The headline in my local newspaper this morning read “Militia Ordered to Keep Fighting; Al-Sadr tells Mahdi Army not to Surrender”. I knew that wasn't true because I had already read on TheRightReasons.Net, that just a few hours earlier, Sadr had ordered his followers to end their fighting.
It’s a tough time to be a journalist. Trying to keep up with the seemingly irrational moves of a renegade militia leader is a challenge in the best of times. Predicting those moves in the complex environment of post-Saddam Iraq is nearly impossible and outside the purview of what reporters should be doing anyway. So as I joined millions of other Americans skimming the headlines of my local newspaper, I could be forgiven for dismissing the contrasting headlines as a just another example of how challenging it is for the media to keep pace with the constant changes of our complex world inside a single news cycle.
This time, however, Sadr’s apparent 180 degree reversal did not come as a surprise to me. Nor did it come as a surprise to anyone whose exposure to events in Iraq isn't limited to reading "the facts" as presented by our mainstream media. As early as four days ago, freelance internet journalists like Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal were carefully explaining that the Iraqi Security Forces offensive in cities like Basra had been planned long before its first activity was noted by the mainstream media. Bill notes in his article dated 26 March 2008:
“The current Iraqi offensive has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army and police have been massing forces in the South since August 2007, when the Basra Operational Command was established to coordinate efforts in the region. As of December the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basra province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province.”
Please note the linked articles embedded within that paragraph. Unlike most mainstream media journalists who simply expect their readers to accept their reporting at face value, conscientious journalists like Bill offer their readers the background information they use to support their points. In this case, the first link is to an article dated 5 September 2007. The next link takes you to an article dated 16 December 2007 that provides a very detailed breakdown of Iraqi Army troop build ups around Basra in preparation for the inevitable requirement to address the dissolving security situation in that city.
Where did Bill get his information? Does he have sources deep inside the Pentagon, or embedded within the Iraqi military? Does he have a staff of hundreds and a budget of millions of dollars dedicated to uncovering the facts at the heart of the complexities of our War on Terror? Absolutely not. Bill is the editor of a non-profit internet journal funded by reader donations. His staff is composed of eight hardworking team members of varied backgrounds and experience. None of them are professional journalists. The information they provide is available to anyone with the desire to find it. In fact, they are careful to point out that all of their information is “public knowledge and published”.
With that in mind, when Iraqi forces entered Basra to begin cleaning out the nests of criminals and terrorist plaguing the city, it should have come as no surprise to the professional mainstream media, with its unlimited resources and funding. Yet, three days after The Long War Journal was explaining that the Iraqi movements had been long in planning, mainstream media sources like the LA Times were suggesting Maliki’s move into Basra came as a surprise to not only Sadr’s militia, but also to Coalition leaders in Iraq and the Bush White House: Questions of timing emerge on Iraq offensive. A report on CBS News claimed the whole thing was done "On the Fly": "On The Fly" Iraq Offensive Surprised U.S.. And if the assault was launched with little preparation, the media suggests it failed even more quickly. Just two days after the offensive began, the New York Times had already declared it had “stalled”: Iraqi Army’s Assault on Militias in Basra Stalls. A day later, CNN’s chief Pentagon correspondent published an analysis explaining, Iraqis’ Basra Fight Not Going Well.
Perhaps our mainstream media was simply projecting its own lack of awareness when it claimed the Iraqi Army offensive had caught our military leaders and the White House off guard. It wouldn't be the first time they twisted their own negligence into accusations of incompetence in whatever target was most convenient at the time. But a closer look at their reporting over the last several days reveals something more insidious. A pattern that transcends negligent reporting.
As I’ve already stated, accurately reporting details and events regarding an environment as volatile as post-Saddam Iraq is extremely challenging. And although freelance journalists like those at The Long War Journal reveal what is possible when journalists actually exercise the professionalism to seek out all the facts, mainstream media coverage of the Iraqi Army offensive in Basra reveals a pattern of selectively reporting only information that makes the United States and the fledgling Iraqi Government look weak and ineffective, and conversely, the terrorists look unrealistically strong. Not surprisingly, while The Long War Journal was documenting a trend that pointed toward Sadr's eventual capitulation, mainstream media reporting was almost universally indicating a trend in the opposite direction.
Such a failure to accurately report the reality of what was happening in Iraq cannot be attributed to a lack of access to accurate information. As the team at The Long War Journal clearly point out, their information is all open source and documented. And news agencies with the resources to insert reporters into teams of Mahdi army terrorists (19 Tense Hours in Sadr City Alongside the Mahdi Army) can hardly claim to lack the resources to accurately report events from the perspective of coalition forces. A review of all of our mainstream media sources over the first five days of the Iraqi Army assault in Basra indicates a common trend of predicting failure for the Iraqi Army, and success for the Shi-ite militias they are fighting. As I’ve already mentioned, some of those predictions were made within 48 hours of the first movements taking place. Editorial pages linked events in Basra to a failure of the surge, an indicator that our efforts to train the Iraqi Army had failed, and of course, that President Bush’s optimistic outlook on the future of Iraq was negligently naive.
Yet, in the midst of an almost unanimous mainstream media determination that the Iraqi Army had suffered an ugly defeat at the hands of the al-Mahdi army and the ever elusive Muqtada al-Sadr, true journalists like Bill Roggio were offering an entirely different assessment. In a 28 March article (Fighting in Baghdad, South Against Mahdi Army Completes Fourth Day) he highlighted the fact that the Mahdi Army was taking significant casualties. The next day, he published the following: Mahdi Army Taking Significant Casualties in Baghdad, South. In that article, using open source reporting, he calculated the Mahdi Army had already lost 2% of its fighting force. And finally, today he was able to report ”Sadr Orders Followers to End Fighting”
While the mainstream media was falling all over itself to report doom and failure in Iraq, real journalists like Bill Roggio were quietly gathering all the information available and documenting very well referenced and supported conclusions culminating in the unsurprising news that Sadr was calling it quits in the midst of his own media declared "victory".
It is clear what drives people like Roggio to publish factual reports of our War on Terror. He explains his driving goal in the opening sentence of his mission statement for The Long War Journal: “The Long War Journal is dedicated to providing original and accurate reporting and analysis of the Long War (also known as the Global War on Terror).” Based on their analysis of recent events in Iraq, Roggio and his small staff at The Long War Journal are clearly succeeding in that mission. And their success stands in sharp contrast to the failure of the rest of the mainstream media.
The Global War on Terror will no doubt be a long war. Currently, the enemy we are fighting has a strong ally in our own mainstream media. While our heroes in uniform take on the terrorist threat, independent journalists like Bill Roggio and his team at The Long War Journal have committed to taking on the media threat. They are fighting their battles with weapons available to all, and they are using them with great affect. As each terrorist group falls to the forces of truth and democracy, our media falls to the forces of truth and the free market. We will know the long war is finally over when truth prevails over false promises. We've got a long way to go, but thanks to our men in uniform, and men like Bill Roggio, we are moving in the right direction.