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.