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Michael Ware and the Law of Unintended Consequences

On March 28, Michael Ware, Time’s Baghdad bureau chief, gave an admirably open interview with Hugh Hewitt about the ethics of war-zone journalism and its reduction to practice in Iraq. Winds covered the interview on March 30. Reflecting on The Issue of Faked War Photos made me want to touch on this story once more.

When I think of wartime reporting, I’m drawn to the standard set by Ernie Pyle in World War II. Get past the grit in one of his dispatches, and you realize that you're reading a partisan account. There’s no doubt about it, Pyle wants his guys--the Allies--to win.

Journalism hadn’t always been that way, and it didn’t stay like that. The Cold War and Viet Nam swung the pendulum away from “patriotism” and towards neutrality. Aspirations of objectivity can reward in their own way—such as by exposing malfeasance, groupthink, and incompetence among our own leaders and civil servants. But we lose the Ernie Pyles, supplanted by the likes of Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace. Their famous 1989 interview on proper journalistic conduct in combat is here.

There are Western journalists who combine a hatred of their own culture with wishful idealizing of The Other to arrive at an ancient cry, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” While these folks might have been called traitors in the World War II era, today their perspectives are simply part of the discourse. Be that as it may: the description doesn't fit Michael Ware. From Tim Blair's account and Hewitt's interview, Ware is a brave man, and an insightful observer. His first loyalty is to his profession, not to his country (Australia). Ware is the kind of reporter journalism schools are hoping to turn out.

Ware has made his mark by reporting from within the Iraqi resistance. He’s cultivated contacts that have gotten him embeds in armed cells of the insurgency. Ware recounted numerous brushes with death to Hewitt, once being seconds away from a bullet to the brain. It’s a record that Ware is proud of, and one that would no doubt be emulated by many other Baghdad journalists—if they shared Ware’s willingness to taunt the Fates.

But for all that, it strikes me that Ware betrays his ideals as he follows his leads and writes his gripping stories.

For Hewitt’s listeners, Ware described his dance with insurgents. He's aware that they use him to present their story to the world—and in particular, to frame it in ways that advance their military and political plans. Ware notes that the insurgents read the international press very carefully—and they pay special attention to Ware's own work. For as long as he keeps on as a reporter, his life depends on the insurgents' continued approval of his work. They know that. Ware knows it. And Ware's readers know it, too.

In other words, Ware has entered into a contract with his hosts. You agree to spare my life, and to keep giving me access to exciting material. In return, I agree to write reports that portray you in favorable terms. Terms that make you look good even after my sophisticated readers have taken my precarious situation into account.

Why is Ware so solicitous of the jihadis? Out of admiration for Zarqawi? Of course not. Instead, it’s the result of a comprehensive and well-thought-out jihadi media policy. The insurgents have succeeded in sculpting the media battle space through the kidnap and execution of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 67 journalists killed in Iraq, of whom 34 were murdered (by insurgents, one can reasonably assume). The choice: stay in your hotel, or be in constant fear of kidnapping and execution -- or play by our rules.

Well and good for Michael Ware: he’s shown that he’s a Player.

But what about the next ugly insurgency? The one that's going to start a few years from now, in some country with a history of restiveness and grievances that are already making it into the International Roundup, now and then. The one whose future rebel leaders are, right now, studying history as they ponder strategy and prepare for their day. They are already reading Sun Tzu and Mao, of course. And General Giap, and the Marines' Small Wars Handbook.

And, when it comes to formulating relationships with the press, they'll read Michael Ware's dispatches in Time, and the Hewitt interview, with great care and with rising interest. There are some tremendous pointers on how to handle reporters. How to shape the battlefield. What sacrifices must be made to properly run the propaganda war--and who is to be selected to make them, in the service of the Cause.

The mainstream media's sachems haven't figured this out quite yet. Here is Tara Sonenshine (formerly an editor at Newsweek and a producer at Nightline, now at Georgetown U.) in a recent Baltimore Sun Op-Ed:

Most troubling about these reports from the war zone is the chilling effect that conditions in Iraq are beginning to have on journalists trying to bring us the story. The inability to move freely about Iraqi cities has constrained the ability of reporters to find out what is going on beyond the perimeters of their bureaus. The growing security risks have dissuaded some reporters from rotating into Iraq and left others confined to hotel rooms and offices.

I've bolded the author's passive constructions. Who is responsible for these troubling, chilling, confining problems? Perhaps this is meant as coded blame for the Coalition. More likely, Sonenshine is describing the weather--another one of those things beyond anybody's direct control. Not a hint to the reader that these are the intentional results of a deliberate policy of targeting reporters.

In contrast to Sonenshine, Michael Ware has few illusions. Yet the impact of Ware's actions on the lives of reporters working on this and future conflicts doesn’t seem to trouble him. Nor does the encouragement his approach gives to presenting news in accordance with the dictates of one side’s storyboard.

I’ll close with a relevant quote:

Don't forget also that this is an information war. This is a propaganda war. This war, as, you know, insurgents said way back in 2003, isn't going to be won on the battlefield. It's going to be won on the air waves. It turns out it's going to be won or lost on the internet. So these things become critically important.

The speaker? Mike Ware.

UPDATE 13 April 5:10 PM -- The combination of reporters' deals with the devil and the selective vision typified by Georgetown's Sonenshine has ignited another controversy. See The Belmont Club's Corrupting Our Sight 2 for a discussion of the recently-awarded Pulitzer Prizes in photojournalism.

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