The Poignant Press

American media people often seem, deep down, to be rooting for the Iraq mission

As long as there's bad news in Iraq, we can count on this White House to remind us there's good news, too, and to regret—bitterly, bitterly— that it just ain't gettin' out.

The president did it last month with his declaration that because the media were, in his view, filtering out the happy side of life in Iraq, he'd decided it was necessary to "go over the heads of the filter." A few weeks later, in an interview with the Defense secretary, Fox News anchor Brit Hume suggested a man of Donald Rumsfeld's experience in government should hardly be surprised by what Hume called "a hostile press."

"Look, we're in a war," Rumsfeld replied, "and it's tough, and it's dangerous, and no one's trying to put a smiley face on anything. But by golly, when you've got that many Iraqis, 100,000, now providing for their own security, where you have a Governing Council and a bunch of ministers, and you have a central bank and you have a new currency, and you have all the universities and colleges open, and the hospitals are open, and there was not a humanitarian crisis—sitting around wringing your hands and saying, 'It's horrible, it's horrible, everything's terrible,' is nonsense. It isn't all terrible. There's some darn good stuff happening."

The problem, of course, is that the darn bad stuff is ramping up every week. People are not idiots: They know what's news and what isn't. "Iraqi Colleges Open" can never compete with "Two Black Hawks Collide and Crash; 17 Soldiers Killed in Worst Loss of Life for U.S. Military," as one wire story last weekend put it.

To me, what's consistently stunning about the Iraq coverage is how hard journalists are trying, even in the face of such disasters, to capture the rays of sunshine in postwar Iraq. This was happening before Bush had his "filter" moment, and it's happening still. Far from being the naysayers the White House says they are, American media people often seem, way down in their heart of hearts, to be rooting for the mission in Iraq. Sometimes, the effort is downright poignant.

As I wrote the last few sentences, I could hear the howls from the White House. I wonder, did they even open their New York Times on October 26, just days before Rumsfeld issued his "darn good" complaint, and notice the headline: "Iraqis Get Used to Life Without Hussein, and Many Find They Like It"? Digging into the story, readers learned, among other things, that "when school reopened on Oct. 1, hundreds of parents, afraid for their children, waited out front at the end of the day to walk their children home. Now very few do. On Friday evening, the American authorities lifted the curfew on Baghdad starting early Sunday morning, saying life here was returning to normal. Across the city on Saturday, numerous Iraqis agreed and provided ample evidence. Streets swarmed with people shopping and socializing. Coffee houses were packed. Families strolled; vendors clogged the sidewalks."

True, that story ran far away from the front page, deep inside the front section. But considering what's happened in Iraq since it appeared, you might conclude it deserved to be buried.

Last Sunday, The Times ran another Iraq piece far more prominently. It was by John F. Burns, the reporter who covered the war itself with such precision and grace. Now he was in Baghdad again, recording his impressions of postwar Iraq in an essay of about 2,000 words, spread across the front of the Week in Review section. It opened: "To return to Baghdad after six months is to encounter a country at once dispiriting and yet, in spite of all, still hopeful, if flaggingly so."

That's a complicated word portrait. Knowing Burns's work, I'm confident it represents something quite close to the truth. To hear the president and his people, you would think the media care only for the dark side of postwar Iraq. If that's true, why even mention the hopefulness? Why spend so much time, as Burns does, sifting for nuggets of optimism?

More broadly, why would any media person, disaster addicts that we are, want to see a success story in Iraq? Lots of reasons.

First, we've been in on this war since before it even began. The policy debate last fall and winter was complex and often rancorous, but in the end, countless leading media figures and institutions bought the administration's core argument that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein was a just cause.

Second, the profession's enthusiastic response to the embed program made the media virtually comrades in arms with the warriors and, in a real way, complicit. Journalists did their best to keep their distance, but let's face it: There was a patriotic subtext to the coverage. The United States was trying to rid the world of a horrible dictator, and the media were along for the glorious ride.

Third, journalists are hypersensitive to charges of bias. This is why, every time the White House complains about negative coverage, the complaints themselves become a meta-story all their own. Such stories may appear to be media narcissism, but they're also a measure of how much journalists care what the White House thinks of them: a lot.

Finally—how to say this without seeming ridiculous? Journalists are not the hardened cynics they appear to be. The ones I know are cleverly closeted idealists. Those who cover war zones are better acquainted than most people with the horrors of tyranny. They want democracy, freedom, and peace in Iraq. But wanting those things doesn't create them. We're idealists, but we're not good at pretending.