For a reporter, getting a juicy story--or even a memorable quote--is sometimes a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The problem is that such stories (or comments) can often distort the situation, leaving it up to the blogosphere to provide accuracy and context.
Consider this recent AFP dispatch from Baghdad, which was picked up by papers around the world. Reporter Bryan Pearson went out on a nighttime patrol with members of 9th Calvary Regiment, shortly after they learned that their deployment in Iraq might be extended beyond one year. Quite naturally, some members of the unit were pissed, and they shared that frustration with Mr. Pearson:
"We just want to get out of here as soon as possible," said one vehicle commander in one of his few printable comments.
"It's because the Iraqi army is so scared that we have to come here to die," he added, asking not to be named.
"Ninety-five per cent of Iraqis are good but five per cent are bad. But the 95 per cent are too weak to stand up to the five per cent."
"Bush should send all the Death Row prisoners here and they can be killed fighting the terrorists. We've had enough," said another soldier, as the Humvee accelerated past a roadside car in case it exploded.
Another soldier said: "Bush can come fight here. He can take my $US1,000 ($1,252) a month and I'll go home".
At this point, I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of those quotes--or the emotions voiced by the soldiers. But the story also creates the impression that most American troops want to get out of Iraq right now, a sentiment that seems contradictory to other media accounts. Is Pearson simply a skillful reporter who managed to get past public affairs minders and catch the troops in an unguarded moment? Or is he simply being selective in how he covered the patrol and their thoughts.
I'll put my money on that latter option. Consider how Pearson identified his most outspoken source. He's described as the "vehicle commander," the semi-official title bestowed to the highest-ranking soldier in the HUMVEE, probably an E-3 or E-4. "Vehicle commander" certainly sounds more authoritative than "Corporal" or "specialist," and it's a clever technique to make the soldier sound more important than he really is (and I don't mean that as an insult). Compare his quotes to those of his company commander ("We are starting to make a difference), and you'll see that the vehicle commander hardly speaks for his own unit, or the majority of the troops in Iraq. In fact, the closest we've come to an actual opinion "survey" is that questionable Military Times poll of a few months ago, dissected here.
Secondly, I think that Pearson lends too much credence to that recently-released media poll, which "indicated" low Iraqi confidence in coalition troops, and strong opposition to their presence. Pearson claims that "the lower ranks were in a rebellious mood" after publication of the poll, then follows his assertion with another quote from that unnamed vehicle commander. Even a cursory reading suggests that Pearson spoke to only a handful of soldiers involved in the operation--hardly a wide-ranging survey of the troops and their attitudes. Why doesn't Mr. Pearson tell us the number of soliders he spoke with--beyond the four who are quoted--and if they expressed opinions contrary to his favorite vehicle commander? Would that sort of admission change the tone of the article? Pearson never addresses that issue--hardly a surprise.
Finally, I will give the reporter a bit of credit for noting the impact on possible tour extensions on soldier attitudes. In my own military career, I was part of a couple of deployments that were extended beyond their original termination dates, though nothing on the scale of what our troops are experiencing in Iraq. Trust me, there is nothing that upsets a military member more than learning a rotation will continue for weeks--even months--after the date they were scheduled to return home. After receiving that news, it's no wonder that some of the soldiers in the 9th Cav were ready to give someone an earful, and of course Mr. Pearson was happy to oblige.
It's all in the timing. Amid signs that the surge is achieving desired goals--and another poll that showed increased confidence among Iraqi civilians--it's no surprise that we get a media survey with much different results, and the AFP suggesting that troop morale is sagging. Covering the war in Iraq, it seems clear that some members of the press will go to any length to find a dark cloud in any silver lining.