Baghdad Report: Reporting in Iraq Update from Bill Roggio in Iraq

We ran into the NY Times’ Marc Santora at Camp Justice. He and his photographer, Johann Spanner, went on a ride-a-long with troops from the base but, as far as I can tell, didn’t write any stories about what they saw. Santora has written stories about Khadimiyah in the context of questioning Saddam’s hanging, but not about what he saw and experienced on any quiet patrol.

A day or three later after we saw them at Justice, Santora and Spanner filed this report from Ghazalia, in west Baghdad. Allah linked it yesterday but I’m linking it again with a quote to give you a taste. It’s a great read, brilliantly written.

Two blocks from the new American outpost in Ghazaliya, one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods, a fight was raging. Shiites were battling Sunnis, the latest skirmish in a sectarian war that has left this area a wasteland.

A young Iraqi detained by the Americans after a firefight was photographed and tested for explosives.

On Friday morning, it became an American fight, too, after a few rounds whizzed by Sgt. Sergej Michaud’s head, and he and three other soldiers returned fire.

The battle would rage for nearly an hour, with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the soldiers, who in turn laid down heavy fire, eventually driving the attackers away.

Previously, that would have been the end of it, with the soldiers moving on to their next patrol area and eventually returning to their base. But this time, the Americans were staying, defending their new home in a neighborhood where the rule of law had been driven out by the reign of the gun.

The story casts American troops as courageous and brave, facing off against shadowy insurgents whose main desire is to kill and make Baghdad look hopelessly chaotic. But even though the story as far as I know is factual to the letter and supports US troops as forces for order, by itself the story gives readers a false impression of the war to own Baghdad.

In fact, to the extent that the story describes gun battles and murder, it plays right into the insurgents’ hands.

First, a little perspective. Here’s a map showing Camp Justice, Khadimiyah, and the areas Santora discusses in the article. “The Alamo” is in Ghazalia, to the left on the map, about four or five miles from Camp Justice.


The ovals exaggerate the size of Camp Justice. Shula is a known trouble spot; we heard it mentioned at Camp Justice several times. As Santora notes in the story, at Shula and Ghazalia you have a sectarian fault line, and it’s along those fault lines that violence swirls. You can map most of Baghdad’s violence just by finding neighborhoods where Shia and Sunni collide. Where they don’t, like Shia Khadimiyah, you find less violence and more normalcy. The quieter parts of Baghdad don’t rate a Marc Santora piece in the NYT. He was there and saw the lack of violence; he just didn’t report it. It was a non-story.

That there are large swaths of Baghdad that aren’t violent is an important story, for a couple of reasons. First, stories like our Vent today show what the majority of Baghdad is like every day. It’s not like the Ghazalia neighborhood. On the average day, much of Baghdad is quiescent, advancing with US help toward something like normal life. Troops can walk through town without incident, and militia fighters run away rather than face them down. Second, and this is an unsettling truth: Sectarian cleansing works. When the Shia and Sunni go their separate ways, violence decreases. In the short to medium term, it may be necessary to separate the two communities long enough to let Baghdad quiet down. That won’t be easy and we would probably only try it as a last resort. But it is a fact that most of the city’s violence is either in Sunni areas or in areas where the populations mix. The city isn’t roiling with violence from end to end, every day.

The reality of Baghdad turns conventional news gathering and reporting on its head, and the MSM hasn’t adjusted. Stories like Santora’s edgy report from “The Alamo” make great reads but distort the readers’ understanding of the situation. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be written or published; they should. The fighting in Baghdad is obviously news. But stories about the street fights should be placed in context, and that’s where the MSM’s reporting from Baghdad breaks down. The Times’ man in Baghdad writes up the gun battles in one neighborhood but elects not to write up the foot patrol that ends well in the next neighborhood, or the neighborhood meeting where the Army delivers sewing machines, or the slum visit where troops drop off blankets and make friends. He’s giving you the impression that gun battles dominate Baghdad’s landscape, when they don’t.

It’s not hard to see why; it’s hard to sustain reporting on neighborhood meeting after neighborhood meeting. A series of stories about Iraqi sewing circles will get a reporter pulled from the front and replaced with one who will produce more gripping copy–and that copy comes from places like “The Alamo” and Ghazalia, not the chai shop in Khadimiya. With limited resources in sprawling Baghdad, the loudest stories get the most attention even if they don’t represent an accurate picture of what’s going on.

The limited resources problem has also bitten the AP, in a different way. The AP does have reporters in Baghdad, but it relies on stringers around the city to provide most of its reports from the streets. The stringers are local residents who live in a city caught up in sectarian violence, insurgency and international terrorism.

Think of it this way. Suppose that a newspaper relied for most of its Civil War reporting on soldiers within Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. How reliable and fair would that reporting have been? Suppose Grant’s army had killed their friends and brothers and was camped on their plantations.

There’s a similar situation in Baghdad; the AP’s stringers appear to be by and large Sunni. Sunnis by and large oppose the mostly Shia government and may even sympathize with the Sunni insurgency. In the chaos of Baghdad, where it’s difficult for anyone to tell friend from foe, it’s all too easy for one side or the other in the conflict to shape media reporting to their own ends if they’re given a way to do it. It’s in a Sunni insurgent sympathizer’s interests to report that the Iraqi Army is inept and stands aside while Shias drag Sunnis out of a mosque and light them on fire. It’s in that person’s interests to cast all of Baghdad as one giant cauldron of violence, since that demoralizes the American politicians who will decide whether the fight is winnable and worth it, or not. Reporting an unending river of carnage, whether any particular story is true or not, helps the insurgents win the media war, and that’s the only way they’ll win the actual war.

Put the Santora selective stories and the AP’s systematic misconduct together and you have a grossly distorted picture of the war coming from the front lines. And you have few if any ways of correcting that picture.

Reporting from Iraq in a sustained way is difficult, dangerous work. It’s a hard city to move around without either embedding with the military or hiring your own guns because there is always a baseline of danger to deal with. The networks mostly don’t bother with sustained reporting from Baghdad, and the AP farms it out to locals whose loyalties will inevitably taint their reporting. And then the AP ducks for cover or lashes out when its reporting is scrutinized.

Victories like the re-opening of schools and the re-establishment of electrical power, basic services and local enterprise are hard to see and don’t make for exciting Pulitzer-winning copy, while gun battles and bombings echo all the way back to the States. When we’re at war we tend to look for flag raisings on distant islands to signal whether we’re winning or losing, but Iraq is a counterinsurgency and none of the victories there will look like that. Most of the MSM doesn’t understand this and apparently never will. And that’s assuming that MSM figures like the AP’s Kathleen Carroll even want to understand the realities of Iraq.

Update: Bill Roggio writes in from Anbar:

You are correct on the story that ‘nothing happened’ either gets buried or never gets written. I get ridiculed by many for writing that I go on patrol and nothing happens. The fact is that after spending 3 1/2 months in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan (Kandahar and Anbar), over the past year, I saw very little combat. And it’s not like I am dodging the danger at the FOBs. I’m on the streets patrolling daily, much of the time with the Iraqi Army and MTTs. I report that I see nothing quite often, and seeing nothing is a story in itself…

Make sure to read all of Bill’s blogging from Iraq. It’s invaluable.