How Vigorously Should War Correspondents Cover The Enemy?

This week, Time magazine Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware appeared on Hugh Hewitt's radio show. (You can read the transcript of the interview here, or listen to the MP3.) Ware, a native Australian who I spoke to in September, has lived and worked in Afghanistan and Iraq since shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He has spent far more time in the region than the vast majority of foreign-born reporters, and has covered not just coalition forces but also Iraqi insurgents and Islamic jihadists.

In the interview, Hewitt asked Ware about the "morality" of spending time with and covering the insurgents and jihadists, and said he "would prefer that [Ware] not report on the insurgents." Here is one of Hewitt's questions:

No, but it does, however, get to the question of whether or not media from the West should be...what's the right word, Michael Ware? It's not assisting, but providing information flow to the jihadis about whom I'm quite comfortable, and I think most Westerners are quite comfortable, just declaring to be evil, because they kill innocents, and that killing of innocents is evil, is it not, Michael? (ellipses in transcript)
Putting aside Hewitt's construction, in which he turns a question about what the media should be doing into one about whether or not the "killing of innocents is evil" – and, full disclosure here, I've tussled with Hewitt in the past – I think it's worth exploring Hewitt's larger point, which has to do with the role of Western-affiliated journalists in a war.

Hewitt says he's "fascinated by the question of whether or not it's ever good journalism to consort with the enemy in search of interesting stories," and to explore said question, he compares Ware's reporting to that of a theoretical World War II reporter who has been given access to the Nazis. Hewitt seems to believe that exploring the true nature of enemies like the Nazis, or the jihadists, is absurd and unnecessary, since he's quite comfortable, as he said above in reference to the jihadists, that they're evil. And, really, what more do you need to know? But Ware sees things differently:

I mean, imagine, okay, we know what we know about the German regime, or the Nazi party. We are inundated with their propaganda. We're listening to their chatter. We're getting their side of the story. Could you imagine having an objective view, go in and come out, and say this is what is really looks like? This is what it really feels like? This is what people in their quiet moments behind closed doors will actually tell you? Now imagine the value of that.
The same value, he says, can be found in his reporting in Iraq, where the public and military need to understand that the enemy is "not just one homogenous group, that there are many different motivations."

At one point, Hewitt says to Ware, "I'm just wondering whether or not there's a line that you have in your mind reconciled yourself to crossing not once, but scores and scores of times, to report on the enemy, and whether or not that's a good thing." It's an easy question to address. After all, why on earth wouldn't we want to know what's going on with the jihadists? Don't we have spies trying to find out as much as possible about the enemy? Isn't it to America's advantage to have a better sense of their command structure, their camps, and even – you never know – "what people in their quiet moments behind closed doors will actually tell you?"

Hewitt's fear seems to be that because of his exposure to the enemy, Ware will report propaganda that ends up being harmful to America's cause. But while many of Ware's stories have painted the war in a negative light, it's hard to believe that's because al-Zarqawi is whispering sweet nothings in his ear. Consider the fact that when Ware came into possession of an audio tape of Zarqawi that showed division between Zarqawi and a leading Iraqi Sunni organization, he printed its contents – Zarqawi's "dirty laundry," as he put it. And he earned a death threat for his trouble. That's not the work of someone who is, as Little Green Footballs put it, "in business with the jihadis."

There is something to the argument that a Western reporter – or any reporter – is unlikely to get much of value from the enemy. But even in a tightly controlled setting, there is a chance a reporter can find out something that doesn't fit into the official line, as Ware has. Does Hewitt really believe that we're better off simply deeming the enemy "evil" and trying to understand them through their propaganda -- or just not trying to understand them at all?

Hewitt does, to his credit, professes respect for Ware for his bravery. That's more than can be said for many of Hewitt's ostensible ideological brethren, however. Consider this post, which Hewitt links:

[Ware] has chosen teams, and he chose the wrong one…What he has done is treacherous, what he has failed to do risks the lives of coalition troops, Iraqi troops, and Iraqi civilians. He has chosen to be complicit with the enemy, of that I no longer doubt.
Well, count me among the doubters. Reporters are always going to have reasons to be skeptical of the information they are given, particularly when they're covering a war in which propaganda plays a major role. But to suggest that they should abandon their quest to tell the full story for fear that they're getting a jaundiced view from one side is a mistake, particularly in the case of a reporter like Ware, who isn't the type to spend eight days somewhere and then make grand pronouncements about what's going on there. America is well served by reporting that goes beyond simplistic characterizations of an enemy that we've long since learned we need to get to know better.