What Do We Need To Know About War?

The release of freelance journalist Jill Carroll by her Iraqi captors has inspired a Poynter Institute discussion on reconciling “the tension between safety and story … between personal mission and naïve ambition” in the course of satisfying “public’s need to know.” I would ask different questions: is there any objective way to cover war? Is there such a thing as a just war?

I’m influenced by having just last night seen Control Room, an independent documentary that offers a sympathetic view of the Arab network Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of the documentary’s leading characters, the Iraqi-born Al Jazeera news producer Samir Khader, says at one point that media coverage has to be considered part of the strategist’s war-fighting tools. The American who got the most air time during the documentary was U.S. spokesman and Marine Lt. Josh Rushing. In 2005 Rushing took a job as a correspondent for Al Jazeera, prompting a USA Today story to ask: “Is he a modern-day Tokyo Rose, the nickname GIs in World War II gave to the women they heard on Japanese radio trying to turn them against America?”

But Rushing’s choices, like Carroll’s drama, seem to me beside the point. I wonder whether we in the United States have any reasonable picture of the Iraq war — the battle of armies that lasted a few weeks or the battle for the hearts and minds that continues? I wonder about concepts like just war and asymmetric war, and how it’s possible to tell a fair story when every story requires characters, and the choice or absence of characters gives the piece a point of view (think about the Somali perspective included in the book version of Black Hawk Down).

This may be a digression from the good news about Carroll’s release. And certainly from the point ov view of story-telling Carroll’s captors succeeded only in frightening journalists and further restricting their ability to get any meaningful or rounded picture of events. Perhaps war reporting is a task that defies the normal standards of journalism. One of the Poynter commentator’s makes a reference to a previous column, written in the wake of 9/11, titled, “Truthful Propaganda.” That sounds like an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media