Monday, May 16, 2005

Good News For People Who Love Bad News


The Wall Street Journal editorial page's online presence has grown weary of the steady drum beat of bad news issuing forth from Iraq and has enlisted the aid of Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff to provide a round-up of the "good news" stories for their website that he regularly compiles on
his own blog. Chrenkoff is an interesting character to say the least. According to him, his blog's mission (and by proxy, that of the WSJ editorial page) is to redress the imbalance of news being reported from Iraq in the dreaded mainstream media - which he considers to be slanted toward the negative with too little recounting of the positive. As Tim Dunlop points out, these claims are dubious to say the least. For one, Chrenkoff's effort to correct the inadequacies of the mainstream media relies on that same mainstream media as the primary source for his stories. In other words, he culls the positive stories from the same sources he claims ignore the positive stories.

I suppose it comes down to a point of emphasis then. Chrenkoff shines a brighter light on stories he feels are overshadowed by the bad news - and the overshadowing itself, according to Chrenkoff, is the product of an undercurrent of bias against the Iraq campaign flowing through the supposedly liberal mainstream media. But are Chrenkoff's charges fair? There certainly has been much coverage over the past three-weeks detailing the escalation of insurgent violence, and insurgent activity generally hordes a good deal of media attention. But this, I would argue, is inevitable given the scope and reach of the destruction and bloodshed.

Consider this fact, the population of the United States is roughly 11 times that of Iraq's. With that in mind, extrapolate the number of Iraqi deaths (excluding insurgents killed) witnessed over the first two weeks of
May alone: 475 - comprised of civilians (approximately 310) and soldiers and policemen (approximately 165). In American terms, that would equal roughly 5,225 dead. The attacks of September 11, as horrific as they were, resulted in approximately 2,800 deaths. So, with that perspective in mind, is the media too obsessed with the level of violence in Iraq which can reach September 11th proportions on a weekly basis?

Conversely, would it have been better, for balance sake, if the US media had reported on all the positive stories occurring in the United States on 9/11 because not everywhere was Washington DC, NYC, and Pennsylvania? I doubt it. In truth, the scale of the violence and the loss of life, which is by no means limited to early May 2005, demands that the media take notice and prioritize these accounts. They are a pertinent reminder of the state of the mission in Iraq, and the unbelievable hardships the Iraqi people endure on a daily basis. Would it be better, again for balance sake, if these stories were relegated to the backpages while news of a school re-opening after being re-built out of the rubble of collateral damage was given prominent coverage? Would that give the reader a better sense of Iraqi daily life? Or is it, perhaps, that stories of Iraqi deaths are becoming old hat, passe even, and thus don't really raise an eyebrow anymore from those growing tired of our Middle Eastern campaign.

In effect, Chrenkoff's mission generally drifts toward becoming an exercise in supreme tautology: parsing through the chaos to declare, "See, not everything is bad in Iraq" - a sentiment that he confidently declares day after day from his safe European Australian home, thousands of miles away from the scene of events where the reporters he chides are stationed. Thanks for the clarification Dr. Chrenkoff. By the way, has there ever been a situation where
everything was bad? And despite the protestations of Chrenkoff, it's not as if the mainstream media doesn't cover many other aspects of Iraq - from reconstruction efforts, to elections to jockeying for power in the nascent cabinet and government in general. Where, do you suppose, all those photographs of purple stained fingers came from? Not to mention the cameras on the deck capturing the fanfare of Bush's Mission Accomplished touchdown.

Which brings me to my next point, so ably illustrated by Fubar from
Needlenose. Fubar waded through some of the "good news" accounts provided by Chrenkoff and reported on the WSJ's editorial page website, and took note of this one:

There are many good-news stories cited, but one of the cited stories that stood out was that of Rhode Island businessman Blake D. Henderson who is 'working hard at rebuilding the country' and is puzzled by all the negative coverage:

Baghdad and many other parts of the country are not the lawless places portrayed on the nighttime television news, Henderson said.

"It happens all the time, when people see something on TV in Baghdad and they'll call and ask, 'Are you OK?' and I'll say, 'I don't even know what you're talking about,'" he said. "In Baghdad, every day 7 million people get up in the morning, send their kids to school and go to work, but you don't see that on TV. All you get is the worst of the worst."
However, he goes on to clarify a point or two:

Henderson said SGE has had no problems during the past year with Iraqi insurgent forces and takes measures to deter potential threats. Members of SGE's paid staff are required to carry a firearm at all times, even at home or in the office, and body armor is requisite apparel outside the firm's compound, Henderson said.
Henderson said the heavily fortified SGE offices are located near the airport, outside the "Green Zone," so local workers may come and go without attracting attention to themselves or inciting insurgents.

Every time an SGE crew is out on a job, an Iraqi is behind the wheel of a traditional Iraqi vehicle, with all aboard wearing local clothing that shields their body armor and weapons as much as possible, Henderson said.

"I've been there three times now, with another trip planned, and every time, we seem to get better and better at it," he said. "The Iraqi people don't seem to take any notice of us, but I know we've been pulled over everywhere we go by the American forces, and then they see who we are and let us on our way. The key is being as invisible as possible."
Fubar sums up what could be described, with an eponymous adjective, as a bit of contradiction in Henderson's account:

As you can see, everything is going great--as long as you carry firearms... and wear body armor... and hide your real identity. But other than that, it's pretty rosy out there.
Have no fear though. Chrenkoff is here to set the record straight.


I gather Mr. Chrenkoff will not be including this
Fred Kaplan column in his daily ode to boundless optimism. Kaplan relies on two reports put out by the US government, the latest quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, and the State Department's "Iraq Weekly Status Report" dated May 4, to paint a grim picture of the reconstruction efforts and their relation to stability in Iraq in general. He begins by noting yet one more example of how Iraq has morphed into a Catch-22, wrapped in a conundrum, concealed in a labyrinth.

The paradox that stumped the U.S. occupation forces two years ago, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, continues to stump them today. On the one hand, their efforts to provide security won't succeed until they restore essential services. On the other hand, they can't restore essential services until the country's key assets - especially its roads, oil pipelines, and electrical generators - are secure.
In terms of oil production and electrical output, some two-plus years after the toppling of the Hussein regime, both, shockingly, remain below pre-invasion levels.

Yet crude oil production has flattened out at around 2 million barrels a day, well below its prewar level of 2.5 million. Electrical power production hovers around 80,000 kilowatt hours - considerably short of the 100,000 KWH output before the war and far below last summer's declared goal of 120,000. Baghdad homes have electricity for nine to 11 hours a day; in other cities, the figure drops to eight or nine hours.
Kaplan then provides a sector specific analysis of the sluggish pace of spending on reconstruction efforts - partially the result of mismanagement but mostly attributable to the dire security situation. Either way, the money is not being spent where it needs to be, nor are projects advancing with any discernible progress.

In some sectors, the flow of aid is barely a trickle. For instance:

  • For the oil infrastructure, $1.72 billion was allocated; just $1 billion has been appropriated to specific projects; only $263 million - about 15 percent of the original amount - has been spent.
  • For transportation and communication, $509 million was allocated; $327 million has been appropriated, just $70 million (14 percent) spent.
  • For health care, $786 million was allocated, $557 million appropriated, and only $77 million (less than 10 percent) spent.
  • For water resources and sanitation, $2.16 billion was allocated, $1.06 billion appropriated, a mere $117 million (5 percent) spent.
But wait, it gets worse. According to Kaplan, even these figures understate the scope of the problem. For one, the costs of these projects are rising as a result of the persistent security concerns and, at least in some examples, the costs were underestimated from the beginning. As Kaplan puts it:

Therefore, if, say, half of a project's budget has been spent, it's probably less than half-finished; actually completing it will cost more.
With that in mind, are things better in Iraq than the media portrays or worse? Do Americans need more Arthur Chrenkoffs in order to salve our collective conscience and fortify our resolve, or should we be told the story straight with no chaser? Isn't it the case already - from embedded journalists whose independence is compromised, to Pentagon vetted reports, to self-censorship - that the media has been mostly neutered as a result of policies implemented in reaction to the problems caused by the proximity of reporters to the action in Vietnam? We, as Americans, are already shielded from up close images of the horrors of war that other media sources like Al Jazeera beam into the living rooms of the rest of the world - from dead bodies (including children), to blood and gore, to the large scale destruction of lives and property. Now, I suppose, good soldiers like Arthur Chrenkoff want to finish off the white wash into abstraction - providing war with the pristine luster of a feel good Hollywood ending. That's why, in many ways, his good news is bad.

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