Mark Yost, editorial-page associate editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Knight Ridder newspaper, committed a major boo-boo. He penned a provocative column on media coverage of the Iraq war, observing that from what his contacts there told him — with apologies to Johnny Mercer — the mainstream media are accentuating the negative and ignoring the positive.
Mr. Yost couldn’t have imagined he was bathing in blood and throwing himself into the shark tank. His media colleagues were merciless.
“With your column, you have spat on the copy of the brave men and women who are doing their best in terrible conditions,” reporter Chuck Laszewski at the same newspaper charged in an open letter. “You have insulted them and demeaned them. I am embarrassed to call you my colleague.”
Knight Ridder Washington Bureau Chief Clark Hoyt devoted a column to a Yost roast, taking time out only to slam U.S. progress in Iraq. The column shows exactly why so many believe the media can’t be trusted to cover the war fairly.
Of course, the war coverage is slanted: The adage “If it bleeds it leads” doesn’t halt at the Iraqi border. That’s why when two small shells land in a barren section of city the size of Boston, CNN.com blares “Blasts rock Baghdad near coalition headquarters,” whereas completing an electrification program or water main gets not a column inch.
It was the very obviousness of Mr. Yost’s observation that led to vicious attacks attempting to either show there is no bias or that alternatively there is a justified bias.
One reporter claimed on the Poynter Institute’s Romenesko open blog for journalists that Mr. Yost “must not be watching the network nightly newscasts,” yet that’s exactly what Mr. Yost criticized. David Hanners, another Pioneer Press reporter, insisted the media have no obligation to present positive stories because war itself is negative. Come again?
At the Romenesko site, a charge Mr. Hoyt leveled at Mr. Yost was repeated time and again. “It’s astonishing that Mark Yost, from the distance and safety of St. Paul, Minn., presumes to know what’s going on in Iraq.” Never mind that Mr. Hoyt himself probably hasn’t gone (or surely he would have said he did).
Behold a clear double standard for Iraq commentators. If you attack U.S. war efforts, you may do so all you wish from the safety and comfort of American soil. Conversely, don’t even think of writing something positive unless you’ve spent time in Iraq — notwithstanding that your dispatches may be filed from the safety and comfort of a cozy hotel behind layers of concrete barriers and concertina wire.
One reporter gnawing on Mr. Yost’s right leg and working her way up to the pelvis, Knight-Ridder Baghdad Bureau Chief Hannah Allam, challenged him to go to Baghdad, adding facetiously “it might be too far for Mr. Yost to travel (and I don’t blame him, given the treacherous airport road to reach our fortress-like hotel).”
So she admitted she stays in a heavily protected hotel, which means she’s also in the safety of the Green Zone. She doesn’t say all civilians take the airport road in a vehicle so heavily armored only a nuclear improvised explosive could stop it.
As it happens, I did go to Iraq. I was embedded with the Marines at Camp Fallujah in hostile Anbar Province, nearly lost my life and returned with a colostomy bag as a souvenir. But before that, I walked and drove through the streets of Fallujah, which for some odd reason fell off the media map right after the major bloodletting ended. I reported back on progress in reconstruction of buildings and providing electricity and water to neighborhoods that never before had them. And I can’t begin to count the e-mails I got from soldiers and Marines thanking me for telling it like it is.
Mr. Yost was right: Media coverage on the war is terribly slanted — so much so it may threaten our ability to win. This was much more clearly shown in the reaction to his piece than in the column itself. In any case, it’s astonishing his attackers, from the distance and safety of Washington and St. Paul, presume to know what’s going on in Iraq.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.