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Iraq: Veteran Correspondent Discusses Difficulties Of Covering Iraq Crisis

David Ignatius, a columnist for "The Washington Post," has long covered the Middle East and in recent months has written extensively from Iraq. He visited RFE/RL in Prague today to speak, among other things, about why the media is having such difficulty appearing objective in its coverage of the Iraq crisis. Ignatius summarizes some of his observations in this interview with RFE/RL.

Prague, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "The Washington Post" columnist David Ignatius, a veteran journalist with long experience in the Middle East, covered the March/April war in Iraq as a nonembedded correspondent and has since returned twice to tour the country, most recently late last month.

RFE/RL asked Ignatius why the Iraq story is proving so difficult for members of the U.S. media to cover without encountering charges of bias -- both from people who back the U.S.-led effort in Iraq and from those who oppose it.

Critics of the war frequently charge that the U.S. media failed to devote sufficient attention to the political debate over whether the U.S. and Britain should invade Iraq without a specific UN mandate. At the same time, supporters of Washington's policies fault the media for today failing to adequately report on successful U.S. efforts to reconstruct Iraq, despite security problems in some parts of the country.

Ignatius said the media has opened itself to such wide-ranging criticism because it has often put its own logistical needs for covering the news ahead of the proper goal of fully reporting all the issues.

He cited the enormous amount of time and resources news organizations had to devote to preparing to report on the war as one reason why some critics say the media -- along with most U.S. political leaders -- largely abandoned the debate over Washington's Iraq policy in the weeks ahead of the invasion. Much of the media's preparations centered on embedding correspondents with U.S. military units in response to an offer by the Pentagon to afford them front-line views of combat.

"These have not been our finest hours covering Iraq, during and after the war. I think that we did focus on covering the war often as embedded correspondents, certainly in the weeks before the war, getting ready for that coverage and making all those logistical preparations [and that] preoccupied the media, and I think made it harder for newspapers and television networks to cover the questions about the war, to look at the kind of issues that would affect the U.S. in postwar Iraq," Ignatius said.

Similarly, Ignatius said that, today, the media often focuses on covering the most vivid incidents in the Iraq story, such as the ongoing attacks on coalition soldiers. That is sometimes done at the expense of reporting on how life has changed for ordinary Iraqis since the occupation.

"I think in the postwar period, it has been very easy to cover the attacks on American troops because they are very vivid and they are very worrying, to make it look like this is a sort of pell-mell, out-of-control situation, and much harder to capture the texture of how life is changing in Iraq. When I have been in Iraq since the war, I have noticed that in many respects life is getting better. Baghdad is a more orderly city, despite the rocket attacks on American forces, despite the bombs that go off," Ignatius said.

He continued: "Even in [Al-]Fallujah, where I traveled a few weeks ago, I found the leader of the largest Sunni Muslim tribe in the area almost pleading that 'The Americans can't leave us, it will be a disaster.' So I think beneath the surface images that we tend to cover in the media, there are deeper realities about Iraq that we really do have to try to explore, and the public is right to be unhappy with our performance, and we need to do better."

The correspondent also said the Iraq story has proved confusing for the public because many in the media are grappling with finding a vocabulary for describing America's involvement in the country. He said part of that difficulty is due to the U.S. administration's own failure to clearly communicate exactly what its reasons were for going to war and what its strategy in Iraq is today.

"In part, it is because the definitions from the U.S. government have been awfully fuzzy. This is a government that has not done a good job for articulating its reasons for going to war, its strategy in postwar Iraq. I think there has been an awful lot of rhetoric about terrorism and the terrorist threat, but not a lot of clarity on the part of the government about our war aims and our postwar strategy," Ignatius said.

Prior to the war, Washington listed several goals simultaneously. One was to preempt an urgent threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and the possibility those weapons might be given to terrorist groups intent on attacking the U.S. Another was to liberate the Iraqi people from a regime with one of the worst human rights records in the world.

The multiple goals have raised complex semantic questions for journalists trying to objectively measure the progress Washington is -- and is not -- making in Iraq today.

"I think for the media, there are always semantic questions. Is this an occupation? Is it liberation? What is it? Is the enemy that we are fighting, are they terrorists? Are they insurgents? Are they resistance fighters? How do we characterize them? And typically in the media, we choose a fairly antiseptic, or lowest-common-denominator term, that is not going to lean in one direction or another," Ignatius said.

Despite what Ignatius described as the problematic news coverage that has characterized the Iraq story so far, the correspondent said the reporting can improve as journalists become more adept at dealing with the special difficulties Iraq poses.

Ignatius said the goal for journalists must be to now "really talk to people, not to blow through with a military convoy but to really sit and listen to what people in that town say."

He added that what journalists will find is that "most Iraqis are still really happy Saddam is gone and really don't want the Americans to leave quickly because they know they will only have even more chaos. They don't want us to go."