Posted on October 14, 2005
Good News Is No News
The daily blackout from Iraq
In justifying the overwhelmingly negative slant on the news from Iraq, journalists use the adage, "if it bleeds, it leads." Let's see if that's true.
On September 26th, the U.S. military announced that a terrorist named Abu Azzam, reportedly the second highest-ranking al-Qaeda member in Iraq, had been killed in a raid conducted by American and Iraqi soldiers. Unless you were watching Fox News, you probably missed it, because TV coverage elsewhere was scarce, if existent at all.
The next day, neither of my morning papers -- USA Today or the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review -- contained any reference to Azzam's killing at all. I'd seen the story on the Fox headlines at 6:30 the previous night, so it can't have broken too late to be reported. Those same papers managed to cover a Monday night football game that didn't end until around midnight.
By the following day, the 28th, the Tribune-Review did run an Associated Press story, which it headlined, "U.S.: Top rebel's death won't kill insurgency." It must have taken the editors 36 hours to think of a way to put a negative spin on the story, but they managed. You'd think from that headline that nothing short of an instant, absolute victory could possibly be viewed as a positive development in the war. It calls to mind the way the national news media tried to dampen our enthusiasm over Saddam Hussein's capture, by admonishing that it "doesn't solve everything."
What's worse is that this conclusion is attributed to the U.S. military, just because Gen. Richard Myers, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that, "over time, they replace people." Variations of this AP report appeared in USA Today and many other newspapers across America, all transmitting the message that al-Qaeda is an unstoppable enemy that can simply regenerate itself, like the alien armada in Space Invaders. However, the entirety of Gen. Myers' statement, as quoted by Voice of America, almost diametrically opposes this "crunch all you want, we'll make more" analysis of our enemies.
"Clearly," he said, "[Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi knows that he is under a lot of pressure. And now, the number two person, the person that is his primary facilitator, the one that organizes things operationally, certainly in Baghdad, and has a lot of responsibility for al-Qaeda finances in Iraq, he is no longer on the scene. So, they're going to have to go to the bench and find somebody that's probably less knowledgeable, less qualified. It will have some impact, but over time they will replace people."
The general made these remarks at a Defense Department press conference, where he appeared with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Certainly, reporters at the AP and elsewhere had access to the entire transcript. Yet their story was not that Myers had identified the dead man as Zarqawi's "primary facilitator" who "has a lot of responsibility for al-Qaeda finances in Iraq." Instead, they took the least significant fragment (does anybody really expect that al-Qaeda won't replace Azzam?), and pretended that it had been his central point. In doing this, they told their readers that Azzam was not a significant loss to al-Qaeda, when in fact Myers had just explained that he was.
Newsweek decided to quibble with Gen. Myers' characterization of Azzam as "the number two person," arguing instead that he was only one among numerous "top lieutenants" of Zarqawi's. Reporters Michael Isikoff (he of the Quran-flushing scandal) and Mark Hosenball mentioned some of the other high-ranking al-Qaeda figures who had been captured or killed over the past two years, only to conclude that their removal has had no effect on our enemies' operations at all. This squares with the AP account, which points out that "[v]iolence has continued unabated."
If the reporting of the War on Terror were at all realistic, it would be the resilience of our own soldiers and our allies that received praise, and not that of our enemies. At the website for the U.S. Central Command [http://www.centcom.mil/], you can find official press releases detailing our military's progress in the war, most of which you have almost definitely not heard about from the media. Here is a sampling of CENTCOM's news from Iraq for the month leading up to Azzam's death:
* Sept. 1 -- "Air Strike Targets Terrorist Safe Haven in Husaybah" -- Marine aircraft destroy a train station allegedly being used by al-Qaeda to store weapons and organize attacks.
* Sept. 1 -- "48th Brigade Detains Terrorists, Finds Weapons Cache" -- Acting on a tip from Iraqi civilians, American soldiers capture a vehicle containing rifles, grenades, a machine gun and a rocket launcher, while apprehending five terror suspects.
* Sept. 3 -- "Weapons Cache Destroyed, Terror Suspects Captured Near al-Amiriyah" -- coalition forces capture twelve people suspected of planting improvised explosive devices [IED's]. Three vehicles filled with weapons are destroyed.
* Sept. 3 -- "Task Force Liberty Soldiers Stop Ambush, Detain Eight in Ad Duluiyah" -- American infantrymen foil an attempted ambush, capturing four enemy combatants. Using information gathered under questioning, they locate and detain four others.
* Sept. 3 -- "Task Force Liberty Soldiers Detain Terrorists Following Mortar Attack" -- Responding to a mortar attack against a coalition base, American soldiers locate the attackers with the aid of a coalition drone. They kill eleven of the enemy, and capture six more, four of whom are wounded.
* Sept. 6 -- "4th Brigade Soldiers Capture Suspected Terrorists" -- In a raid assisted by information from Iraqi citizens, American soldiers capture seven suspected terrorists, a cache of weapons, and phony Iraqi police uniforms.
* Sept. 7 -- "Coalition Forces Rescue Hostages" -- Using information obtained from the interrogation of a detainee, coalition soldiers free an American and an Iraqi civilian who had been taken hostage.
* Sept. 7 -- "Air Strike Destroys Terrorist Safe House" -- a coalition air strike destroys a safe house in al-Jamaril, possibly killing an al-Qaeda foreign fighter facilitator named Abu Ali, who was believed to be in the house at the time of the strike. A "foreign fighter facilitator" is one who facilitates the recruiting, financing and smuggling of terrorist fighters from outside Iraq.
* Sept. 8 -- "Air Strike Destroys Terrorist Safe House" -- a coalition air strike destroys the safe house of an al-Qaeda bomb-making specialist named Abu Mohammad, near Husaybah.
* Sept. 10 -- "Air Strike Destroys Terror Consultant's Safe House" -- a coalition air strike destroys the safe house of an al-Qaeda terror consultant and foreign fighter facilitator, known as "Sheik," who was believed to be inside the house at the time of the strike.
* Sept. 12 -- "Tip Leads Soldiers to Cache in Diyala Province" -- American and Iraqi soldiers, responding to a tip from an Iraqi civilian, seize a cache of artillery and mortar rounds. The soldiers detain a person found digging at the site upon their arrival, and capture three others based on information found while searching the detainee's house.
* Sept. 12 -- "Multi-National Forces Capture Al-Qaeda Terrorist Brigade Leader" -- coalition forces capture Sheik Ammar, leader of a terrorist cell called the Nu'man Brigade, which had carried out numerous attacks and IED bombings against coalition and Iraqi soldiers. A cell leader who served under Muhammad, by the name of Sheik Sayf, was captured in the raid also. Muhammad had taken over leadership of the brigade in May, following the capture of his predecessor.
* Sept. 12 -- "Task Force Liberty Joint Operations Capture Terrorists and Weapons" -- American and Iraqi soldiers conduct a series of raids throughout the country, capturing known terror suspects, firearms, a land mine, and counterfeit police and oil company ID cards and uniforms.
* Sept. 13 -- "Two Terrorists Killed Emplacing IED" -- American soldiers kill two terrorists trying to plant an improvised explosive device. They seize and destroy the IED.
* Sept. 13 -- "Coalition Forces Detain Known Terrorist in Haditha" -- coalition forces raid an al-Qaeda safe house, killing four terrorists and capturing one.
* Sept. 15 -- "Mosul Terrorists Captured" -- aided by tips from Iraqi civilians, coalition forces capture three al-Qaeda cell leaders in separate raids of their safe houses.
* Sept. 16 -- "Air Strikes Destroy Terrorist Complex" -- coalition forces raid a twelve-building terrorist complex near Haditha, which includes one building used as a car-bomb factory. Once the complex is evacuated, it is destroyed by coalition air strikes.
* Sept. 17 -- "Multi-National Forces Capture Key Terrorist Leaders in Mosul" -- coalition forces capture Abu Fatima and Abu Shahed, al-Qaeda's emirs of Mosul and West Mosul, respectively.
* Sept. 18 -- "Tall Afar Terrorist Safe Houses Destroyed" -- coalition forces raid two safe houses, killing six terrorists and capturing four.
* Sept. 20 -- "Citizens' Tips Lead to Large Weapons Cache -- Iraqi civilians lead Iraqi and American soldiers to a large cache of rocket propelled grenades, mortars and TNT.
* Sept. 21 -- "Al Qaeda in Iraq Emir Killed in Haditha" -- coalition forces kill Shehab Hamed, al-Qaeda's chief military leader for the cities of al-Qaim and Haditha, during a raid of his safe house. Another terrorist is captured.
* Sept. 23 -- "Failure to Yield Leads to Capture of 8 Terror Suspects" -- an American patrol chases down a car that had failed to yield at an intersection. The soldiers capture the five occupants of the vehicle, and seize the weapons they were transporting, which include two anti-aircraft missiles and a mortar launcher. While at the scene, they spot three suspicious men at a nearby house. They discover an IED in the house and detain the three inhabitants.
... And these are only the most specific reports from a period of just over three weeks. Omitted from this account are CENTCOM's more general reports of large-scale, organized sweeps which net hundreds of terror suspects, about half of whom are eventually released. If even a fraction of the stories referenced here had received the attention they deserved, there would be little doubt about the importance of Abu Azzam to the War on Terror. It's not as if the Pentagon just decided to parade him around because no other terrorists had been killed recently.
The day that Azzam's killing was made public, Time magazine issued a cover article that asked the absurd question, "Is It Too Late to Win the War?" It's lucky for them that almost none of their competitors felt like reporting the news that day, or it could have made for an embarrassing scene for them at the newsstands.
To say "if it bleeds it leads" does not explain the absence of these stories from the national news. Our enemies are hemorrhaging, physically as well as figuratively. But it seems that American news producers and editors have become selectively squeamish.
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