Of the more than 700 journalists who have registered with the CentCom Coalition Media Center here, two have emerged as celebrities. One is Omar al-Issawi, the suave, gregarious, goateed correspondent for Al Jazeera TV. At two separate briefings, his network was dressed down by military officers (one American, the other British) upset over its airing of clips showing POWs being interrogated and soldiers lying in pools of blood. The attacks struck most journalists here as entirely unwarranted, and they served mainly to enhance the Qatar-based network’s reputation for aggressiveness. Al-Issawi, who speaks excellent English, has been repeatedly sought out for interviews, and he has appeared on Larry King Live more than once.
The other star has been Michael Wolff, media critic for New York magazine. Brash and persistent, Wolff stood up at one of the afternoon sessions and challenged the presiding officer, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, to explain why the hundreds of journalists who had come to Qatar to report on the war should stay, so useless and barren of information were the briefings. His comments were greeted with applause, and for days afterward journalists approached him to thank him for giving voice to what they all had been thinking. Getting hold of a clip of Wolff’s remarks, Rush Limbaugh played it on the air, then gave out Wolff’s e-mail address and urged listeners to vent their displeasure. More than 3,000 messages poured into Wolff’s inbox, accusing him of being unpatriotic, antimilitary and worse.
Yet even Limbaugh’s listeners, had they sat through the daily presentations on the sleek CentCom set, would no doubt have been dismayed by the level of distortion, obfuscation and misinformation served up to them. Journalists–expecting the type of slick news management for which the Bush Administration has become famous–have been astounded by the amateurish nature of the press operation here. It’s not just the lack of hard information that’s troubled them but the crude efforts at manipulation. Most briefings begin with the showing of several videos of “precision” bombing that seem recycled from Gulf War I. When a short clip was aired showing US soldiers being greeted by two waving children, a journalist from Chinese state television sitting next to me snorted, “What propaganda!” (And he should know.) With each passing day, the labels applied to the Iraqi irregulars who have been harassing US troops became more lurid. They were “armed thugs,” then “terroristic behaving paramilitaries,” then “terrorist-like cells” and finally, “death squads” (this from Gen. Tommy Franks). Nicole Winfield, an AP correspondent, stood up to note that the term “terrorist” is generally applied to those who seek to kill civilians, not soldiers. Franks brushed her off.
A correspondent for a European newspaper told me he regarded the information coming from the Americans as no more dependable than that from the Iraqis. “The Americans have been so restrictive with information that they’re hurting their own cause,” he said.
Despite the transparent efforts to spin them, American TV correspondents have, for the most part, saluted smartly. Watching the row of TV monitors in the main working area of the press center, I’ve seen reporters for CNN, MSNBC and Fox dutifully appear on screen and relay almost verbatim the blather they’ve just been handed. One network correspondent told me that she was worried about how hard she could push the generals at the briefings–they might stop calling on her. Reports on such British outlets as the BBC and Sky, by contrast, tend to offer more analysis and less nationalism. “We’re very conscious that our listeners are not just a coalition audience but an international one, and that affects our tone, style and terminology,” says Jonathan Marcus, a BBC defense correspondent.
The Brits here have benefited from the presence of British press officers who have been more forthcoming than their US counterparts. The head of the British detachment, Simon Wren, is an out-of-shape, chain-smoking rogue in sneakers who has developed a good rapport with the dozen or so Fleet Street hacks here, and they can often be spotted gathered around him, trying to extract nuggets of info while Wren in turn tries to woo them.
Unfortunately, Wren usually gets the better of the encounter. In fact, the British flacks have used their facade of congeniality and cooperation to spread some of the most blatant falsifications of the campaign. A good example is the much-heralded Basra “uprising.” This supposed popular revolt against the ruling Baath party was broadly touted by journalists during the first week of the war, feeding notions that the Shiites of the south were preparing to rise up against the regime and greet the invading force as liberators, as advertised.
But the uprising never amounted to much. In fact, it may never have occurred. It originated with a report by an embedded British journalist who said he saw Iraqi troops firing on restive Basra residents. This report was then fanned by Wren and his crew into a full-fledged insurrection. And the British reporters here–eager for any tidbit that might give them an edge–gleefully ran with the story. Now they confess that they were had.
What has really been happening in Basra remains a mystery. Only Al Jazeera has a correspondent there, and he is subject to tight control by his minders. When Saddam Hussein is gone, the long-suffering residents of Basra may very well embrace the Western forces, but it serves no one to spread false stories about what’s going on there. Yet too many such stories are coming out of this press center. And while the briefers and spinners deserve some of the blame, the press itself–ready to swallow whatever is fed it–does too.