- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

Humor in Iraq

I admit it. I lost my cool when a fellow editor told me that one of our foreign desk reporters was being savaged in a letter on a popular Web site. I grew even angrier when I saw what had been written and fired off an equally hostile reply.

I’m still upset about the tone of the letter, but it did raise questions that deserve to be discussed more calmly.

The letter writer was upset by reporter Sharon Behn’s article on Monday’s front page, in which she explained how the troops in Iraq use humor to maintain their sanity amid the everyday carnage of Iraq.

“We have been at war for more than five complete years. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have ‘Seen the Elephant,’ ” the letter said. “Yet after all that time, and human experience, how does a piece of fluff with the title, ‘Laughter, Best Medicine in Iraq,’ appear on the FRONT PAGE, ABOVE THE FOLD, in an American newspaper?

“Excuse me, but are you kidding me? Even for The Washington Times, this must be marked as a pathetic low point.”

There was more, some of it related to an egregious editing error in the story but some of it directed at an extremely conscientious reporter who has repeatedly faced grave risks during about 10 visits to Iraq.

“She has been unsparing in her description of the terrible toll the war has taken both on American troops and on the Iraqi people,” I wrote in my reply. “How dare you impugn her because, after all of that, she tried to explain how the soldiers use jokes and horseplay to keep their sanity in the face of all that horror?”

So much for the exchange of insults. The legitimate issue here is how to achieve balance in our reporting when most of our stories are limited, for reasons of design and — frankly — the cost of newsprint, to 600 or 700 words?

Seeking balance

Certainly the war in Iraq is no laughing matter, and no one would be quicker to point that out than Mrs. Behn.

In more than 200 articles over the past four years, Mrs. Behn has chronicled the political ups and downs of the war, the travails of the soldiers, the horror of the seemingly endless suicide bombings and the misery of the Iraqi civilians.

She was the first reporter, to our knowledge, to note that large numbers of Baghdad residents were fleeing their homes in the face of sectarian killings and setting up tent camps around the outside of the city.

But you can’t put all of that into every story. Inevitably some stories will highlight one aspect of the situation and some will highlight another.

One day, for instance, we may report that the troops in Iraq overran an insurgent stronghold, capturing dozens of weapons and tons of explosives. That might give the readers the impression that the “surge” is succeeding.

Another day, we will report that a suicide bomber managed to slip past several layers of security and explode his charge, killing dozens of people. That would give the impression that the surge is not succeeding.

We can — and do — try to include enough context in each of our articles to make clear that there is more to the story. But no single story can ever give a completely balanced picture of the war; we can only aspire over time to report both the good and the bad news and hope a balanced picture will emerge.

Just days after filing her humor story, Mrs. Behn — who still knows nothing of this exchange — filed a story based on a couple of days riding along with a medevac picking up wounded troops in the field.

“The wounded rarely scream,” her story began. “Sometimes they moan, or shake, or want to hold your hand, or call for their mothers. Sometimes they are angry, sometimes scared. But for all of them, the overhead roar of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter with its large red cross underneath means that they just might survive.”

I presume that was grim enough to satisfy our critic.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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