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Swedish television viewers sold short on Iraq

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18:59 CEST+02:00
Swedish public television would do well to avoid casting doubt on a legitimate story of US soldiers and their Iraqi allies uncovering fresh evidence of the horrific criminality of the ousted regime, argues Billy McCormac of think-tank Timbro.

“Death don't take no vacation in this land.” I haven't been able to shake this haunting and distressingly beautiful line over the past few weeks. These devastating words can be found in the second verse of the Reverend Gary Davis blues dirge “Death Don't Have No Mercy,” believed to have been adapted from a long lost Negro spiritual.

The song has been interpreted by numerous artists since the 1960s, though I'm personally fond of the Grateful Dead version. (“Touring” with the Dead, incidentally, introduced me to the wonders of entrepreneurship and capitalism in a far more colorful way than any economics class ever could. But that's another story entirely.)

For U.S. president George W. Bush and his ever-dwindling, ragtag band of supporters, it must seem like Death truly is squirreling away vacation days. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, countless lives have been lost.

Every day we learn of new suicide bombings, roadside blasts, kidnappings, mayhem and brutal slayings. Civilians, innocents, servicemen and –women are gone forever. It literally never ends.

That good news has become a scant commodity in Iraq is scarcely an understatement. This dearth of glad tidings has been compounded by the U.S. military's buffoonish attempts at hero-making—Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman spring immediately to mind—in an attempt to bolster support for the war at home.

Reports of progress on the ground or of heroic deeds by American soldiers have, unfortunately, become worth their weight in pyrite. Indeed, any silver lining remaining on this inky cloud is amply sprinkled with nitric acid to see if it turns green. (Note: metallurgic metaphors officially end here.)

Against this backdrop it was hardly surprising when Sweden's public television network recently aired a highly skeptical segment on the U.S. military's chance discovery of a nightmarish, Iraqi-government-run orphanage charged with the care of special-needs children.

In a routine sweep, American soldiers had found and rescued 24 emaciated boys dying a slow and agonizing death in appalling squalor and unimaginable filth, some cruelly chained to iron beds. The soldiers recorded the grisly scene with a digital camera.

CBS Evening News reporter Lara Logan—a seasoned war correspondent with Kevlar-vest experience from conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan—broke the shocking story, which of course spread furiously across the airwaves and Internet.

And though Sweden's nine o'clock news anchor expressed appropriate disgust and dismay at the images of defenseless children sadistically starved to brink of existence, it took only seconds for reporter Stina Blomgren to call into question the journalistic integrity of the photos. After all, U.S. servicemen had taken them. Blomgren then noted, ominously, that no one knows how CBS got their hands on the images.

Blomgren asked an American journalism professor living in Sweden, Karin Becker, to comment on the journalistic aspects of the story. Becker began by declaring that the pictures were not taken by professional journalists, but rather by men in uniform.

Soldiers, said Becker, view the mainstream media as anti-military and therefore use alternative channels to bring their story to audiences at home.

Blomgren was quick to add that U.S. command is more than happy to portray its soldiers saving innocent children, not least given the Iraq invasion's tremendous unpopularity, the high military death toll in recent weeks, and the ongoing troop “surge” meant to restore order and get things back on track.

The story depicts American soldiers as heroes and humanitarians, the journalism professor explained. Thus she implored the media to handle these pictures—aired by American media outlets and originating with American soldiers—with extreme care. In other words, the orphanage story may be a staged and/or well-timed public relations stunt.

Though I believe a healthy journalistic skepticism to stories emanating from armed conflicts is warranted and crucial, it would appear that this rigorous treatment extends almost exclusively to positive news.

If memory serves me well, Swedish television did not consult journalism professors when the media began airing the stomach-churning images of prisoner abuse at the hands of Americans stationed at Abu Ghraib—photos taken by soldiers. And I'm fairly confident that Swedish reporters did not wring their hands over the journalistic integrity of these images or over how they had found their way into the hands of American media outlets.

But this is beside the point. If Swedish television was so deeply concerned about the origin or journalistic integrity of the story, then why not interview the journalist that had broken it? Unfortunately for its viewers, Swedish television did not interview CBS Evening News correspondent Lara Logan—the one person who could pull back the curtain on these events.

Thankfully, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who “turns a critical lens on the media” each week as host of CNN's Reliable Sources, did just that. Logan tells Kurtz that the source was not the U.S. military, presumptively angling for feel-good spin.

In fact, Logan didn't find out about the orphanage rescue until a week after the fact. The baffled soldiers who had freed the 24 boys had, wrongly, assumed that the media were keeping a lid on the story, but it was U.S. command that had kept things on the QT.

Logan contacted the U.S. military and “hit a wall.” She was told to get permission from the Iraqi labor ministry to do the story because the Iraqis had “the lead.” Officials told Logan to go this route because it was Iraqi soldiers that had rescued the boys.

When Logan pointed out that she had seen no Iraqi soldiers in the photos taken that day, she was magically granted a two-hour interview with an American general. He gave her the green light. That this story was told is a testament to the dogged perseverance of a seasoned journalist.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Swedish reporters should switch off their critical faculties or rubber-stamp good news about America's war effort. What I am saying is that Swedish audiences would benefit from journalism that covers all the bases. A little follow-through wouldn't hurt either. Tragically, most Swedes who saw that newscast are left with an incomplete picture.

On a final personal note. Whatever one's opinion of the war in Iraq, the servicemen who saved 24 disabled from a horrible death deserve respect and acknowledgment. Karin Becker says that this story “portrays” them as heroes and humanitarians. But to think of them as anything else would be callous and cynical.

These individuals represent the overwhelming majority of the U.S. military: honorable men and women willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Let's not lose sight of this fact.

Billy McCormac is head of publishing and communications at the free-market think tank Timbro.

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