Yesterday’s Thoughts

March 26, 2006

Press Coverage from Iraq

This week both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have pointed fingers at the press for focusing on the bad news from Iraq. These attempts to salvage US public opinion in favor of Iraqi War and against President Bush follow on earlier effort by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to shape media coverage to favor administration positions. The claim is that this press coverage is responsible for American’s increasing disenchantment with the ware effort. This line of argument, whatever its truth, does not work to the administration’s credit.

The dynamics of press coverage, and the ability of Saddam, Al Queda, and the insurgents to manipulate this press coverage to their advantage, was present before the war began. Any reasonable and responsible war preparations would have taken this factor into account. Complaining about the press coverage at this point of the war reminds me of elementary school tales of the British complaining about the fact that the colonists weren’t holding still so that they could shoot at them, “Bloody Colonialist will not fight like gentlemen.”

It is hard for me to fathom what the Administration was thinking. They knew that Saddam was going to position women and children near strategic points and store munitions inside schools and hospitals. This occurred, or at least was alledged, during the Gulf War and was anticipated in a general way at least, in the run up to the Iraqi War. The reason for Saddam to do this was to attempt to win in public opinion. Exhaustive debate over Vietnam has dealt again and again with the role of the media in bringing the war into the living rooms of America. The whole “embedded reporter” program was developed to work against this phenomenon.

And yet the Administration continues to make themselves out to be the victim of some unknown, unprecedented phenomenon coming from the press coverage. From the President’s March 21 Press Conference

the bad news on television …. is precisely what the enemy understands is possible to do. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t talk about it. I’m certainly not being — please don’t take that as criticism. But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemies capability to affect the debate, and they know that. They’re capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.

I think this should have been a check mark in the “Strategic Advantages of Indigenous Forces” column.

Scott McClellan followed up with the press a couple of days later.

The enemy knows — the terrorists, they know that when they carry out these kind of attacks, or car bombings, or kidnappings, or beheadings, that it’s going to generate attention.

I don’t want to overplay either of these remarks. Certainly when you read them on paper, and in context, (and in the White House’s Official Transcripts), the tone is calm and direct. There is no whining. But both the President and Press Secretary are stating the logical equivalent of saying, “The enemy is shooting at us from behind trees, instead of from the open plain where we can shoot back.”

The Vice President also contends that the public’s poor perceptions of the Iraqi situation is a matter of what is reported. On Meet the Press, he responded to Bob Schieffer’s question,

Mr. Vice President, all along the government has been very optimistic. You remain optimistic. But I remember when you were saying we’d be greeted as liberators. You played down the insurgency. Ten months ago, you said it was in its last throes. Do you believe that these optimistic statements may be one of the reasons that people seem to be more skeptical in this country about whether we ought to be in Iraq?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I think it has less to do with statements we’ve made, which I think were basically accurate, and reflect reality, than it does the fact that there is a constant sort of perception, if you will, that’s created because what’s newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It’s not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.

The problems that the White House, and the United States forces, are facing are problems of asymmetries of information. One side has more information than the other, and this asymmetry can be used for strategic advantage. The interesting thing about these complaints about reporting are that the information is not tactical information available to forces but the information that is presented to the public and that the advantage goes to the side that intrinsically has access to less information.

In the information presented to the public, there are asymmetries of information creation and consumption that the insurgents can exploit. The balance of these asymmetries is could probably be approximated by the ratio of the number of Arabic speakers in the US Armed services to the number of English speakers in Iraq. This is not a coincidence.

Insurgents can shape the information that is collected in a number of ways. Eigthty-six reporters, translators, drivers and other members of the press have died since the war began. Reporters are largely confined to the Green Zone and patrolling with US troops. This means that they are reporting on hearsay, or from active patrol zones. Reporters who attempt to blend in or otherwise behave inconspicuously can be kidnapped or killed, as in the case of Jill Carroll. The Army doesn’t advertise its success stories or promote them to reporters, because to do so is to make them a target. The desire of the administration, and members of the military families that the President prefers to speak to, for the media to show the good news in Iraq is reasonable, but if the press has to risk their lives to get this news, well that in itself is not good news.

There are also cultural differences in the consumption of information that can be exploited. Americans have a nominally free press, and yet we are not accustomed to seeing actual blood, gore and death. (Live action movies with slow motion brains exploding on to the wall, sure, but no real blood.) Early in the war, Rumsfeld was bent out of shape that Al Jazeera was showing bodies claiming violations of the Geneva convention. Ignoring the fact that Al Jazeera is not an organ of either Iraq, Al Queda, or the Iraqi insurgency, showing body parts was not an unusual thing for them to do before the war. I don’t know myself, but the behavior of the administration seems to imply that if Americans see bodies, or even caskets, then support for the war will be undermined. Al Queda seems to behave as if see bodies will increase the support for them. This is a fundamental difference in how information is perceived to the advantage of one side and the disadvantage of the other.

The strength of these attacks is amplified by the Administrations behavior over the past four years. The reasons for the war have constantly shifted and many of the claimed reasons have turned out to be baseless. When the Vice President makes claims of progress, I have no reason to believe him. When good news is reported in the media, I discount it as arising from embedding or maybe this particular story was written by an Administration contractor.

Again, these asymmetries were completely obvious before the war. If the Administration didn’t anticipate them, they are at fault. That they have made them worse by not clearly articulating the reasons for war, by misleading and by outright lying, completely discredits their argument.

Updated to fix a couple of typos.

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