The media is not spreading the good news

By Joshua Steinman

Mainstream media in the United States is misreporting what is going on in Iraq, and it is doing a disservice to our nation and our soldiers. To understand how coverage of the conflict is skewing the national perception, we need only examine three major events in Iraq over the past few months: the recent elections, the raising of oil prices, and the micro-“scandal” of the allegations that the Pentagon was “planting” stories in newspapers.

While turnout in last month’s Iraqi parliamentary elections was estimated at 70 percent of all eligible voters, many news agencies decided to focus on the Sunnis who cried foul when Shiite factions did better than expected. At least they could. The New York Times unwittingly said it best: “Sunnis Protest Iraqi Vote, And Offer Deals.” It is the clause that should be emphasized: In a democracy, you can cry foul all you want, but then you wise up, lick your wounds, come to the bargaining table, and get down to the business of governing. When you’re done at night, you pack up, go home, and plan for the next election.

Even if elections aren’t the full measure of democracy, it is also true that you can’t have a functioning democracy without them. By making elections and a constitution the first priorities of the new Iraqi government, it sends a clear message that the fate of Iraq is in the hands of its citizens, not some external force.

The new government is having a profound and negative effect on the insurgency. Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the members of Al Qaeda core, wrote a letter this past summer to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” In it, he tells Zarqawi that his videotaped beheadings of those “guilty” of the “crime” of assisting the new government might be counter-productive. By insisting that the new government be elected by Iraqis and solely made up of Iraqis, the insurgents have been robbed of the appearance that they’re fighting for anything close to a national cause. They’re exposed as exploitive, bloodthirsty opportunists. For this reason, democratic elections and a popularly supported constitution have been an excellent place to start in Iraq.

The price of oil in Iraq is the second skewed story that in fact is a positive development. Months ago the news media cried wolf when the price of oil increased dramatically. “Price Hike Fuels Outrage” gushed the Washington Post on December 27. Not until the fifth paragraph of the story does the author deign to tell the reader that the “eightfold increase” (cited in the leadoff sentence in the second paragraph) was from 5 cents per gallon to 40. Why such a massive market disconnect? Saddam Hussein pacified his people (while executing his foes and burying them in mass graves) by giving them all free and heavily subsidized gas, oil, and electricity. Furthermore, the price increase (cited in the sixth paragraph) was instituted because the IMF required it in order to forgive Iraq’s $120 billion foreign debt.

The recent price hikes are important for three reasons. First, the taxes on the oil are now helping to pay for reconstruction. Second, charging for a previously free good is reapplying market pressures to its consumption, and thus lowering frivolous use. Third, and most importantly, a free market is one of the pillars of a democratic society. Profitable and stable economic institutions stimulate job growth, which in turn will help quell the insurgency by providing jobs to out-of-work Iraqis. By giving people a peaceful way in which they can put food on the table for their families, the hike in oil prices is helping to stabilize the country.

Finally, there was the micro-scandal that the Pentagon was paying Iraqi newspapers to carry positive news. Though this is the most benign of the three issues, it raises the issue of a legitimate need in Iraq for a free press. If the poor coverage of the Iraqi elections and oil hikes demonstrates anything, it is that the news media in the United States has a hard time presenting a balanced picture. Though in a perfect world good news as well as bad would become public, the Pentagon effort to push the publication of positive news into the public sphere pales in comparison both to the attempt to silence the publication of unfavorable news, and even worse, the practices under Saddam Hussein, where journalists who didn’t hew to his line would be executed.

Any time an American dies in the line of duty it is a tragedy. However, skewing the debate over foreign policies that inevitably lead to casualties by selectively covering the war in Iraq does a disservice to our nation and to our troops. The media needs to step up and take an honest look at its coverage, and the effect it has on how people perceive the progress we’re making. The truth, though hard for some people to believe, is that our mission to help Iraq lift itself up by the democratic bootstraps is working. And while the media may not agree with me, I think that that news might be worth spreading.