Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Appealing To The NASCAR Dads

I once had a job with a now-defunct publishing company that produced “collector’s guides” about those overpriced ceramic things you find in mall gift shops. To get to my desk I had to walk past an extensive Precious Moments display and a Christmas village inhabited by Cherished Teddies. Then I began my day’s work researching and writing about collectible NASCAR stuff. Think “hell with pink frosting” and you’ve pretty much captured the ambience.

But at least the job had a certain honesty. I wrote the truth — NASCAR does trace back to bootleggers trying to outrun the law. Those porcelain wall plates really did have images of key moments in Dale Earnhardt’s life painted on them. And the 1:64 scale models of race cars were — well, race-car models scaled at 1:64.

Granted, there were things I didn’t mention. “Don’t buy this new because it’ll be on eBay for less than half price in a few months” is something you’d never read in the books I helped write. But it’s not like I had reason to agonize lest my inaccurate portrayal of NASCAR memorabilia promoted evil in the world.

Unlike the woman in this story, an (admittedly anonymous) account of the obstacles that reporters embedded with the military in Iraq find between themselves and what’s really going on:

over the years, she has worked closely with the French army, NATO troops in the Balkans, and UN peacekeepers in covering war and conflict, but she said had never faced the sorts of restrictions imposed by the Pentagon on journalists in Iraq. “I was,” she said, “a mouthpiece for the American military.”
In Tikrit, she was based with U.S. troops at a military compound established at one of Saddam's former palaces, where she provided pool coverage for Reuters TV and AP TV (which was fed to other media outlets). When insurgents attacked civilians, she told me, the American military would rush her to the scene so she could record the carnage and get shots of grieving Iraqis.

Among the guys we’re fighting are some very evil men, and our military would never stop an honest reporter from letting the world know this. Freedom of speech and all that. However:

when this producer wanted to pursue a story that might have cast the war effort in an unfavorable light, the situation was entirely different. Every few days, she said, she would receive a call from the Reuters bureau in Baghdad and discover that reporters there had heard, via local news reports or from the bureau's network of Iraqi sources, about civilians being killed or injured by American troops. But when she asked to leave the compound to independently confirm such incidents, her requests were invariably turned down.

It wasn’t just civilian deaths she couldn’t cover, but any story the military wanted the world to ignore.

The producer said that it was impossible to pursue stories frowned upon by the military—for example, on how the local population viewed the occupation and American troops—because she was not permitted to leave the base on her own. The height of absurdity came when the Tikrit compound came under serious attack one evening and the producer was asked by the Reuters bureau in Baghdad to phone in a report on the situation. “We couldn’t find out anything [from the U.S. military],” she said, so Reuters had to cover the fighting from Baghdad, despite having a TV producer and reporter on the ground at the compound in Tikrit.

The good news is, at least one thing American forces have tried to do in Iraq has gone according to plan:

During her 45 days in Tikrit, she told me, she didn't file a single story critical of the American project in Iraq.


Anonymous Jeff said...

Not to make light of the accusations in the piece, but calling a military unit's refusal to let a civilian under thier care leave a compound while firefights occur nearby would fall far short of the "height of absurdity."
And her resume of accompanying NATO, French, & UN troops tells me she didn't see a lot of actual action before this.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Jeff, the "height of absurdity" wasn't that they wouldn't let her go to a firefight; it was that their very base was under attack but they refused to say anything about it to the reporter assigned to cover it. Someone from Baghdad had to cover the attack on Tikrit because the one who was actually in Tikrit wasn't given any information at all.

6:38 AM  
Anonymous Jon H said...

"And her resume of accompanying NATO, French, & UN troops tells me she didn't see a lot of actual action before this."

I take it you've blanked out the 90's? Like that rather significant NATO action against Milosevic?

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

Once again, not condemning her story (or supporting the military's actions), but if the compound I'm in is under attack, I'd rather the military stationed there defend it, rather than talk to me.
And I do remember NATO repeatly insisting that they were not taking any action against Milosevic, not to mention stalling for months before getting into the action. I highly doubt the producer saw nearly as many bullets in her time with NATO as she did in Tikrit.
I guess my real issue here is the flavor of story that comes out of Harpers: "The military wasn't completely honest with me when I wanted to be critical of it, isn't that shameful?"
Being shot at should be able to constitute a news story without confirmation from the troops around you. Did the commanders give her pre-written news releases to pass off as news? Were her dispatches intercepted and rewritten? Did she honestly expect the military to NOT use embedded reporters as a form of propaganda?
Yes, the selectiveness of the military's support in news reporting was ugly. It is also nothing new. If the producer in question expected anything else, especially during this administration, she's got no business being a journalist. I understand her outrage and frustration, but crying "mouthpiece" just comes off as spineless. Which is what Harper's loves to print.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I understand her outrage and frustration, but crying "mouthpiece" just comes off as spineless.

What should she have said or done, for you to credit her with a spine?

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did she honestly expect the military to NOT use embedded reporters as a form of propaganda?

Or, perhaps more appropriate, did she honestly expect the military to be falling all over themselves to give her stories which may be 'spun' into critical of themselves?

Military people aren't stupid, they know when someone's trying to make them into a target.

4:48 AM  
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7:22 PM  

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