- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Upbeat on Iraq

It was a bit of bad luck for the Bush administration that three car bombs exploded in less than a week in Baghdad just as the president’s aides were trying to get the media to pay more attention to the good news from Iraq.

But that doesn’t mean there are not reasonable grounds for news outlets to ask themselves whether, by leaning so heavily on the latest bombings and shootings, they are missing a bigger story about a country struggling back onto its feet.

Certainly there are “good news” stories to be told and more than a few of them have appeared in this newspaper’s pages.

In the past week, for instance, we carried a front-page story based on a Gallup poll that found more than seven in 10 Iraqis want U.S. troops to stay in the country for more than a few months.

A day after that, we reported on the introduction of a new Iraqi currency — the first in decades without the face of Saddam Hussein on the front — that should help to restore confidence in the country’s economy.

We initially overlooked the story a week earlier when officials declared that Iraq’s electrical system had been repaired to the point where the output was equal to what it was before the war.

But given the amount that has been printed here and elsewhere on electricity problems, we thought this a noteworthy milestone and made it the lead of our Iraq roundup a couple of days later. We assumed it was still news to our readers since we had not seen it reported elsewhere.

There are other positive stories to be told, and we have touched on these over the months: Most, if not all, of the country’s hospitals are back up and running, schools are reopening and local councils are taking charge of their own communities.

Yet day after day, in this as well as other newspapers, readers are confronted with stories about violence and mayhem, giving the impression that no one in Iraq is safe.

Fixated on violence

No matter how hard journalists try to act professionally, we all have our personal opinions on the events we cover, and these cannot help but color our news judgment.

So it is almost inevitable that reporters and editors who thought the Iraq war was a bad idea in the first place will emphasize the stories that vindicate that judgment and overlook stories that make the operation look like a success.

But there is another factor at play that makes it unlikely the Bush administration will ever be able to turn around the coverage as long as even a handful of people are killing Americans and blowing things up. To put it in its rawest terms, violence sells.

This is not a new or unique problem for the Bush team. I have sat through numerous round-table discussions with African visitors in which the same complaint has always come up: “Why do you always write about the killing and violence in our continent instead of reporting on the many positive things that are happening in health care and development?”

My answer is always the same: It isn’t personal, and its not about Africa. A huge proportion of stories we cover from every corner of the world — including our own country — are about death, violence and instability.

As our editor-in-chief often reminds us, when an airplane lands safely, that is not news. A plane crash obviously is.

All of us in this business are competing to attract the largest possible number of readers, viewers or listeners, and — whatever this may say about human nature — more people will read a story about a war in Liberia than about a development project in Chad.

Similarly, there will always be more reader interest in a car bomb that kills two dozen people in Baghdad than in the introduction of a new Iraqi currency or the opening of a new school.

And we will continue to cover those bombings and killings or I will owe an apology to a lot of people in Africa.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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