This argument usually plays out in the same, tired way, with ideologues arguing over questions of political bias. But reality — as is so often the case — is more complicated. To understand the nature of the news from Iraq, you have to drop the rhetoric and deal with specifics.
And that process goes through the critics who acknowledge that all of the media's problems don't begin and end with ideological bias. One such critic is Bret Stephens, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and former editor of the Jerusalem Post. "I would say that events in Iraq are better than they are commonly portrayed in the media," says Stephens. The primary reason, he says, isn't ideological bias, though that's a part of it. "The basic problem is the way news organizations assemble stories. You don't report on a dog that doesn't bite."
Because of the media's natural inclination to report bad news, he says, media consumers don't hear enough about positive developments in Iraq. They also don't realize the violence in Iraq is confined to a few areas — the ones where the reporters are. "A reporter wants to be where the action is, and the action is where the killing is. It's not where they're building schools," Stephens says. Reporting about Iraq only from Baghdad, he says, is like reporting about America from the South Bronx 15 years ago — "you're going to see a different reality than you would in the rest of the country."
Time magazine correspondent Michael Ware, who wrote this week's cover story on Iraq, sees the situation much differently. I spoke to him on Wednesday from Baghdad. "It would be dishonest and disingenuous to put a positive spin on Iraq," he says. "People have to queue for three hours just to fill their gas tanks. They only have a few hours of electricity a day. They're too scared to send their children to the schools that have been painted by American troops because they're afraid they'll be killed. The successes are swamped by the gruesome reality of life in Iraq."
"I want those who say we aren't reporting the good news to come and live one day in Iraq as an Iraqi and I challenge them to repeat those opinions," he continues. "It's easy to opine from an ivory tower when you're safe at home. It's much harder to do so when you're on the ground." He says that, if anything, much of the coverage doesn't accurately reflect the harsh realities that take place every day. "The loss of American lives becomes a one paragraph brief in the world section," says Ware. "It takes carnage of cataclysmic proportions to break into the news cycle. We've become immune or numbed to the body count. We have come to accept the horror from Iraq as normal. Our measures of success have been deeply skewed by the reality of the situation."
National Review Online contributing editor James Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Center, argues, like Stephens, that the nature of the news business means that Americans don't get as much good news from Iraq that they should. But he also says that many journalists lack the knowledge necessary to convey the news accurately.
"Even if someone is a Pentagon correspondent, they go to Iraq and are expected to be experts on the insurgency, and they're not going to have that expertise," he says. "They need to get stories out fast with not a lot of depth and there's an ignorance on the part of reporters on military matters."
As for ideological bias, both Stephens and Robbins say it affects coverage, though to a lesser extent than other factors. "If you're pursuing a story about a quagmire, if that's your narrative, you're going to go after stories that support that narrative," says Stephens. "That's where the bias inserts itself. Most stories are a choice, and a reporter who gives you one bombing after another is not fulfilling his total obligations as a reporter trying to cover Iraq."
Randall Joyce, CBS News' acting Baghdad bureau chief, says the reporters there are not looking to promote a political agenda. "We're always looking for good news, for signs of progress. We've got to take the stories as they come," he says. A lot of the difficulty in covering certain stories, he says, has to do with logistics, as it's become very difficult for reporters to do their jobs. "We used to wander the streets, drinking coffee and talking to people, and we can't do that anymore," says Joyce, who has been coming to Iraq since 1996. "We didn't come to that conclusion frivolously. We did it because people were getting killed, and getting kidnapped. We are, unfortunately, experts at calibrating risk, and this is a place that is extremely dangerous. People didn't stop driving around the country because they have a liberal agenda or are cowardly."
Ware agrees. "The logistical nightmares of attempting to gather information in Iraq are almost unimaginable to those who haven't been here," he says. He says that members of his staff have been killed, his house has been bombed, and he's been pulled from his car by al-Zarqawi's men, among other hardships.
According to Joyce, Iraqis sometimes don't want to see reporters, even if they're engaged in positive activities. "We run into situations where we're willing to go someplace but the people beg us not to come, because we're putting them at risk by our presence," he says. "They can be seen as collaborators by the insurgents. We pack up our cameras, and then five hours, five days, five weeks later, who knows what happens."
Even though he isn't happy with the totality of coverage coming from Iraq, Stephens says he believes that, "overwhelmingly, most of the American reporters who are out there are doing a heroic job." It's the kind of compliment that Joyce and other reporters in the field, weary of criticisms that their reporting is partisan, long to hear.
"We have a feeling that there are political talking points used to negate the serious reporting on the ground," he says. "It's such an easy, cheap shot, and it's coming from people who don't have to risk their lives."