Is the media as instantaneous as it thinks?

Interesting insider critique of how the media covered the Iraq war in USA TODAY (today). Fog of War: What Are We Missing? by Jim Michaels.

For the most part, the news media missed the entire story as it unfolded.

For all the hype of today's 24/7 instantaneous news, the media were consistently about six months behind important developments on the ground in Iraq. Newspaper readers in 1876 got more timely information about the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The author will host a live chat at 1330 EDT today.

Do you agree with the assessment? Can you think of more examples? Counter-examples? Is there an open source group doing a better job reading the tea leaves (not just reciting the party line) than journalists at large, or a sub-group of journalists that are providing more reliable and less trailing indicators? Your thoughts welcome here in comments below at any time, and on USA Today at 1330.

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One would imagine that none of our unique perspectives in Iraq would trump the test of empirical evidence.

In this case, it's quite obvious that Michael's point failed, as a five minute Google search would've told him or anyone else.

He was behind his own story, and lost out not only to the NYT, BBC and Guardian but pretty much the entire Iraqi media (we always forget them).

But if we bring up nettlesome realities so obvious, the terrorists win.

The larger problem for journalism isn't that they "missed" a story they obviously didn't miss, but rather that one now finds celebrity generals in an unholy alliance with celebrity reporters out on their own commercial grandstanding.

Not much good journalism comes out of that, and the jury probably won't find much good warmaking by the generals, too.

Outlaw 13 (brother, or sister, it doesnt matter):

Such is the remembering of war, vague memories, shifting feelings, etc. I remember the call sign "green dragon" which may have been your preceding units as handles go. It was a particularly nasty day as days went in Baghdad at that time for me, in Furat, in the middle of a people's civil war, with us in the middle, as i recall with AH64s flying overhead, especially professional that day as I recall.

I understand now your point of view of the war being in the skies over it, of the efforts of the brave men and women on the ground but then not reported as such in the reports you were seeing.

I respect that observation a lot; as a ground scout my brothers and sisters in the air and what they were doing and observing was always especially important.

good luck to you.

gian

Gian,

If you ever had a call-sign of Crazyhorse working for you that was my unit. I'm sorry I can't recall any specific instance, just sitting in the DFAC after flying all day and watching the news being presented with an overall theme that the war is lost, when we could tell that things were turning for the better.

On second thought I do recall a reporter (WSJ I believe) turning a story of heroism when a VBIED struck a COP in Tarmiyah and the resulting battle into an example of how the war is nothing but a big pile of suck (obviously I'm paraphrasing), ignoring the fact that a bunch of Soldiers from 2-8 CAV fought their asses off.

I think a lot of things were written and said at that time to the effect of it's over, we've lost and need to find a way to get out. To this person who was in the fight at that time, it disgusted me and I don't think I can ever forgive those individuals in government who gave aid and comfort to those people who we were fighting.

Outlaw 13:

Shoot man, you probably flew some TIC and Op missions for me and my boys in North West Baghdad during that time. We were 8-10 Cav, RoughRiders, and departed in late 06.

But with regard to the thread might you characterize the difference in the reporting and what you were seeing and hearing? It would be interesting to know.

thanks

gian

As a guy who was flying attack helicopter missions over Baghdad from SEP '06 thru DEC '07, I can tell you without a doubt the news that I saw and read versus what I saw with my own two eyes and was briefed on by S-2 on a daily basis was as different as night and day on more than a few occasions.

I can't tell you the cause of that because obviously I'm not smart enough to be a reporter, but it occurred.

@ gian gentile: I probably lean a bit more toward the surge and change in tactics being a game changer than my interpretation of your comment, but I take your point, and generally agree with you.

Suffice it to say, the change relied on many things, including a few we have not discussed. (mysterious border interdiction by the Syrians, Mahdi Army truce, ISF build-out, etc)

Regards.

@ Prine: "That's not even remotely true."

Remarkable. Seems like we have nothing more to discuss, then. I'm tempted to respond to that idea ... but no.

On a directly related note: a word of fraternal advice regarding how you frame your arguments: they will play better, with a better class of people apt to be persuaded, if you dial it down a notch.

Your comments regarding Michaels' work, intelligence, as well as my defense of his specific proposition, are aggressive and absolutist regarding a very complex topic. A smart analyst is always humble enough to be open to opposing ideas, and your tone doesn't serve you well.

Regards.

"The most important story of 2005-06 was the various Iraqi civil wars." I said lastingly significant. I'll even say the awakening was "part" of the civil war - the part that was the signal in a lot of noise, but very few people recognized it as such at the time. But I acknowledge my comments are vast oversimplifications.

Any article like Michaels', and obviously any comment here, will be broad by necessity. Two example broad statements: "Iraq was a civil war" and "the media failed to get it right".

Both statements are correct in broad terms and both are gross oversimplifications. To the first, Carl's characterization - "the various Iraqi civil wars" - is more correct. But Ramadi is a fine and ugly example of how limited that description is.

To the media issue, a broad "media failed" statement does a great disservice to the efforts of many reporters to get it right. When Col Gentile says he saw news reports that accurately reflected conditions in his part of Baghdad, I believe him. That well-crafted statement doesn't change the fact that much of the reporting on Ramadi was demonstrably wrong.

For my part, when I make a broad statement on "media" I don't mean it implies to every reporter on earth. That said, for this specific point of discussion there was a dominant "media narrative" on Anbar in late 2006/early '07 - it was Anbar as described in the Devlin report. To whatever degree that assessment was accurate when it was made in summer '06, it wasn't in the fall when reports of its conclusions began to appear in the American press, and certainly not by year's end when it was "leaked." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/27/AR200611...

The killer quote from that Devlin story is in paragraph two: "as of mid-November, the problems in troubled Anbar province have not improved, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday." That story was injected into the heat of the post-US election/pre-surge debate, I'll state without hesitation that WaPo readers were not well served.

Maybe someday someone will compile a list of "10 worst Iraq news reports." There are plenty of candidates, but based on how objectively wrong it was and how broadly it was accepted as accurate I'd put this one on the list.

In writing my previous comment I'd forgotten about John McCain's equally wrong-headed statement from the 2008 campaign re: order of events. The most perplexing part of that was the truth didn't reflect poorly on McCain, he should have gone with it instead. But his statement marked the exact moment that the Anbar Awakening was acknowledged as important beyond military circles.

But as you imply, Carl, that didn't mean anyone was ready to credit 1/1AD for their part. (Or the many responsible for "the 2007 emphasis on taking the lessons learned in Anbar and making the policy work for the rest of the country" - which at the time was called "arming the insurgents" in the media, but I digress...) The notion that the Awakening was a spontaneous Iraqi action independent of any American influence persists. That doesn't limit any credit due the Iraqis, either. There is no "most important" tire on a car.

Continuing that analogy - we're damn sure a fifth wheel now. There's an under-reported story for the last year...

In the chat, there was this Q/A:

"State College, Pa: Jim: Good piece and valid points regarding media coverage of Ramadi, Iraq and the Marines' success there. I noticed there was no mention of any monetary payments to the various sheiks in the area to stop fighting each other, resulting in greatly reduced violence in Anbar Province. Were such payments made to quell the fighting?

Jim Michaels: Steve, Thanks for the perceptive question. No direct payments were involved, but there is little doubt that various sheiks benefited hugely from their association with the U.S. military, through U.S. contracts, employment and lots of other things. You could argue that such a monetary relationship calls into question their loyalty. But in truth, winning these sheiks over was really a question of aligning interests. This was not a question of convincing locals that American ideology was superior as much as it was building a mutually beneficial relationship."

I assume he means in Ramadi in 2006, but of course the entire 'Sons of Iraq' program (which I believe is how the civil war was ended) involved millions of US dollars paid directly to the SOI members. Specifically, they were paid in $100 bills peeled directly from shrunkwrapped pallets of cash.

I embedded in 2007, and one of the US commanders explicitly told a group of local Sunni sheikhs in Bayji, "I don't care if you were a former General in the Republican Guard. If you fight Al Qaeda, I'll pay you out of my own hand."

So, maybe in 2006 Ramadi, they weren't using cash yet, but by 2007 Bayji, the US leaders were suggesting it, and by 2008 Tarmiyah, the US was doing it.

It's a little disengenous to pretend that there was no money involved. Maybe not in Ramadi, but what came afterwards involved a LOT of money.

The "Awakening" actually started with the Abu Mahal in Al Qaim in 2003 right after the fall of the Saddam regime. The awakening moved west to east.

The awakening itself was an expression of the realignment of tribes within the Dulaym Confederation. I'll not bore you with the details but the current surge narrative is disjointed and neglects many aspects of Dulaym Confederation politics, i.e. tribal politics, realignment of tribal alliances (new winners and losers after the destruction of Saddam's patronage network) and emergence of different tribal centers of power in Anbar. It takes time for events to play themselves out especially in Anbar... something our fast food culture is prone to forget.

r/
MAC

That's not even remotely true.

The narrative wasn't that Anbar was a mess that no one could sort out. There was a contested narrative that played out in all the newspapers. Those who were in combat in Anbar in March of 2006 (I raise my hand) also didn't know what the results would be of innovations with COPs and the IA and nibbles from potentially interested shiekhs.

Many of these experiments were taking place at the most local levels, often through the MiTT, and the results weren't in. Niel Smith would be the first to tell you that any narrative that suggested Anbar was falling into place in early 2006 would have been inane.

Owen West is coming out soon with a book about that very subject (and it's very, very good), looking at Khalidiyah, midway between Fallujah and Ramadi.

Much like his father's work on Vietnam, it will be a classic in the COIN literature.

Bill:

Sadly your close analysis of the Surge and its effects combined with local conditions on the ground usually do not make their way into newspaper articles etc. Instead we are provided with the standard trope that the Surge was the primary cause of the reduction of violence because the American Army started doing things differently as a result and was led by better generals.

Certain senior Army generals to be sure embrace and proliferate that narrative. One often hears comments by them that they "saved Iraq from a desperate situation."

I agree that the additional Surge brigades played an important role; but not in the dominant narrative sense that they had moved off of the fobs, embedded themselves with the local populations in the neighborhoods, secured them, and thus began to win their hearts and minds which ultimately allowed the other conditions to kick in. No, the primary effect of the addtitional surge brigades, especially in Baghdad, were tactical in that they sped up the reduction of AQI through competent tactical action and the application of firepower. But that reduction could only have happened with the spread of the Anbar Awakening into Baghdad and the emergence of the SOI which provided the essential ingredient of human intelligence of the location of AQI. Combined of course with the fact that these former sunni insurgents were no longer attacking and killing American forces.

gian

BTW - a point of clarification: getting into when "the Awakening" narrative really took hold in the media, you could point to a few different markers, depending on interpretation:

Spring/Summer 07 was when I recall (as a highly interested observer) seeing an uptick in reporting on the Awakening. Fall 07 was when it really had massive media momentum, exemplified by Bush's visit to meet with Anbar sheiks, and Katie Couric actually walking around Fallujah's market.

@Carl Prine:

The Awakening arguably began in March 2006, when the original Anbar Revenge Brigade came on the scene (and was crushed) by AQI, and then restarted with irrevocable momentum in early Fall 06. The corresponding reports you post are notable, but you juxtapose them with the timeliness of Michaels' reporting, which I think can be viewed as a separate issue from the argument he is making: that the media is behind the curve.

I'm not interested in commenting on Michaels - don't really know the man. But specifically to the point addressed above in the SWJ post, which restates Michaels' overall point:

We're talking about narratives. In the case of Anbar, the narrative that dominated the media until Summer 2007 (to be generous, late Spring) was that Anbar was an irredeemable mess. Much of this is exemplified by following the lead on Ricks' *interpretation* of Devlin's leaked report in Fall 06. This is actually kind of understandable, because the province was indeed a mess, especially if you monitored violence trends (which peaked in ~3/07). But then, suddenly ... very suddenly ... it wasn't.

So the issue is the failure to dig in and contextualize reports of what was going on. What did it all mean? How significant was it? What were the underlying political changes that led this rapid change in violence?

This is more a failure of analysis than raw data. And when one uses shorthand for "the media," we are necessarily speaking of the dominant media narrative. As in, what impression do most reasonable people come away with when they read the whole of the WaPo, NYT, etc. Iraq coverage during a period of time.

What seems to be the other bent in your comment is the fact that the Surge narrative is taking too much credit from the local security efforts, and a simplistic US media is buying this line. I'm sympathetic to this point.

But turning 180 degrees away from the thing we both disagree with doesn't necessarily lead in the right direction. The local security efforts would have gone nowhere without the Surge and, more importantly in Anbar, the change in strategy and tactics. In fact, the early defeat of the tribes who fought AQI without us is an illustrative test case for my point.

The surge capitalized on local trends. The surge would have failed in the narrow political timeframe without those local trends (this is why its application to Afghanistan is problematic, but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax). Many brave Iraqis stood up and took responsibility for expelling the worst elements of the insurgency, some for noble reasons, many for existential, cultural and business ones.

But those local trends would have withered on the vine into more of the splintered gang war that had gripped Iraq for years without the surge.

The articles assertions are so broad, both in scope and time, that it cant really be evaluated. The media was in front of the military in some areas . Remember the ridiculous debate in 2004 over whether there was a civil war? What about the reporting on the reporting on the post-invasion anarchy that clashed so much with Rumsfelds "stuff happens? It was behind in others. I dont think the importance of the Awakening was one of those. The debate over the strategic importance of Afghanistan and counterinsurgency, in general -- going on for years but just now entering the mainstream narrative -- seems to me to be a much better example. In either case, sweeping statements like this articles obscure as much as they enlighten.

They can, however, force us to rethink the current environment. And taking this opportunity, we can find systemic problems, albeit different ones than those the author noted. The central problem is beat-specific reporters covering a multifaceted conflict. Military reporters cover the military part well, regional reporters get the local reaction well, and D.C. reporters covered the effect of the war on domestic politics well. But too often they dont do a great job crossing over to differing beats. This shouldnt be surprising, as we expect stateside reporters to specialize for a reason. Yet covering conflict is expensive and something necessarily suffers when news organizations cant afford to set up a comprehensive newsroom that matches their stateside organization. This is one piece of that.

The second problem is that despite all the various types of reporters, no one has the local government beat. The NYT and others dont have regularly attending NAC and DAC meetings (impotent and artificial as their actual power is), visiting with beladiyas leaders or following up on provincial council business. Its perceived as too micro for an audience that can barely stomach the macro.

Even if there were a willing audience, youd need an army of reporters to do this well. Small American communities have an ever-increasingly difficult times supporting their local newspapers. I can't stress enough my respect for the Iraqi journalists who put so much on the line. They have truly borne the brunt of the sacrifice and hardship among the media. But there werent anywhere near enough of them until at least late 2008.

Many local journalists were also inexperienced reporters fighting a steep learning curve made all the steeper because of Iraqs violence. A significant portion were trained by contractors, military public relations teams and other advisors who are traditionally facing off against journalists not acting as their mentors. The government came to understand the hard work that goes into standing up the Iraqi military, government institutions and local businesses. Standing up a free and independent press corps is just as difficult.

And of course, Western media did make widespread use of local journalists -- especially through the roughest years when it was difficult for westerners to travel around the country without the military. Look at the bylines at the bottom of the stories. The AP couldn't name some of its Pulitzer Prize winners because of the threat to their lives. But again, Iraq didn't have a broad network of news agencies that compares to west's -- even with the current decline of news outlets.

The lesson here is as important for peacetime nations as it is for those torn by conflict: News suffers when you don't have that filter-up capability.

The most important story of 2005-06 was the various Iraqi civil wars. To suggest otherwise is idiotic.

The various media did NOT miss the Anbar Awakening. What they missed was the 2007 emphasis on taking the lessons learned in Anbar and making the policy work for the rest of the country (although this has been well covered in books, with the emphasis on Odierno's role in it).

But that's slightly different. Anyway, the reason the various media missed it is because it's not what DoD was selling in the Baghdad AO. DoD was selling the so-called "Surge" narrative at the expense of the Anbar Awakening and the expansion of the lessons learned, which actually conflicted a bit with explanations for pacification.

The very wonderful MAJ Niel Smith, among others, never quite got the credit they and their mates deserved for this and they, themselves, wrote about how the "Surge" hinged in some way on the gains made in Anbar and expanded elsewhere. This is no longer controversial.

Sorry I didn't write about it, Niel, but I was stop lossed and couldn't write about defense topics until Uncle Sam released me, or the terrorists would win.

Jim Michaels has a commercial reason to now over-sell the Anbar Awakening, especially his angle. There's nothing wrong with that, but we shouldn't grant him an objective, omniscient voice on the subject without adding some caveats or attempting to apply a bit of empirical evidence.

My biggest beef with Michaels and most other American reporters remains their inability to give Iraqis more credit for the pacification. Iraqis have been cut out of both the "Anbar Awakening" and the "Surge" narratives by American reporters and the authors of our best sellers.

Case in point, his own writing about the Awakening in 2007.

http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2007-04-30-ramadi-colonel_N.htm

That's Michaels getting to the story SEVEN MONTHS AFTER the NYT ( http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/world/africa/17iht-iraq.2840908.html ), a story that was picked up off the wire and circulated worldwide.

NYT, especially Khalid al-Ansary, continued to write about in the months before Michaels reported on the "miracle" of Anbar:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/world/africa/17iht-iraq.2840908.html

NYT was joined by BBC broadcasts nearly every week for months (representative sample here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6203073.stm), WAPO ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/06/AR200603... ), LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, Asia Times, Al Jazeera, Time (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1572796,00.html ) and on and on and on for HUNDREDS of major media outlets getting to the story.

In 2007, other media writing about the "Anbar Awakening" alongside Michaels' USA Today included the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Washington Post, Associated Press, NY Sun (not, alas, defunct), Stars & Stripes, Ottawa Citizen, Christian Science Monitor, Times of London, The Guardian and blah blah blah.

If the media "missed it," then the HUNDREDS of outlets that filed stories BEFORE or DURING the time Michaels was doing it really are pretty stealthy.

If we actually look at the dates stories were filed, we might waggishly suggest that Michaels was behind his own story.

But I won't say that.

The other thing that should go without saying is that Iraqi newspapers were reporting about all of this throughout 2006 and 2007, sometimes at great danger to the reporters on the street.

To my mind, Nir Rosen might be the only American journalist who routinely mentions what would be obvious to most Iraqi reporters writing about their own country in 2005 - 2007. That includes the causation of both the rebellion in Anbar and its pacification.

Re: the "surge narrative" - it seemed to me Michaels' point was the media missed the pre-surge Anbar awakening, which the "counter surge narrative" now holds is the more significant (than numbers or COIN tactics) reason for lowered violence in Iraq.

If that "media missed it" point is wrong (I say it isn't in any meaningful way) it should be easy to refute. The story was effectively ignored for most of 2006, in spite of being the most lastingly significant Iraq story of that year. As far as narratives go, the awakening was finally 'discovered' in 2008 when violence levels had at last dropped to and remained at a point where that decrease could no longer be ignored or denied - and a non-surge related explanation was needed. (I don't see Michaels' making that particular point though. But I'm confused why staunch opponents of "the surge narrative" would take what he is saying as a threat. What did I miss?)

For the record, like Bill I was one of those people writing "this is important and shouldn't be ignored" about the Awakening in 2006. I wasn't convinced a surge was needed in 2007 - but on that point I'll admit I was wrong.

I'm looking forward to the chat. And the book.

And by the way, in a way, I agree with the above two commenters while disagreeing. What they are correct about: the idea that the media can be victim to groupthink and succumb to dominant narratives.

But some of these dominant narratives turn out to be correct, while others are held on to long after they have been passed by.

The above choices to criticize the Surge narrative are somewhat puzzling, though partially correct. The security success that correlated with the Surge could not have happened without organic local developments that enabled its success. So the idea of simply "better generals and strategy winning the war" is simplistic and incorrect.

Equally simplistic is assigning little or no credit to the Surge, given its unique impact in Baghdad, and the fact that Iraqis themselves assign it credit. I would suggest that those who still doubt build a time machine and walk around Baghdad and portions of Anbar to ask security volunteers and IP/IA if the resurgent US strategy had anything to do with security gains. In my own experience, the answers (surprisingly) assigned a lot of credit to the Americans.

Michaels is correct: large segments of the media were consistently behind major stories.

The Sunni Awakening is the most notable example I can think of. Long War Journal was documenting the red on red fighting within the Sunni inusrgency in 05, and the Awakening itself (tribal flips to work with the Americans) in Fall 06, the latter when the dominant media narrative centered around the interpretation of Lt.Col Devlin's leaked intel report that Anbar was lost. The media picked up the story of the Awakening en masse around March 07, if memory serves.

Significant quarters of the media were also behind the curve on the confrontation between the IA/US and the Mahdi Army in Spring 2008 (though not by 6 months). The dominant narrative was that the IA were faring poorly and that the Mahdi were resurgent and powerful. Thus, it caught many flat-footed when the Sadrists stood down, their political wing was ostracized by virtue of a new government decree against political parties associated with armed militias, and the Mahdi Army suddenly ceased to exist in its coherent historical form.

I was in Iraq embedded with US forces during trips during/near both of those periods, in those areas. On the latter trip, I listened to an AP editor tell a US colonel that he was getting pushback from editors in the States because his stories of post-Surge security progress were "too positive." He countered to that his reports only reflected reality. And indeed, besides the fighting at the time just north in Sadr City, Baghdad had become a remarkably stabilized city, relative to what it was the year prior.

The fact that he even had to make that argument is pretty interesting.

Agree completely with Carl Prine.

For whatever it is worth I wrote a short oped for Army Times in Spring of 2007 soon after my return from Baghdad and argued that based on what I was seeing on the ground in 2006 in Baghdad the media folks reporting on the war like Sabrina Tavernise and Damien Cave they the situation accurately. So I agree with Carl, I dont know where Michaels is getting this notion. Moreover I agree that the Surge narrative has become an elixer for many newspaper writers. It has become the lifeblood of understanding and explanation for many folks on Iraq, and is continuously transfered to Astan. But as Carl points out it needs to be challenged and not accepted faithfully as established fact. Good reporters writing on these matters should probe, analyze, and expose, and not just tell good happy stories of faux-triumph at the hands of better American generals fighting a so-called bad war turned good.

gian

I'm not sure I've read an effort his hapless.

Beyond his obvious commercial entanglements that indicate the need to push a certain agenda, Michaels doesn't mention for a moment the dominant narrative that formed over the so-called "Surge."

He offers no empirical proof of his dismissal of media interpretations of events in Iraq. Nor does he seem to gather even the rudiments of the causative forces of the many rebellions in Iraq and the counter-strokes (MOSTLY IRAQI) designed to mitigate the insurgencies.

The American media failed in Iraq not before 2006, but rather during the so-called "Surge." Reporters and editors bought into personalities and ballyhooed plans without seriously investigating Iraqi motivations or the shifting fortunes of the various insurgencies (the intra-Shiite civil war that baffled Petraeus also eluded most American reporters, and yet was a salient reason for the resulting drop in nationwide violence).

If Michaels is a lamentable example, they continue to fail to seriously address the causation of the relative pacification in Iraq and now he seems poised to continue to champion COIN policies in AfPak he barely understands.

We shouldn't take Michaels seriously. He neither deserves it nor is it good for the media or our democracy to accept his myopic bluster without challenges.

But he's good for the sort of middle-brow rumination that passes today for serious scholarship about war. I'm sure that his counter-intuitive jihad against reporters will sell books, which is likely what he's really after.