Saturday, July 15, 2006

Iraq: What's Hype and What's Reality?

One of the things that has been so strange about a number of stories I've been reading for some time is the way many reporters put the most positive aspect of the story first and all the qualifying, less rosy aspects of the story deep into the article. Here's an example from Malcolm Beith of Newsweek who's perfectly fine article manages to read like a two-part play. First, the hype that leads off the story:
The tidy green grass, the sun beating down on the back of the neck, excited spectators spilling onto the track encircling the field—it felt a bit like a high-school field day. On Thursday, the southern Iraqi province of Muthanna celebrated the handover of security responsibilities from coalition forces to Iraqi troops in a soccer stadium outside the provincial capital of Samawah. The first transition of its kind in the country—Coalition troops will remain in Muthanna, but only in an advisory role—the ceremony attracted all types of local dignitaries and tribal leaders. Even Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made the trip from Baghdad, about 150 miles to the north.

And then the reality near the end:
Moving the increasingly nosy bystanders to clear a corridor on the grass behind the speakers' podium, however, proved a bit too difficult to achieve in one go. Test two: failed. And then there was the PA system. Having already proved the unreliability of Muthanna's power supply by cutting out during several earlier speeches, the creaky audio system at times reduced Maliki's voice to a feint croak reminiscent of Yoda. "How are they going to run the [province's] infrastructure if they can't get the mics to work?" a Coalition soldier asked me as Maliki mumbled away. To the P.M.'s credit, he persevered and kept on speaking despite the fact that few in the crowd could hear a word he was saying.

If Muthanna is to be a model for the rest of Iraq, it will have to persevere, too—and make itself heard throughout the country. With sectarian violence engulfing cities like Baghdad and Basra—earlier this week, a three-day spate of suicide attacks, car bombs and militia murders left more than 100 dead in Baghdad alone...

Sooner or later, the Iraqis will have to gain control of their country, and sooner or later our military will have to leave, but I'm worried about how we avoid fiascos like the Iraq war in the future if we have to get our facts about the world in such a strange tragicomic form as if somebody in the White House is begging that at least the positive side of the story to be told first. In the Walter Pincus article discussed below about the media needing to have the courage to avoid public relations stories put out by a president's team, Pincus mentions a story from years ago about Leslie Stahl who was worried about a piece critical of Reagan—she was told that since the story included pictures of Reagan smiling, she needn't worry. Ouch.

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