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Reporting from Iraq: A failure or an accurate account of what's happening?

WASHINGTON—Ever since Cleopatra threatened to have a slave whipped with wire and stewed in brine for bringing her the news that Mark Antony had married Caesar's sister, people in power haven't had much tolerance for bearers of bad tidings.

It doesn't matter that, as Cleopatra's poor slave said in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," "I that do bring the news made not the match."

Today, it's President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and assorted supporters who are blaming the messengers—the news media—for the public's growing disenchantment with the war in Iraq.

As the polls have gone south—65 percent disapprove of the president's handling of the war in the latest Newsweek Poll —the administration has escalated a soft attack on the media. I say "soft" because the criticism usually is artfully couched. It's not that reporters are disloyal or motivated by partisanship. They're either huddled fearfully in their hotels and can't see what's really happening or they're trapped in a definition of news that values only vividly violent bad news, preferably with pictures.

Last week on CBS' "Face the Nation," Cheney said his comments that Iraqis would welcome Americans as "liberators" and the Iraqi insurgency was "in its last throes" were "basically accurate and reflect reality." The problem, he said, was that news reporting has created a negative impression "because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress toward rebuilding Iraq."

So, is the story of Iraq being distorted by reporting that focuses on violence and fails to tell the good news?

Robert J. Callahan, who served as the press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from June 2004 to May 2005, doesn't think so. In an article in the current American Journalism Review, Callahan, who's still a Foreign Service officer, said, "American reporters have faced criticism for their coverage of Iraq, but rarely from those of us who have been there and have seen these journalists at work."

The most persistent criticism, Callahan wrote, comes from people who charge that the media are ignoring the good news in Iraq. He disagrees and points to the saturation coverage of the January 2005 election, when purple ink-stained fingers "became an international symbol of courage and defiance."

Callahan said American diplomats stopped encouraging coverage of good-news events such as the reconstruction of a school because it often invited terrorist attacks that cost innocent lives. "It was frustrating, to be sure," he said, "but prudent."

The truth of Iraq is complex. It's not as rosy as a presidential anecdote about U.S. military success in one isolated town, Tal Afar, suggests. But it's more than the carnage on television news.

Our reporting tells us that it's true that there are areas of Iraq—in the Shiite south and the Kurdish north—where people walk the streets in relative peace. But Baghdad, Iraq's capital and most populous city, and the Sunni Triangle to its northwest are hellishly dangerous. And that lack of security has overshadowed everything else as Iraqis struggle to build a democratic future.

Iraqis have held two successful elections since the U.S.-led invasion, but they're having a hard time establishing a permanent representative government. Though unemployment is more than 30 percent, cell phones and satellite dishes—once forbidden—are everywhere. Baghdad's legendary traffic jams are partly a result of an explosion of automobile ownership.

An Iraqi acquaintance agrees with a majority of Americans that her country is better off without Saddam Hussein, but she says that doesn't mean Iraqis feel good about their lives today. In the old days, in her mixed Baghdad neighborhood of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, everyone knew who the informers were, and to whom they were informing. Now, people live in fear of everyone outside their own families. Death squads roam the streets. Neighbors disappear in the night. Nobody knows who took them, where or why.

A lot of American reconstruction money has been diverted to pay for security, according to the Government Accountability Office. Some projects have ground to a halt. Iraqi oil production remains below prewar levels. So does the availability of electricity. Sewage overflows, and there's little running water that's safe to drink. In a nation that has one of the world's largest known reserves of oil, Iraqis wait in lines a mile long for gasoline.

Through it all, more than 60 percent of Iraqis say they're hopeful about their future. And more than 85 percent want the United States to set a timetable for getting American troops out.

To bring the story of Iraq to you, Knight Ridder maintains a bureau in Baghdad and a network of Iraqi special correspondents around the country. Bureau Chief Nancy A. Youssef, who speaks Arabic, and correspondent Tom Lasseter often are joined by other Knight Ridder colleagues. Our Berlin correspondent, Matthew Schofield, a veteran of several Iraq tours, has just concluded a rotation. They're aided in Baghdad by a staff of a dozen Iraqis: drivers, so-called "fixers" and translators, many of whom have embraced Western journalistic values and become excellent reporters. They're able to go where Americans cannot.

The hotel that houses the Knight Ridder bureau isn't in the isolated Green Zone, where U.S. diplomats and Iraqi leaders are, but it's heavily fortified with concrete blast walls we helped pay for, and it's guarded by an international force of security agents, which we also help support. The hotel has twice been shaken by bombs, once so violently that most of the windows blew out.

Knight Ridder maintains security advisers, former British Royal Marine commandoes who are combat veterans. They're heavily armed. They train the staff daily in security procedures and first aid.

Despite the danger, Nancy and her colleagues do venture out and do find inventive ways to talk with ordinary Iraqis. Nancy says, "When I go grocery shopping, I listen to people's conversations. What are they talking about? And how has their conversation changed since the week before?" Several times, her careful listening has led to stories.

It's a dangerous and sometimes frustrating job. Nancy says, "A colleague of mine described it beautifully. We are living in darkness, shining a flashlight around us and reporting on what we see. Sometimes we see the most important things, sometimes not."

Regardless, each story is part of the fabric of truth.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Clark Hoyt is Knight Ridder's Washington editor. Readers may write to him at: Knight Ridder, 700 12th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005, or via e-mail at choyt@krwashington.com.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO of Clark Hoyt available from the ``Columnist Mugs'' section of KRT Direct.

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