Reporting Terrorism, the Iraq Conflict and the Middle East

March 22, 2007

'Sincere Effort' Being Made to Tell the Whole Iraq Story, Panelists Say

By Elizabeth Hurley, programs coordinator, Newseum

For news organizations, "the Iraq War can be exemplified in the catch-up it has had to do," said Donatella Lorch, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Newsweek, at a panel discussion sponsored by the Newseum and the National Press Club March 22.

Catching up has meant learning geography, new names, culture, religion and politics and hiring and training Iraqis – both Sunni and Shiite – to cover stories. But because violence limits where Western journalists can go in Iraq, "we’re seeing Iraq through a very narrow prism," Lorch said.

Lorch joined Howard La Franchi, foreign affairs writer and diplomatic correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor; Judith Kipper, adviser for Middle East programs, Council on Foreign Relations; and Shibley Telhami, Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, for the program "Reporting Terrorism, Iraq and the Middle East" at the National Press Club. Susan Bennett, deputy director of the Newseum, moderated the discussion.

Kipper blamed a lag in reporting on Iraq on the early policy of embedding journalists with U.S. troops. She said that by getting news from journalists traveling with the troops, Americans saw a narrow view that focused on the "magnificent fighting machine that the American military is" and "the American media … never bothered to look on the side of the road … to see what was happening to the Iraqis."

La Franchi disagreed, noting that when he was in Iraq, "I spent a lot of time with the Iraqi people to tell their story as best I could." He said he tried to explain religious and culture differences by focusing stories on individuals. "Although [journalists] may not always understand as deeply as the experts, I think there is a sincere effort."

But, he said, Americans are so polarized that no matter what he wrote, he received e-mails from readers accusing him of both overemphasizing the positive and reporting only the bad news.

Telhami said he saw a problem in the terminology that news organizations use to report on Iraq. "We speak of the Iraqi government as if it’s really in command. We speak of the prime minister; we speak of elected officials, but in fact we really have a collapsed state … where most of the authority on the street is non-state authority."

Journalists report about sectarian violence, but Americans should understand that "sectarianism is more the consequence of anarchy, not the cause of it," Telhami said.

The chaos and violence in Iraq have made it difficult for journalists to broaden stories beyond the frequent bombings and body counts, panelists said. But Kipper says violence is the story in Iraq. "When you read about the bomb here and the bodies there …that is what’s happening. We don’t want to know about it. It’s carnage, but this is the story."

Lorch noted that the danger that journalists face is being borne by Iraqis – civilians and journalists. "The vast majority of journalists who have been killed in Iraq are Iraqi," Lorch said. "Many Iraqis don’t want their names on stories; they don’t want to be connected to an American organization … but they are the heroes because Americans couldn’t do their job without them."

La Franchi said that he wanted to acknowledge his translator, an Iraqi he described as being dedicated to the job he took partly to support his family and partly because he believed he was helping Iraq. After La Franchi left Iraq, his translator was killed during the kidnapping of American journalist Jill Carroll, also working for the Monitor.

Telling the full story in Iraq is important because what happens in Iraq reverberates throughout the region and the world. "The war has had consequences far beyond Iraq itself," Telhami said.

It’s essential for Americans to understand world issues, Kipper said. "Let us as Americans not be afraid of what we don’t know, but let us try to understand what we don’t know."

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