Information Warfare: September 29, 2003


Since the invasion of Iraq was declared over on May 1st, and most of the 700 embedded reporters returned home, the reporting on the Iraq operations has taken a turn for the weird. In the last four months, reporting concentrated on American casualties, and the attacks on American troops in the pro-Saddam Sunni Arab areas of central Iraq. Reading this reporting left one with the impression that the situation had turned into another war, a guerilla war, and that the United States was doomed to repeat it's experience in Vietnam. While the embedded reporters were pretty evenly distributed among the coalition combat units during the invasion, the reporting covered all the action. But since the embeds went home, the reporting has concentrated on where the few remaining reporters are, mainly in and around Baghdad. This made it easier for reporters to dash out to the latest attack on American troops, as most Sunni Arabs lived in Baghdad, and in areas to the north and west. 

But the rest of Iraq, the other 80 percent of the country, was quiet, and in the midst of a maelstrom of reconstruction. But there are few journalists there to report it. Besides, the media principle of "if it bleeds it leads" ruled, as it always does. American troops getting shot at by Baath Party diehards made better stories than Americans helping to put Iraq back together after three decades of Baath party mismanagement and tyranny. 

But then something unexpected happened. Another stream of stories were coming out of Iraq. Unlike earlier wars, the troops now had email and phone contact with the folks back home, and the stories they were sending back were at sharp variance with what was getting reported in the press. Families and friends back home were alarmed with what they saw in the media, and when they asked the soldiers in Iraq what they were going through, they got some very different reporting. The troops were also getting the official news, and quickly responding with doubts and disbelief. Sometimes troops would directly contradict reporters stories they had witnessed. Eventually, these stories from the troops, and some government officials, politicians and even Iraqis, began to filter into the mainstream American media reporting. What the troops were reporting was so different from what the reporters were reporting that this became a minor news item. But the major media are keeping their spin on events as the major thrust of their reporting. Thus what is really going on, and what the troops on the spot are reporting, is considered secondary to the pursuit of a more exciting and salable story. But that is not the end of it. The real story is growing on web based news outlets and the growing impact of this corner of the news world is making itself felt in keeping this story alive. 

This is not the first time the news media got out of step with reality on a major story. During the early years of Vietnam, the American news media tended to accept a lot of U.S. government fairy tales without much double checking. Later in the war, this deception backfired as the media was less willing to believe anything the Department of Defense said. But there was not Internet in the 1960s. It's interesting to ponder how it might have been if there had been, and all those American troops, and South Vietnamese, were reporting back what was really going on.




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