Journalists have given us the wrong impression about four Middle East wars since 9/11—but how did they blow it so badly? In the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn looks at how the media fumbled the ball in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. In each case, he argues, reporters portrayed Western involvement as humanitarian and over-emphasized its military successes. "More than most armed struggles, the conflicts have been propaganda wars in which newspaper, television and radio journalists played a central role," he writes. But why?
- "Irregular or guerrilla wars are always intensely political," he writes, requiring reporters to take secondary sources with a grain of salt and confirm facts on the ground. Great example: We thought the Iraqi army was crushed in 2003 by US airstrikes, but a closer look at their tanks showed that they had been abandoned long before those airstrikes arrived. The Iraqi army "had simply disbanded and gone home."
- The media oversimplified the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when they "dovetailed with political propaganda" that demonized Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. "The crippling inadequacies of the opposition were ignored."
- Reporters soaked up the revolutionary spirit that prevailed during the Arab Spring, believing that cell phones and Facebook had swept aside ancient Middle East antagonisms. No such luck, apparently.
- But Cockburn defends journalists against the criticism that they just hide out in hotels: "A more substantive charge is that they write too much about firefights and skirmishes, the fireworks of war, while neglecting the broader picture that might determine the outcome."
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