Send in the Media Critics (No, Really)

So, it appears we are engaged in the very debate that the Bush administration wants us to be -- over whether the media in Iraq, consciously or unconsciously, is failing to present the public with the full picture of what's going on there.

On Sunday, CBS's Lara Logan struck back on Howard Kurtz's Reliable Sources, in what has so far been the most impassioned and rigorous defense of the media to date (that it took place in a five-minute cable talk show segment says something about how well they're being defended).

I happen to be of the view that the coverage in Iraq has been stellar. With US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad saying the country is on the brink of civil war; with former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi saying the country actually is in civil war; with a series of gruesome murders that have been motivated by the heightened sectarian tensions; and with the President able to point to only one example of a successful Iraqi city that is itself highly debatable; I find it impossible to believe that things are worse in Iraq than what we see and read. The successes of the reconstruction, moreover, must be very, very few, given that of the measly $18 billion that has been spent, about half of it has been diverted toward security and the trial of Saddam Hussein.

But, despite all this, it is now clear that although Americans don't need a better picture of how the occupation in Iraq is proceeding, they do need a better idea of what it's like to be a reporter over there. A recent CBS poll revealed that although about 60% of Americans believe that the war reporting has presented the situation in Iraq accurately or better than things actually are, people's perceptions are very much colored by their political orientation: 57% of Republicans think the coverage has skewed negative. This may be unsurprising, but that doesn't mean it can't and shouldn't be addressed. Even the 60% of total Americans who think the coverage has been fine is much too low.

So what can be done about this?

On the NewsHour last week, Michael Massing suggested that one way reporters could convey what their experiences are like would be to write more dispatches about their personal experiences over there. On Sunday, the New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman did just that: he wrote about how things had changed in Iraq since the year he had spent away, and, although it presented a rather depressing view of the current state of affairs there, it was a fantastic and highly informative piece of reporting. But of course, there has been other writing on the war coverage. In particular, I have in mind a phenomenal piece in The New York Review of Books by Orville Schell, the dean of Berkeley's journalism school. Schell wrote about the chaos that has enveloped Baghdad and how, as Lara Logan said, it has prevented journalists from traveling around the country. As a result, a kind of "new journalism" (as Schell puts it) has emerged: Reporters are relying heavily on Iraqi staffers and stringers to do a lot of their work and are integrating this reporting with the information they receive from the US military and Iraqi governmental officials. Indeed, the Iraqi staffers have been the unsung heroes of the war coverage; with the exception of a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by Paul McLeary, very little has been said about them, due in large part no doubt to the fact that these brave Iraqi journalists must hide their affiliation with Western news outlets for fear of being kidnapped or murdered. As part of the published article, moreover, McLeary did a series of online dispatches on the experience of journalists in the country.

Unfortunately, forcing reporters to defend their own coverage has not been working well (and indeed, they're a little busy right now). Moreover, too few people read The New York Review of Books, and since its publication almost two weeks ago, Schell's piece has not drawn much attention. And while McLeary's dispatches were great, they were not made available in a forum that would draw much attention from non-journalists. So who can get the word out?

The media critics, that's who. I suggest that news organizations send their best — their Shafers, their Carrs, their Kurtzes and Kurts — to Iraq for a few weeks or even months (longer than Laura Ingraham's eight-day stay &mdash not to disparage any length of time spent risking life and limb in Iraq. Ingraham, paying attention?). The result: on-the-ground-reporting on the on-the-ground reporting. What is it like to work in Iraq? What are the dangers? How do journalists get around and with what kind of security? What is their relationship like with their Iraqi staffers? How easy is it to get information from the Iraqi government and the US military? Are the right questions being asked about reconstruction? What are reporters screening out as not fit for public consumption? The upshot: How is the news produced and is it being done well?

I want to be clear that this is not a mean-spirited proposal. I'm not suggesting this because I think our media critics just don't get what their colleagues are doing in Iraq. Far from it: I think some of them are so great that they could provide a valuable public service by turning their gaze on the reporters there. More transparency in this area can only be a good thing, and it is clear that criticism of the media -- shameful and malicious as some of it has been -- is not going to end anytime soon. Furthermore, this is not the same as suggesting, as Ingraham did, that shows like Today move to Iraq. Unlike her, I'm not sure that the war reporting itself needs to be supplemented; at a minimum, though, I think the public's understanding of the coverage is in need of some assistance. Think of it as journalists being embedded with other journalists.

So, some suggestions. What about reversing the live feed and having Howard Kurtz's Reliable Sources broadcasting live from Iraq? I bet it would be riveting (even if broadcast from a hotel balcony). CNN could air it more than once a week (or on its handy new webpage). Or what about Jack Shafer from Slate? I think he could do a great job of what I have in mind. And if Slate's budget is too tight, how about doing some print pieces for Slate's parent company, the Post, and seeing if a cable news network will air some reports? Ken Auletta and Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker -- both of them would be excellent in the role I envision. Perhaps they could take their impressive long-form written journalism even further. Ditto for Mark Danner and Michael Massing of The New York Review of Books. With the right resources, there are many others who could ably do this job, as well. Critical to such projects would be involving television reports in some meaningful way. The public, unfortunately, does not seem to learn as much from print as they should.

It would be foolish as well as insulting to those already working in Iraq to diminish the amount of danger that faces anyone traveling there. The serious risks alone would be an absolutely justifiable ground for anyone to refuse the assignment, and neither I nor anyone else would have any business criticizing someone who declined such a project. As John Burns of the Times has said, war reporters want to be in Iraq, and I don't mean to suggest that anyone should be forced to go for any reason. Another, slightly less legitimate objection is that of cost. Sure, it's expensive for news outlets to send people to Iraq (I've tried to select organizations that have allocated significant resources to coverage), but it's telling that a publication like the Columbia Journalism Review was willing to send McLeary to Iraq to write and report from the ground there.

What Lara Logan did was a start, but it's time for the media in Iraq to open up a bit more. The people I've suggested and the organizations that might send them could do a great service for the public -- and, importantly, their colleagues -- by giving us an inside look at the obstacles that reporters in Iraq face on a day-to-day basis and the ways that they are overcoming them. The remedy to the disillusionment in some quarters with the reporting on Iraq is not necessarily more "complete" or "balanced" coverage -- whatever that means. The larger problem, I believe, is that the type of transparency and scrutiny that experienced media reporters can provide has been largely absent from the site of the most important story of our time, and the public (and, apparently, the administration) needs help in order to understand the complexity of the job that war reporters do, as well as the compromises and sacrifices that they must make. It's time to fix that.