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Michael Ware and the Law of Unintended Consequences

| 11 Comments | 3 TrackBacks

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.

3 TrackBacks

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Excerpt: Why are we losing the media war? It is primarily Western media covering the war for the West. Right?Regarding Michael Ware, Time's Baghdad bureau chief:


I'm not so sure the consequences described herein are all that unintended.

Here is an article of interest on the same subject:


"An Iraqi officer of significant rank approached my translator as I quietly took notes near the banks of the Euphrates River, at a combat observation post named COP Dunlop. He knew I was an embedded American. He had a sense, perhaps, that I was a sympathetic soul, and he wanted to pass along an urgent message.
Why do you people not tell our story? Why do you not say what is going on? Why do you come to our country and see what is happening, you see the schools and the hospitals and you see the markets and you eat with Sunni and Shia soldiers – everybody eats together, everybody works together –you see that Saddam is gone forever and we are free to speak and complain.

You see we are working and eating together and fighting together – Sunni and Shia – you see what we are building here, you see the votes we make as one people. Then you say to the world about a great war and horrible things and how we are all killing each other? We are not animals! We are Iraqis. Look around you! Look!"

Saddam Hussein refused to allow American reporters into Iraq for the Gulf War. I remember a Nightline episode in which a puzzled Ted Koppel tried to explain the advantages of American news presence to a Saddam surrogate. I don't want to attempt an exact quotation from memory, but he finally asked the Iraqi if Saddam was unaware of how important the American media had been in bringing the North Vietnamese side of the war to the attention of the American people, and how valuable it could be to draw on that resource.

Mentioning Hugh Hewitt and Michael Ware in the same sentence should be cause for embarassment. The audacity of Mr.Hewitt to suggest that sitting in the Empire State Building is somehow the same as actually living in Baghdad is more of the chickenhawkery that has infested the right wing landscape. He should be ashamed of himself. But of course, the wingnuts don't really believe in a free press. What they want are patriotic jingos who only report the "good news", as part of the war effort. That's why the wingnuts are acutally criticizing Mr.Ware for having the courage to interview the insurgents, because he dares to tell the truth, truths they on the right don't like to hear. And accusing Mr.Ware of somehow being cahoots with the insurgents is just another smear tactic. The wingnuts give the insurgency way too much credit. Mr.Ware is an honorable and brave journalist who is trying to share with the world what is actually transpiring in Iraq. Instead of listening to the continual "freedom's on the march" drone coming from the White House, we get actually get a glimpse of truthful information. It's sad that we have what are otherwise smart people checking their brains at the door in the name of nationalism.

"Truthful information" is precisely what Mr. Ware admits to CONCEALING, in his own words, in the Hewitt interview. The reason for that concealment? Why, the insurgents might hurt him if he wrote something that displeased them. Again, from Ware's own mouth.

In other words, Ware has said to his readers' faces that he will lie to them, and he will do so in support of fascist revanchists and al-Qaeda members with a long record of torturing and executing men, women, and children, using human shields, murdering people praying and mosques, and other basic violations of the laws of war and civilized humanity.

This is not an inference. This is Ware's own words. In the interview, he would not even ADMIT that the above practices are morally wrong.

But Kougar says Ware is both honourable and brave, and Kougar is... a standard minion of the left these days.

Mentioning Hugh Hewitt and Michael Ware in the same sentence should indeed be cause for embarassment - but not for the reasons Kougar thinks.

Here's what Ware actually said "Well, it certainly affects the way you couch things. It doesn't stop you saying things. I mean, like I said for example, I came across a tape once of Zarqawi himself, on an audio cassette, instructing or giving a seminar to some of his recruits and fighters, somewhere outside of Baghdad. Now this was a tape that was meant purely for internal consumption, for ideological or for training purposes. Now by one means or another, that fell into my hands, and I published it. I published its contents. Now within that discussion, Zarqawi himself showed that there was great division between his organization and one of the leading Iraqi Sunni organizations, and you're hearing him criticizing this very important Iraqi leader. Now by me publishing that, that aired their dirty laundry. As a result of that, he threatened, or his organization threatened to kill me. I mean, one has to be careful about how you couch things, but it doesn't stop you reporting the facts."
In other words, you're careful how you word your pieces, but that doesn't stop you from telling the truth. From the right's perspective, it's perfectly fine for our own goverenment to misprepresent intelligence, plant news stories favorable to them here and abroad, obfuscate about the strength of the insurgency (ie.deadenders), all at a cost of more than $1 billion. But when our journalists bravely report about the insurgency and does it truthfully but tactfully, they are traitors and immoral. The moral ones, in this bizzarro world, are the right wing jingos who sit in radio stations claiming to be on the front lines in the war on terror. If that's not embarassing, I don't know what is. Mr.Hewitt should apologize for such a stupid remark.

MW: That is fairly accurate, and let's look at it this way. I mean, you're sitting back in a comfortable radio studio, far from the realities of this war.

HH: Actually, Michael, let me interrupt you.

MW: If anyone has a right...

HH: Michael, one second.

MW: If anyone has a right to complain, that's what...

HH: I'm sitting in the Empire State Building. Michael, I'm sitting in the Empire State Building, which has been in the past, and could be again, a target. Because in downtown Manhattan, it's not comfortable, although it's a lot safer than where you are, people always are three miles away from where the jihadis last spoke in America. So that's...civilians have a stake in this. Although you are on the front line, this was the front line four and a half years ago.

This is just too funny!

Whole quote please, Kougar:

HH: But more importantly, going to the Islamists, about'll agree with me, they're evil. Won't you, Michael?

MW: Well, I certainly...I mean, one has to be careful that as the Islamic army of Iraq reminded just last week on Al Jazeera, the insurgent groups study very closely everything that we hear, say and write. And given that we're within their grasp, one always must be diplomatic. Suffice to say, it's very hard to relate to the goals or tactics that the hard-line Islamists employ.

HH: Now that's very interesting, because that would indicate that...and I understand it, but that fear is affecting your reporting, or your candor level.

MW: Well, it certainly affects the way you couch things....

Which was then followed by the exchange you mentioned, and Ware's defense of himself by claiming that no, his reporting hasn't been affected. Except that he's just given us a very clear example of the reverse, and hence very legitimate cause to critically challenge his assertions.

Publishing a Zarqawi tape that is uncomplimentary to a politician - that is, an al-Qaeda produced document that unquestionably reflects their leader's views - is not exactly a major offense or revelation. That he was threatened with death reveals nothing except the low, low threshold for threats to media figures. And it is that threshold by which Ware must set his calibration of what "diplomatic" means.

Hewitt writes:

"Parts of this interview trouble me a great deal. Ware is quite obviously a courageous, battle-hardened and determined reporter, but his answers to a variety of questions leave me concerned that the pressure of his circumstances will impact his reporting, and may have already impacted the candor of his assessment of the jihadists and the "insurgents." His refusal to answer other questions of historical judgment and relevance - were the Soviets better off under Stalin or Khrushchev, for example - tell me he is aware of the deep problems with his analysis of Iraq under Saddam and post-Saddam, and that he refuses to engage in any conversation that will inevitably expose that analysis as indefensible.

But the major problem comes from the threat of distortion born of fear, the same problem that we learned plagued CNN under Saddam, but learned only after Saddam was toppled."

For someone who has spent a lot of time with the Baathist/Islamist Paramilitary Death Squads, he doesn't seem to spend a lot of time on their conduct and brutality - which are known and not exactly hidden. As I have subsequently noted myself (links in original):

Ware has a history here - and when you combine his self-censorship because the jihadis might read it with his frank acknowledgement of the role that the insurgents told him to his face they wished him to play, it's incredibly damning. Now contrast Ware's 2005 Tal Afar reports with the actions of and letter from its mayor recently. No doubt his unsubstantiated charges about US soldiers "manhandling" Iraqi women were also a great interview-smoother with his Islamofascist "contacts".

Ware telling us that he's reporting the truth remind me of Arthur Andersen telling us that their audits of Enron were honest and guided completely by professional standards. I also seem to recall them and their defenders taking great offense at all those baseless accusations that self-interest and a desire to maintain a client account might be compromising their judgment, or the performance of their duty.

The bottom line is that you are pissed off that Ware refuses to take a moral stance on the tactics of the insurgents. Hewitt says "His refusal to answer other questions of historical judgment and relevance - were the Soviets better off under Stalin or Khrushchev, for example - tell me he is aware of the deep problems with his analysis of Iraq under Saddam and post-Saddam, and that he refuses to engage in any conversation that will inevitably expose that analysis as indefensible." It's not Ware's job to take sides! Unlike Hewitt and the rest of the rigth wing echo chamber, he is trying to report the facts. I understand the comparison of Stalin and Saddam (although Stalin was obviously much worse), who is the present day Kruschev in Iraq? And your reference to the famous "Letter from the Mayor of Tall Afar" is standard right wing chain e-mail bullshit. There's no way to verify this letter, and I would say it's a little suspect when the mayor was probably installed by us! Gimme a break. Use real references, not GOP chain e-mail propaganda.

The bottom line is that you are pissed off that Ware refuses to take a moral stance on the tactics of the insurgents. .... It's not Ware's job to take sides! Unlike Hewitt and the rest of the rigth wing echo chamber, he is trying to report the facts.

Two points:

(a) What's wrong with being disturbed by someone who won't take a moral stand against terrorists?

(b) As a once-famous Canadian said, "even if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice." Sometimes the side chooses you. That seems to be what has happened in Ware's case, and he seems perfectly content with it. Kind of creepy.

Kougar and Rikki, thanks for commenting. A couple of thoughts:

  • Re: the mayor of Tal Afar's letter, what I know is via (1) George Packer's New Yorker article; (2) having my nephew serving in the 3ACR in Tal Afar confirm GIs' knowledge of the letter; (3) from accounts at The Fourth Rail. I'm not a Republican and what I would know about GOP chain e-mails is limited to what you care to share.
  • I thought the Hewitt comment you quoted was maudlin. In my book, Ware wins the "bravery" contest hands down. However, perhaps you noticed that this post wasn't about Hewitt--I had nothing to say that hadn't been said better elsewhere. The post was about the precedent that Ware's conduct sets for coverage of this war and of the (sadly inevitable) conflicts of the future. Thus, your comments/complaints don't, for the most part, address the substance of what I wrote about. That's okay. But is that because you think this isn't true, or because it isn't important? Or some other reason?
  • The exception is #6, where Kougar downplays what Ware himself said, and what common sense points to: that to get his stories, Ware does have to make deals with the devil. I have assumed that the jihadis are media-savvy, intelligent, and ruthless. That, by my Western sensibilities, they are very willing to behave like moral monsters (e.g. beheadings, murders of reporters for strategic purposes). Thus, that the strategy of theirs that Ware alludes to is, from their point of view, achievable, realistic, and effective. All provided that they can get Western (and Iraqi) journalists to go along with them, by taking the "media battlespace" that they have structured as a given, and not as something objectionable, and very much a part of the story.

I think this has ominious implications for reporting for this and future conflicts. This jihadi strategy requires the murder of reporters to show their seriousness of purpose, and to properly focus the efforts of the non-murdered reporters. I haven't seen anything written here that would change that analysis, or that would show that Ware is concerned about his role in the process.

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