Thursday, October 05, 2006

'I Wasn't Chasing Blood'

[posted by Callimachus]

Third and final installment in a series written by my friend Kat, who was a contractor's employee in Iraq for almost two years.

She refutes the media's excuse for not covering the Iraq reconstruction. The introduction to the series is here. The series hinges on an interview with Dexter Filkins of the "New York Times" in which he says the media can't cover the reconstruction work ongoing around the country because doing so would be too dangerous to the media.

Her post about that drew a faintly hostile comment from "Bob," insinuating she was just pushing "a larger GOP talking point," implying her work in Iraq was less dangerous than that of a New York Times journalist, and challenging her to prove her right to criticize the media.

This is her response. Part one is here. Part two is here.

[by Kat]

I wasn't chasing blood. I wasn't trying to find the worst things. I wasn't intentionally looking for the right opportunities to stick my head in front of a gun barrel so you could see a splash of blood on your TV. Instead, I was actively involved in trying to produce the good things, and the bad things would sometimes just find me, like they do many normal Iraqis.

I was relatively mobile, which tended to sometimes place me in more dangerous locations than maybe the average Iraqi experienced. But I think it still allowed me to gain a more complete view of what was really going on than any reporter who trapped himself in an armed compound could experience. I also think it allowed me to keep my eyes open to the myriad things that were important, and not isolate my mind just on violence and bloodshed.

I also admit I wasn't embedded with the military. I spent some time at camps by necessity, but I certainly never went on any patrols, and I'm happy I didn't have to. At the same time, I also wasn't making my forays out into the world of Iraq surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. I wasn't the biggest target, but then I wasn't a well-protected one, either. And that's one reason why contractors and those working under them have been targeted far more often than members of the press. We're just easier to pick off because most of us have daily jobs that we simply have no choice but to go out and do.

You can put yourself in my skin and decide how all that makes you feel. Marine losses in Fallujah were, by Marine standards, rather light in historical terms. The Marines who fought there will tell you it was a very violent fight, but they'll also say they had little doubt about what the outcome would be if, politically, they were allowed to win. Dexter was indeed brave to accompany them, and undoubtedly the battle needed on-the-spot coverage. For that, I applaud him.

What I don't appreciate is the coverage that followed the battle. Because after it started to draw down, all those fighting there were immediately forgotten. Instead, the decisions about the battle turned into masses of political BS for the MSM in the U.S., and not a single Marine from the battle ever gained long-term recognition. After the battle, the media crawled back in its hole and waited for the next big, photogenic pool of blood to form on the ground.

Meanwhile, I, the women working with me, the engineers on the road and our few security members kept chugging along doing the boring stuff, and living a lot like the Iraqis around us, minus the ancient social baggage. We just kept seeing the real day-to-day blood and flowers and concrete all mixed together.

So you tell me, how am I supposed to feel? What am I supposed to think about the soldiers who pulled us out of a street during a fire fight, but who didn't make the news? I wonder why nobody knows the names of the people who patrolled that highway to Fallujah, or even why they were guarding it in the first place. Why so few stories in praise of our soldiers, like the ones who didn't shoot us when we drove up on them in the exact same way the insurgents liked to do? Wouldn't it be reasonable to see more of the professionalism they display countless times each day, so that when they do screw up, you've at least got something to reasonably weigh their mistakes against?

I wonder why the driver who shoved me down to the floor when I didn't even know we were being shot at will go unknown to anybody in the U.S. What am I supposed to think for the Marine whose face got blown off in front of Dexter, whose name you don't even know? I wonder why Dexter’s got the hero's book deal while the guy who may have caught his bullet goes unknown.

Why am I supposed to revere these armored, highly secured journalists who only occasionally had to participate hands-on, in the field, under threat, in the actual day-to-day experience of living and working in Iraq? When so many others do their own jobs, under the same conditions or worse, every hour of every day? No matter the danger. On a daily basis.

I have feelings about this, Bob. My feelings are that the mass media is very quick to recognize its own if they show some bravery and accomplish something but are incredibly slow to recognize the bravery or accomplishments of others. I recognize that the media is a business, so members have to choose what they can spend money to do, and what they can't spare the time or money to cover. In Iraq they must also weigh these decisions against safety. Like the police or the military, they can't cover everything, and they can't be everywhere at the right time.

But they have made decisions here, Bob, and some of those might actually be lethal. It is the media's choice to focus on the insurgents' war instead of ours. This war is being fought by our military and civilian contractors. But they're able to do it only through the support of the U.S. civilian population. Knowing your enemy is important, but only if you know enough about yourself for comparison. And as civilians, you've got little idea of your own side's efforts and accomplishments.

If you had any idea of the sheer volume and breadth of work being done in Iraq or the difficulties being overcome in order to complete it, you, too, would feel very cheated by the media you're defending. It is their choice to ignore the accomplishments being made in order to reserve their time and efforts for every bomb blast or drop of blood spilled. It is their choice to focus their attentions on any failure they can find in our efforts, particularly if they can be tied to the present administration.

This last is something that has been impossible for me to ignore, from Iraq, the U.S., Europe, or Thailand -- and, Bob, that's coming from a Democrat. Everything in the media seems to circle around Bush and how he can be negatively portrayed, much as a Republican congress tied themselves in knots trying to dig up dirt on Clinton. It's all wasteful, stupid, worthless politics.

But this time there's a difference. This time we're fighting a war, and to some of us that's more important than politics. Most of us who have gone over there would like to have believed those back here could understand that, particularly the press. But apparently bombs have to be dropping on U.S. houses for it to be clear.

And you'd be a little upset to see the media so self-congratulatory for the occasions when they rose up from their armor-plated cubbies and ventured out into the world the rest of us occupied daily.

I can congratulate Dexter Filkins for his personal bravery and his achievements. I can do the same for other reporters who braved dangerous conditions to bring stories to the U.S. But I cannot congratulate the press on a job well done, or share in their glowing appreciation of themselves for occasional good work. There is just too much important news being ignored and too little effort to correct the problem.

Unlike the contractors working in Iraq, who must produce concrete and undeniable results in order to achieve success or gain even minor accolades, the press doesn't have to meet any goals beyond those they set for themselves. To the MSM, if the majority of the U.S. population doesn't see it, then it must not have happened. And that's the level of quality that you're really stuck with, Bob.