Honing The Message In Iraq Reporting
Language and Absent Context Explain Much On Flagging US Public Opinion
By Steve Schippert | July 13, 2007
The devil's always in the details, no matter the subject or issue. And when it comes to reporting, words are everything and every detail. Few Americans pick up a newspaper to analyze events of the day. Unless they are on the OpEd/Opinion pages, they read to simply find out what happened. They pick up a newspaper and read what they read presuming that they are consuming reporting and neither commentary nor analysis.
Yet, what they read more often than not is reporting written in a language that displays the writer's inability or unwillingness to extract outlook, view or opinion from what passes as straight news reporting. And when it comes to honing a message (consciously or subconsciously), subtlety reigns supreme.
It's no wonder so many Americans take a decidedly dim view of the only battlefield in which we are actively (and overtly) hunting and killing al-Qaeda terrorists in large numbers.
Case in point, today's Washington Post article, Iraqi Military's Readiness Slips.
Right from the beginning, including the headline, bad news in an internal assessment is reported as either accepted fact or authoritative information.
Despite stepped-up training, the readiness of the Iraqi military to operate independently of U.S. forces has decreased since President Bush's new strategy was launched in January, according to the White House progress report released yesterday.
Combat losses, a dearth of officers and senior enlisted personnel, and an Iraqi army that has expanded faster than the equipment available for it have resulted in a "slight reduction" in the number of units designated at Level 1 status, or "capable of independent operations," the report said.
That recruitment has expanded faster than equipment can keep up is a significantly important (positive) development that is difficult to overstate (and customarily understated in this media report.) If one employs just a touch of logic, the frenzied pace of recruitment explains the shortage of officers and NCO's, too. Few go to recruit training and emerge as Staff Sergeants or Captains required to guide newly formed or expanded units in my humble military experience. But that's another issue.
At issue is the factual treatment of the bad news as compared to the qualifying statement that precedes the same Washington Post article's citing of the internal report's stated Iraqi progress.
The report's assessment of progress on 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks is likely to fuel ongoing disputes over what is really happening in Iraq. But the fine print in the 25-page document contains some remarkably candid descriptions of problems, as well as qualifiers for claimed achievements and briefly referenced, unexplained new facts.
The power of words on clear display.
"Problems" in the report are not challenged in any way, but even buttressed and supported by the the Post's glowing note of "remarkably candid descriptions" of apparently factual "problems."
"Achievements?" That's another story. They're not even really factual yet, like the "problems" are. Achievements are, of course, merely "claimed." And their descriptions are certainly not "remarkably candid" like the "problems." No, their descriptions are merely "qualifiers," surely not to be trusted and perhaps even manipulated. They must presumably be vetted with exponentially greater veracity than that afforded local stringers. Lest we trust our own military commanders and White House more than a stringer.
One can seemingly understand more about the article's subtle message than the report it is covering, which sometimes seems the very aim of some media outlets.
To be sure, even good fortune has its problems, such as exploding recruitment levels. But don't trust me, trust those whose knowledge and authority on Iraq far exceeds.
The tribal leaders in Anbar came together to negotiate an accord that ultimately produced the Anbar Awakening, an association of Anbar tribes dedicated to fighting al Qaeda. Recruiting for the Iraqi Security Forces in Anbar increased from virtually zero through 2006 to more than 14,000 by mid-2007.
This is the equivalent of an entire American Army Division worth of men, fluxing into the military at entry-level without waiting equipment. The alternative was zero recruitment in Anbar. The consequences of that were most certainly reported negatively, if one recalls the daily carnage reports (sans context, of course) from Ramadi, Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar.
Yet, how the Iraqi security forces arrived at its state of operational challenge - like a lottery winner suddenly besieged with requests for cash - seems to perhaps exceed the comprehension or concern of the journalist - a journalist whom my parents and yours trust is both knowledgeable and straight. And we wonder why they and their friends are so convinced of quagmire and defeat in Iraq?
When even good news is reported without such context and as simply another negative development that does not need to be couched as a "claimed" problem, this is the public opinion you get.
Even General Petraeus openly fears a "mini-Tet offensive" at the end of the summer, where the enemy employs our own media in message domination in order to sway public opinion when he cannot sway true conditions on the ground.
He would be worried much less about al-Qaeda attacks if it weren't for our media's propensity to grant al-Qaeda headline dominance over the successful missions of our own military, of which few Americans can even name or cite. Al-Qaeda's car bomb attacks have very little if any impact on our ability to hunt and kill them in the field, which continues apace. Yet, with the imbalanced prominence alloted to such enemy attacks, the enemy is permitted to eat at public support and furthers a misperception that we are losing in Iraq.
Perhaps Petraeus fears many journalists are anxiously awaiting the headlines supplied by an al-Qaeda car bomb surge orchestrated before his September report to Congress. Could he be blamed?
Language and context are critically important to proper understanding of the conflict at hand. And the disparity between public opinion and the actual situation on the ground in Iraq is the direct result of words chosen by those who make words the primary tool in their tradecraft.
Simply stated, "Words Mean Things."