May 18, 2007

Good and Bad Mainstream Journalism

by Michael J. Totten

I'm a bit slow with the blogging right now because I'm writing two long magazine articles that are taking up most of my time. Once these are out of the way, or at least when I have some breathing space before my deadlines, I'll have some more original material for you.

In the meantime, two articles I read today stand out.

The first is a critique by Jonathan Foreman of mainsteam media reporting out of Afghanistan, which he says at times recklessly damages Western armies fighting the Taliban there.
The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.

The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs as prima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion.
Beating up on the mainstream media isn't a hobbyhorse of mine, though. Some journalists do a very good job. Here is a report on the tinderbox of Kirkuk, Iraq — a subject I know something about — that is excellent. Excerpt:
Sunni-based insurgent groups want to exploit the tension and ignite a broader war, Browder says. The groups operate from nearby Arab villages and often target police patrols or offices of the two main Kurdish parties, he says.

Browder's biggest concern is a large-scale bomb attack on a civilian Kurdish area, such as a market, he says.

That likely would trigger Kurdish leaders to send battalions of the well-armed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga (“those who do not fear death”), into Arab areas of Kirkuk. A sectarian battle similar to the Shiite vs. Sunni violence in Baghdad then could erupt, further complicating efforts to stabilize the country.

Sunni insurgents have been hesitant to cross that line, Browder says. The reason is a mystery, but he says they might be scared of peshmerga reprisals.

“The terrorist organizations know what buttons to push,” he says. “They understand what the no-penetration line is.”


Some Kurdish leaders have threatened to withdraw from the federal government in Baghdad if the referendum is not conducted on time. Al-Maliki's coalition depends on Kurdish support to keep its majority in parliament and could collapse if the Kurds leave.

Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish member of parliament, says any delay is unacceptable. “We're not flexible. It has been four years,” Othman says.
The whole thing is worth reading. Kirkuk gets little media attention, but it could potentially turn into the most violent — and significant — city in the entire country. Several foreign powers in the region have a stake in that city. They don't call it Iraq's “Jerusalem” for nothing. If it truly blows — watch out. Especially if the US is no longer around.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 18, 2007 3:47 PM

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