Worth 1,000 Words

By Callimachus | Related entries in Media, The War On Terrorism, War

So how are we doing in Iraq? What are those tens of thousands of our sons and daughters, brothers and wives, doing in that distant land? We went there to help build freedom and make the world safer for all. What’s the progress report?

I checked the Associated Press photo wire today to get an overview of the war as it is seen through the eyes of the Associated Press. I looked back through all the pictures for the previous week. Here’s what I saw keywording “soldier” and “Iraq” on the AP:

  • Sixteen pictures of Sgt. Kevin Benderman and/or various members of his family and defense team. Benderman is an Army mechanic who refused to go to Iraq while he sought conscientious objector status. Apparently, he is the most newsworthy U.S. soldier. There are far more pictures of him than anyone else in uniform.
  • Three file photo headshots of U.S. soldiers & Marines recently killed. Also one photo of a casket of a female Nebraska Army National Guard medic who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. Also, one photo of an Army captain kneeling before a memorial to one of his soldiers who was killed near Abu Ghraib. Apparently, the most important thing our soldiers do in Iraq, other than desert, is die.
  • Three photos of “Electronic musician Moby.” Why? Because “Moby says he has a newfound respect for Eminem, who once mocked him in a song, because the rapper criticized U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq in his last album.”
  • Three pictures of U.S. troops standing helplessly amid the smashed cars and shreaded flesh at the scene of a suicide bombing that killed dozens of people. Other than deserting and getting killed, this apparently is the number three most newsworthy activity for U.S. troops.
  • One photo of a U.S. Army soldier who is doing something other than deserting, dying, or not preventing a suicide attack. But it’s a file photo from 2004, from the fighting in Najaf. The AP re-ran the photo this week because the “photograph was among those honored by the Associated Press Managing Editors Association in its annual awards to the AP staff.” It’s a story about the AP, not the soldier.

Oh, and five pictures of Michael Moore.

Now, the AP photo wire doesn’t set out to be a complete picture of anything. But it does show you where the big media’s camera lens is firmly focused in any given period. And for most American newspapers, including mine, AP is the only source of pictures for the world. You need pictures to make a paper. If it doesn’t have art, chances are it won’t run. Even if the AP should run a story about the physical reconstruction of Iraq, or counter-insurgency operations, or hearts-and-minds patrols, there would be no art to accompany it.

Are desertions and deaths newsworthy? Yes, they are. (Moby I’m not so sure about.) But the stories I’m missing from Iraq are about the reconstruction, and the daily business of U.S. troops in-country. When we invaded Iraq we said we’d do three things: overthrow Saddam, install a responsible government, and get the country back on its feet again after years of neglect.

That third “leg” of the mission has gone AWOL in the news coverage. Really, it never showed up in most news outlets. This is not a plea for “good news.” It can be bad news — such as the number of hours the power still isn’t on in some places — but, please, tell me about it. It’s just as important as Abu Ghraib.

To ignore it is bias by neglect.

When I want to know what U.S. men and women are doing in Iraq on a daily basis, I don’t turn to the AP or Fox or CNN. Thanks to the Internet, I can go right to the sources (many good Milblogger links at those sites).


This entry was posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2005 and is filed under Media, The War On Terrorism, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 Responses to “Worth 1,000 Words”

  1. Newsguy Says:

    Hey guy, you don’t believe Bush would be so crass as to give us all the finger? Check out my blog. Click on the Newsguy link.

  2. Jan Dehs Says:

    Good blog – Good point!!

    And then you may try this one: http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/

    jd

  3. JonBuck Says:

    I can tell you exactly why we don’t hear about the third task.

    It doesn’t sell papers.

    If if you want the ad dollars to keep flowing, you have to sell papers.

    It’s not bias by neglect. It’s ad-dollar bias.

  4. Kris Says:

    “It can be bad news â€â€? such as the number of hours the power still isn’t on in some places â€â€? but, please, tell me about it. It’s just as important as Abu Ghraib.”

    Really? Just as important?

    The abuses at Abu Ghraib have given the insurgency a gold mine for recruitment. This was a huge setback to our work in Iraq and made all the newly-opened schools, reconstructed power grids, etc. a distant backseat issue. Abu Ghraib IS the issue we have to deal with in Iraq because it is the issue that motivates the insurgency.

    And yes, troop deaths lead in the news out of Iraq (though the war in general seems to be a passive issue for the media), but that is because that is how the American public views success when it comes to foreign military interventions. AND, if 10 new schools are opened, but one is hit by a suicide bomber on the first day, the failure of security is what will always be the important issue. Security comes first. Once that is under control, then you can demand more coverage of the other stuff.

    Also:

    “We went there to help build freedom and make the world safer for all.”

    No, we went there to get WMD out of Saddam’s hands. Oh, and then it turned out that he didn’t have any. THEN, your statement became operative after no weapons were found.

  5. Juan Golblado Says:

    Great post, Callimachus! And and excellent point.

    What can be done to change this bias of the AP? I don’t suppose your newspaper would run photos from the milbloggers? If so, and/or if other publications would run them, then perhaps that could become an alternative source of news.

    We really need one.

  6. Callimachus Says:

    Newsguy, what does your plug for yourself have to do with this post? Jan, yes, Chrenkoff is part of what I’m talking about, and the WSJ does pick him up.

    Jon, whatever newspapers are doing to sell themselves isn’t working anyhow. Circulation everywhere is in the toilet (and those are just the official numbers). But there’s a certain truth to that. Newspapers are focused on “breaking” news. And sometimes the biggest stories in a generation simply never break. They ooze. But knowing that is no excuse for ignoring them.

    Kris, I don’t know how you possibly can quantify most of what you claim. How many elementary schools have been hit by suicide bombers, for instance?

    As for recruitment, the jihadis will recruit based on anything, truth or lies. Abu Ghraib is a problem for America’s military culture, and for its image in the civilized world. It won’t make things a damn bit worse for us with the kind of people who believe we should be killed because we poison polio vaccines in Muslim countries or we want to make the Jews kings of the world.

    Troop deaths are how we view military success? So what’s our military goal? Not to get anyone killed?

    Sowing democracy always was part of the mix of motives, both among individual supporters of the war like me and among the administration, including the president. Any reasonable (i.e. non-Democratic Underground) reading of the record will show many quotes to that effect.

    Juan, I like your idea but you’ll never ever see that from my newspaper. It’s run by people who think like Kris, and they put together a paper to reflect that thinking.

  7. Justin Gardner Says:

    Callimachus,

    Can anybody get access to those photos? I know you work a news desk so it’s why I ask. I went to the AP’s site and searched around for “Associated Press photo wire” and all I got was access to the AP’s site, which I need a password to get into.

    I think a perhaps an equally representative view of the pictures people are seeing come from Yahoo!, which is supplied by Reuters. Check these out. I see a variety of pictures about Iraq. Some violence, sure…but we’re at war. There’s also some good stuff, like a swearing in ceremony, etc.

    Seriously, check it out and tell me what you think.

  8. Callimachus Says:

    I don’t think you can see the AP photo wire without a subscription. But that is what newspapers are built from. I didn’t say there were no other pictures from Iraq. But I was looking specifically for pictures of U.S. service men and women. What did you see of them? There’s, what, 120,000 or so of them over there now. You’d think one or two would get in the way of a camera lens once in a while.

  9. Kris Says:

    Callimachus,

    I certainly never said that troop deaths were the proper measure of success in any war, but it IS how much of the American public looks at conflicts that we get engaged in. The more death, the more the public sours.

    On the school bit, you miss the point. Look at the larger problem here: a new water treatment plant is opened – great. But the same day 12 Iraqi police recruits are gunned down and 2 soldiers are killed by a roadside bomb. You really think we’re making progress in that situation? If so, run your picture of the smiling mayor inaugurating his water treatment plant, school, hospital, etc., but you wouldn’t be honest about what’s really going on in Iraq. Blood leads because if you don’t have security you don’t have much of anything – plain and simple.

    Abu Ghraib IS a big deal. It undermines our efforts to get the Iraqi public to trust our motives and it actually allows the terrorists to mix some truth into their recruitment lies. Pictures of detainees wearing electrodes don’t lie.

    Sure democracy was one of the reasons for the war. But don’t pretend like it was #1 all along. That is quite dishonest. I was a war supporter for this exact reason (though I doubted the “threat” motive), but was always disappointed that it WASN’T the main motive. And it wasn’t – until we came up empty on yellowcake, fuel rods and mobile labs.

    And yes, if I ran a paper I would show the horrors of war. That is something newspapers have refused to do. You’d rather sugar coat it?

  10. Rachel Says:

    sorry Kris, but I side with Callimachus. A water treatment plant IS as important because thousands of Iraqis can have clean water. Or do Iraqis count in your opinion?
    I am not a punch drunk optimist, but looking at internet news, I have a hard time finding information about the reconstruction efforts, daily lives, etc.

  11. Phillip J. Birmingham Says:

    Wouldn’t it sound ridiculous for someone to say “I don’t see why you Americans got so worked up about September 11 — what about the nearly three hundred million Americans who didn’t die that day?” So why do we hear similar logic from Iraq war supporters?

    The fact is, new water treatment plants and freshly painted schools aren’t national news domestically, let alone in another country where our troops are fighting and dying. It’s unrealistic to expect it to be so, conservative grousing notwithstanding.

  12. Justin Gardner Says:

    Yeah, if you click on the link I provided, you should find a TON of pictures of them that Reuters put together. It could also be attributed (since I work at a search technology company) to poor keyword search. Sometimes these pictures get tagged with words they should get tagged with and it throws off the results.

    Check out Yahoo! image search page here.

  13. Callimachus Says:

    No, I searched the entire AP wire. It’s an AP problem, and has been from the beginning. Far more American newspapers rely on AP for photos than Reuters, which is primarily used as a financial news network, I think. They do have some good Iraq photos of U.S. soldiers, but my papers, and I’m willing to bet most others, do not have access to them.

    Kris,

    You said I missed the point. You wrote, “if 10 new schools are opened, but one is hit by a suicide bomber on the first day,” etc., and I asked you for examples of that. If reading what you wrote and responding to it directly is “missing the point,” I guess I just missed it again.

    I certainly never said that troop deaths were the proper measure of success in any war, but it IS how much of the American public looks at conflicts that we get engaged in.

    And which part of the American public is more concerned with the death total than the progress made? No need to answer that. It’s the same in every war. The difference is, in this one, the newspapers are on the side of the anti-0war faction. Have you ever seen newspapers from World War II, for instance. Do the big headlines read “Allies gain on 40-mile front in Normandy,” or do they read “1,100 G.I.s killed by Germans”?

    If so, run your picture of the smiling mayor inaugurating his water treatment plant, school, hospital, etc., but you wouldn’t be honest about what’s really going on in Iraq.
    Hello, that’s the point. I don’t have that picture, because AP doesn’t run that picture.

    And it’s not a matter of either-or. The story of U.S. involvement has three legs: 1. overthrow of Saddam (mission accomplished), 2. erection of a democratically elected government (in process), 3. rebuilding the infrastructure. That is the leg that I’m missing.

    Sure democracy was one of the reasons for the war. But don’t pretend like it was #1 all along.

    Kindly show me where I said that. You, on the other hand said “No, we went there to get WMD out of Saddam’s hands. Oh, and then it turned out that he didn’t have any. THEN, your statement became operative after no weapons were found.” So it looks like you just changed your mind about that.

  14. Justin Gardner Says:

    No, I searched the entire AP wire. It’s an AP problem, and has been from the beginning. Far more American newspapers rely on AP for photos than Reuters, which is primarily used as a financial news network, I think. They do have some good Iraq photos of U.S. soldiers, but my papers, and I’m willing to bet most others, do not have access to them.

    Well, if Yahoo relies on Reuters and they have the highest traffic for any media hub on the Internet, then what does that say? I completely understand your point, but I think JUST the focus on newspapers makes your point weaker. I realize this is just an observation piece, but a think a lot more people are getting their news online now and it should be considered as well.

    In any event, it still makes for a provocative post. I’m still curious as to why Michael Moore was tagged with “soldiers” and “Iraq”. Maybe he was speaking to a room of them?

  15. Alan Gutierrez Says:

    Justin

    I like the point you’ve just made. Which compliments the one made by Callimachus. There are alternative news sources these days. We don’t have to rely on the headlines of local papers. We can look at the photos in Iraq ourselves, or we can read the words of the Milbloggers.

    Callimachus might have to not worry so much about the newspapers. There are enough American’s involved in Iraq, and enough first person accounts, that those who support the war can continue to support the war.

    If the soldiers themselves were writing about low morale, or lack of progress, or if they consistantly said that they felt their mission was dubious, then I’d be far more concerned.

    This network of communication is supplanting the media, routing around the damage, so my personal fear that the war will be lost for lack of will is receeding.

  16. Callimachus Says:

    Yes, I’m obsessed with old media, in part because I work for it. And because the dispute over “media bias” still generates a lot of heat. Either mainstream media doesn’t matter, because everyone has Internet access nowadays, or media bias is an important factor in America’s collective mind.

    Personally, I think we’re in the process of evolving from one answer to the next, but we’re not there yet.

    And how many people go to the Internet to open wide and swallow the entire media stream? People log on and go to their filters: The sites that pick out for them what is important and what isn’t.

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