Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Iraq: lost in translation?

I've written before about Peter Braestrup's book Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. It describes how the media got the Tet Offensive wrong.

Braestrup's conclusion is that the press errors were mostly multidetermied, and that most of them were not necessarily the result of press bias, but rather misperceptions, misinformation, and ignorance. But the whole thing added up to an error of major proportions, one that had a huge effect on American public opinion.

Granted, Amir Taheri's latest NY Post column is no Big Story. For starters, it's a short essay, not a book. Perhaps we'll call it "Small Story." But that's only because of its length, not its importance. Because there's nothing little about press distortions concerning Iraq, nor about their importance in influencing the course of this war and our will to fight it.

Like Braestrup, Taheri doesn't ascribe all the errors of Iraq reportage to bias or intent. Some are simply the function of reporters' lack of knowledge of the language. Dependent on translators, they don't always get the correct information--especially in the early years, translators often had agendas. Journalist isolation is part of the problem, as well. Both hazards are inherent when trying to cover events in a unfamiliar country that has been blocked from significant contact with the West for decades. Then there's the fact that news of bombings and death is easy to report, and has the old "if it bleeds, it ledes" sensationalistic appeal.

Bias does come into play as well, however. According to Taheri, many papers predicted chaos and failure in Iraq and don't want to be proven wrong, and thus they naturally skew their coverage to the negative. Whether or not this motivation is conscious and deliberate, or subtle and hidden, perhaps even from the journalists themselves (I happen to believe the latter is the case), is unknown.

Taheri also gives us some of the Iraqi good news that we usually don't hear too much about:

Last month, Iraq received the U.N.'s special environmental prize for reviving parts of the marshes drained by Saddam, thus saving one of the world's most precious ecological treasures. Almost no one in the media noticed.

Also last month, the Iraqi soccer squad reached the finals of the Asian Games - beating out Japan, China, South Korea and Iran. Again, few in the West noticed.

In 2006, almost 200 major reconstruction projects were officially completed and 4,000 new private companies registered in Iraq. But few seem interested in the return of private capitalism after nearly 50 years of Soviet-style control.

Iraq's new political life is either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. The creation of political parties (some emerging from decades of clandestine life), the work of Iraq's parliament, the fact that it is almost the only Arab country where people are free to discuss politics to their hearts' content - these are of no interest to those determined to see Iraq as a disaster, as proof that toppling Saddam was a modern version of the original sin.

Iraq may still become any of those things - but right now it is none of them. When the real history of the Iraq war is written, posterity might marvel at the way modern media were used to manufacture that original sin.

Let's hope Taheri never has to write that sorrowful sequel to Braestrup's book: The Bigger Story.

Powered by Blogger