Rooting for failure

Norm Geras:

In the March issue of Prospect magazine Bartle Bull, who has reported on Iraq for the New York Times, wonders whether the big media were hoping for the failure of the election in Iraq. He writes (subscription required):

There is a fine defiance here. In one incident I did not see but that has been widely reported, a Baghdad policeman spotted a suicide bomber outside a polling station and dragged him away from the crowd before the bomber detonated his belt, killing them both. The queues rose tenfold as the story of the policeman's martyrdom spread.

Iraq is not about America any more. This has been increasingly true every day since last June, and the failure - or refusal - to recognise this has underpinned much of the misleading coverage of Iraq. In the evenings leading up to the election, I sat on carpets on the floors of a variety of shabby houses in the Baghdad slums. But the daily BBC message I watched with my various Iraqi hosts never budged. The refrain was Iraq's "atmosphere of intimidation and violence," and the message was that the elections could never work. What about the "atmosphere of resolve and anticipation" that I felt around me? Or the "atmosphere of patience and restraint" among those whom the terrorists were trying to provoke?

...

Before I became a writer, I dealt in the stock and bond markets. The markets tell you every day whether you are right or wrong. You don't have to have philosophical arguments with your boss or your clients: if you make money you are good, and if you lose money you are bad. Elections are one of the few news occasions that provide editors and reporters with the clarity of numbers to help us to judge whether or not we are doing a decent job. January 30th turned out to be a better day for Iraqis than it was for reporters.

The failure of "hotel journalism" might be forgivable if it were truly about prudence or even laziness. But there has been something wilful about the bad reporting of this story. It is weirdly personal: Iraq must fail. It is in fact the press that failed, on a scale for which I cannot think of a precedent. Will the big media outlets demand the same accountability of themselves that they demand of everyone else? They should, for the success of these elections was not so surprising to those who dug below the surface of Iraq.

Hat tip to Roger L. Simon.

The reporters did not just misunderstand the Iraqi people, they also failed to understand the limitations of the insurgency. The insurgents have never been able to successfully attack and hold a defended target during the entire war. Their chief advantages, ambiguity as to time and place of attack, were not available to them on election day, because the time of the election was fixed as was the polling locations which were heavily defended. The election also demonstrated the weakness of the insurgents in that they did not have the capacity to mount more than a few attacks. This should have been abvious if the reporters did not already have the mindset of losers.

It is interesting to see how reporting of the war has changed since the election. The latest edition of US News has a report on how US troops are interacting with IRaqis and buidling relationships that are mutually benficial. The Washington Post has also had similar stories recently. And, if Sen Ted Kennedy is still talking like a loser, no one is listening. At some point the reporters and the Democrats who have gotten it wrong should be held to account.

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