I can't keep up with the administration's Iraq candor campaign. On the one hand the president is making a show of being more realistic about the chaotic situation there. "I understand how tough it is," he told reporters at his press conference Tuesday. "You make it abundantly clear how tough it is. I hear it from our troops. I read the reports every night." On the other hand, he and his advisers continue to blame the media for presenting too negative a story. Dick Cheney argued on Face the Nation on March 19 that Americans don't recognize the great progress in Iraq because the media create a false perception by focusing on car bombings in Baghdad and not on all the good things happening in the other 15 provinces.
Then I talk to other administration officials and advisers who are also optimistic about Iraq—not because things are getting better but because they're so bad they have to get better. "This rattled the politicians in Iraq," said one senior administration official, referring to the recent spate of internecine violence. "They know they have to get their act together. Obviously, it's rough right now, but they understand the alternative is worse." The alternative, of course, is complete anarchy. It's a good thing Iraqi leaders didn't subscribe to Dick Cheney's view of reality or they wouldn't be so motivated.
What spurs Iraqi officials into action spurs U.S. officials into press criticism. The complaint is almost as old as the war. In the fall of 2003, the president complained the media filter was distorting the news out of Iraq, and during the 2004 campaign, Bush political advisers told me about discussions in which they flirted with getting into a public debate with the New York Times over its war coverage as a way to build public support for the president. Media-bashing appeals to the president's supporters who have bumper stickers from the 1992 campaign that read "Annoy the media. Re-elect Bush." It's also generally a pretty safe bet for any politician to line up against media excess on any subject. You don't have to know anything about Iraq to agree that cable news goes overboard—we interrupt this program to bring you the Fresno wastepaper basket fire.
But bombs and charred bodies have a certain unspinnable quality. That's why when there is a suicide attack in Israel, presidents, including this one, issue special statements of denunciation and concern. No matter how many upbeat stories one might hear about better electricity or rebuilt schools in Iraq, it's never going to balance out the horror of violence. And it shouldn't. To talk about press bias in response to questions about violence suggests an equivalence between dead soldiers and new hospitals. An increase in the number of positive stories is not going to rebuild support for Bush's policies. What raised his approval rating briefly last year was his effort to embrace the reality people saw on their television screens and then explain why the struggle was worth it.
Press-bashing only highlights the administration's insufficient response to the underlying problem. When the basement is flooded, no one wants to hear complaints about not getting credit for the shiny new roof. It also does the administration no good when its allies challenge the professionalism of reporters in Iraq. Sixty-seven international journalists have died there along with 24 translators, drivers, and other support personnel—more than died in 20 years of fighting in Vietnam. The complaints also turn genuine media efforts to show the positive side of the war into farce when reality intrudes. In the middle of taping an NBC piece about a new school opening, a bomb went off, and as Bob Dole praised Fox for showing the positive side of Iraq this week, the other half of the network's split screen showed a burning truck.
Of course, reporters trying to cover the good news in Iraq face a formidable obstacle … in the continual and overwhelming bad news. Journalists are kept busy covering explosions, mass killings, reprisals, and kidnappings, which a recent State Department report called "a daily occurrence throughout all regions and sectors of society." They also have to worry constantly about getting shot, blown up, or taken hostage themselves whenever they leave their compounds. The perpetually worsening violence makes administration officials feel they have to push the good news to counterbalance it. But it also makes it nearly impossible for the press to get out and see what else is happening.