Saturday, November 17, 2007

Wash Post Better At Letting Reporters Speak Out

I've expressed the view before that in order for the press to be credible, reporters, within limits, must be able to express their opinions, their full understanding of situations. Speaking in code words and euphemisms is not enough. People want to know for themselves clearly where seasoned reporters are coming from and where they think things are headed.

Of all the big American papers, the Washington Post is the best at this, and it has helped make the Post for the moment in my view the most distinguished paper in the U.S. Many European papers, however, have long been willing to let their reporters clearly express their opinions. The European press, by and large, is freer with interpretations than our own.

This is particularly appropriate to talk about today, because we've just had a new illustration of the superiority in the U.S. of the Post. Specifically, the Post allows its senior Pentagon reporter, Thomas E. Ricks, to say clearly what he thinks is happening in the Iraq war, while the New York Times strives to keep its military reporter, Michael Gordon, under wraps.

Ricks has often been far out in front of other reporters on the war. His book, "Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq," which was published early last year, clearly expressed the view that, due to many mistakes and miscalculations, the U.S. was losing the war. The book was widely read and was one of the war accounts and internal government studies that eventually led President Bush to change strategy, appoint a new Iraq commander (Gen. David Petraeus) and commit a "surge" of extra U.S. troops, which has since managed to turn the tide in the war.

In 2007, Ricks, being an honest journalist, has been among the first to report developments in Anbar province and elsewhere that show that Al Qaeda and other Iraqi insurgents have been forced to retreat, violence is down and the U.S. and U.S.-led forces have begun to prevail.

Thus, it is all the more important that we read carefully Ricks' latest report, written from Iraq and appearing in the Post Thursday that is headlined, "Iraqis Wasting An Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say."

The article begins, "CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq -- Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigance of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than Al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

"In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "It's unclear how long that window's going to be open."

We ignore such a report at our peril, and it clearly shows that the U.S. has to exert greater control over the inept and ethnically prejudiced government of Nouri Maliki, and remove him, if necessary, to see to it that the government which we created does not squander its opportunity to reconcile with some foes in the Sunni community while, of course, continuing to clean out Al-Qaeda operatives who remain in smaller number.

I've taken exception to an L.A. Times editorial last week that said, in effect, yes, we are winning the war, but now let's get out.

This is no time to get out. It is the time to see that we have an Iraqi government that is in line with our views and needs, so that the war in Iraq can be brought, at long last, to a successful conclusion. Our whole position in the Middle East depends on that.

While the latest Ricks report is clear, the New York Times coverage, especially since its seasoned Baghdad bureau chief John Burns moved on to London, has become less clear, and, I fear, the present L.A. Times contingent in Iraq is not seasoned enough to be giving readers a clear idea of all the developments there.

At the beginning of the year, when President Bush initiated the "surge," the New York Times' Gordon was asked on a broadcast whether he thought the tactic could possibly work. Gordon immediately said he did believe it was worth trying, that it might work.

This brought down on Gordon's head the criticism of the Times' public editor, then Byron Calame, who insisted that Gordon should not have expressed that opinion, but should have kept his views to himself.

Gordon defended himself, but, since then, his reporting on Iraq has been distinctly under wraps. The New York Times editorial policy, like the L.A. Times, is to support, even in more shrill language than the LAT, the proposition that U.S. forces ought to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.

I hate, of course, to tell, Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor at the New York Times, this, but Gordon knows far more about the war than he does.

When we have seasoned reporters like Ricks and Gordon available, we need to hear what they think and pay attention to it.

It all reminds me of what happened during the Falklands war when the British destroyer Sheffield was sunk by an Argentine missile. The NYT London bureau chief at the time, R.W. Apple, who was a craven dove and really didn't understand the British character, immediately said this meant that Britain should fold its tents and go home. But Drew Middleton, then the Times' military reporter in Washington and a former longtime bureau chief in London, said he felt it meant that Britain would surely pursue the war and win. Of course, Middleton was right. Apple was a better food reporter than he was a military reporter.

So, of course, it's not only important that we get opinions, but that they be well-based and come from reporters who understand the situation.


The New York Times, however, is very good when it comes to recognizing heroes and outrageous situations. Two of its reports on Friday show this. One was about the young Saudi Arabian woman who was raped and has now been sentenced to 200 lashes as a result. The Saudi authorities are prosecuting her for being in a car alone with a former fiance, when the pair was assaulted by several others. It is against the ridiculously-primitive Saudi law that a woman ever be alone with a man not her husband. The young woman, just 19 years old, is also being prosecuted for discussing the case with the press, as is her lawyer. Now, a Saudi government spokesman says justice will be done. I'll bet. The woman, of course, is a hero, and the Saudi authorities who want to beat her are scoundrels.

The other was a brief about the vitriolic reaction of the Serbian prime minister, the very stupid Vojislav Kostunica, to the report of the U.S.-based group, Mental Disability Rights International, that children and adults in Serbian mental institutions are routinely abused awfully. Kostunica called the report fabricated, malicious and dark propaganda. Unfortunately for the prime minister, the brutal treatment of young children strapped to beds and wallowing in their own excrement had been displayed on the NBC Nightly News by the intrepid correspondent Ann Curry, who, as usual went to the scene and got the sordid facts on camera.

In Serbia, the mentally ill, Curry and Mental Disability Rights International are the heroes, and, again, the authorities are the scoundrels. And we cannot forget that the Serbian government continues to protect, against apprehension for the international war crimes court in The Hague, the commanders of units that massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men at Srebrenica in Bosnia, in 1995, especially the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.



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