the Iraq war], reciting the mounting death toll, the picture that emerged was bleak." He then cited two reporters who reported unpleasant conditions in post-war Iraq:

NBC's Richard Engel in Baghdad: "Since the U.S. invasion, there has not been a single day without mortar fire, car bombings or IED attacks."

ABC's Dan Harris in Baghdad: "The situation for many here has worsened. Since the war, millions of Iraqis no longer have drinkable water. In Baghdad, there's electricity for fewer than eight hours a day, compared to 18 before. And in a country with so much oil, today there are unfathomably long gas lines."

He contrasted these reports with the reporting of "ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas," who "reminded viewers that before her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was injured by a roadside bomb in late January, he did a story on a thriving Baghdad ice cream shop, and that her December trip to Iraq included a piece on a ballet school."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
Howard Kurtz
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