The good news or the bad news

Is the media missing the big picture in Iraq? TNR's Lawrence Kaplan says today's press corps may be dogged by a "reverse" Vietnam effect.

By Mark Follman
Published March 28, 2005 9:28PM (EST)

Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic is wondering if the big media is missing the big picture on Iraq these days, noting that weeks of positive developments haven't sparked much in the way of broader optimism about the war. (He does mention this sizeable piece from the New York Times last week, though he downplays its scope; the story did in fact look at several big-picture improvements, including marked progress with Iraq's new security forces.) It gets interesting as Kaplan dares to utter the V-word by comparison:

"Fortunately, there is good news to report today. So why aren't we reading more of it? First, there is the simple fact that the good news has never lasted long. And no one can say with much certainty that it will last any longer this time. What reporter, after all, wants to sound like General Westmoreland predicting a light at the end of the tunnel on the eve of the Tet Offensive?

"The Vietnam analogy is at work in a more pernicious sense as well. Simply put, U.S. officials in Baghdad have in the past tended not to tell the whole truth. It is of course in their interest to convey good news. They've performed their job so well, however, that no one believes them anymore. The public's exposure to this has mostly been confined to shifting reports about the numbers of Iraqi forces and other upbeat but hollow assessments put out by U.S. officials. Embassy and military officials in Iraq have told me and others, with a straight face, that the airport road is the safest road in Iraq, that Iyad Allawi will win the election by a landslide, that U.S. forces have killed more insurgents than the same officials have said even exist, and other tales too numerous to list. ...

"The catch is, in touting Iraq's post-election successes, U.S. officials have been telling the truth. What worries me is that, unlike in Vietnam, where the press only broke with official policy after the Tet Offensive, the reverse may have happened in Iraq -- that is, reporters have become so accustomed to bad news that they won't accept, and hence convey, good news for what it is."

Or maybe it's just that lawlessness still rules the day in a number of areas. Meanwhile, a delegation of Democratic U.S. lawmakers who visited Baghdad over the weekend, some of them vocal critics of the Bush administration, acknowledged some progress in Iraq -- while a token Republican in the group noted that U.S. forces have a "fairly long stay" in front of them.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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