BOB GARFIELD: Since President Bush declared the end of major combat action in Iraq, the news has not been good. Saddam uncaptured, murderous bombings, power outages, political chaos, American soldiers ambushed and killed, it seems, every day. But now one Democratic congressman is very literally blaming the messenger. In an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Representative Jim Marshall wondered aloud if the media, with their morbid fixation on what goes wrong, are not only missing the larger story of what goes right but endangering American soldiers. He joins me now. Congressman, welcome to On the Media.
JIM MARSHALL: Well, I'm happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there one single thing that you saw that stands for all of the uncovered good news that somehow has been lost in the concentration on the violence against American soldiers?
JIM MARSHALL: As we were coming back, we had to lay over in Germany, and I was put up in a, in a bachelor officers' quarters, and the next morning opened my door and there was Stars and Stripes, and the headline, banner headline, maybe three inches: Iraqi Police Chief Killed Near Paluza. First AD Soldier Dies of Wounds after Separate Attack. And, and mind you -- this is the military newspaper. You flip to the article, and I'm going to estimate that there are 12 column inches. The last three quarters of an inch says this: Later Monday, delegates from the province of (can't pronounce the name; I'm sorry) where Tikrit is located elected their first interim council, the first such election in more than 30 years. The council's main tasks will include reconstruction and resettlement of displaced Arabs and Kurds. And I looked at this newspaper article and I went "Good gosh. Where are our priorities, and what is this doing to our troops?"
BOB GARFIELD: So if you were the grand managing editor of all U.S. media, [LAUGHTER] what would you do differently? I'm assuming you wouldn't stop reporting about the attacks on troops, and--
JIM MARSHALL: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- the notable failures of the reconstruction effort. But where would you be turning your attention?
JIM MARSHALL:At the height of the conventional part of this war, there were 774 embedded media with troops in Iraq. And if you took 774 reporters from across the United States and you put 'em in Iraq now with our troops, very few of them would be assigned to an outfit that was ambushed or that lost a soldier. Most of them would be reporting on things like the reconstruction process that's going on right now. We're actually in the process of refurbishing thousands of schools. We're getting intelligence information there, so there's a gradual increase in cooperation. Those kinds of stories would be the mass of the report. Now, would Americans watch it? Would they listen to it? Would they be too bored? I can't answer that question. I, I know that the media makes a lot of its decisions concerning what it's going to cover based upon what we are willing to stay tuned in on, and that's why in the media they say "If it bleeds, it leads."
BOB GARFIELD:Much of the coverage has centered on the deaths of American soldiers, and concerns itself with the major question of policy and implementation, namely, whether the Pentagon grossly miscalculated the resources needed to maintain security for our personnel in that extremely hostile environment. Is that not at least as pressing an issue for the media to be concerned with as whether the schools are open outside of Tikrit?
JIM MARSHALL: The tendency, I think, is to lump too many things together. How we got there, why we got there, was our planning adequate. But I'm not interested, nor do I think Americans should be interested in going back and arguing now about how we got there. Let me tell you another thing about why a pall hanging over the news is not good as far as effectiveness in Iraq is concerned. That pall is something that can cause leaders in the United States to say things that in my opinion they don't need to be saying right now. That gets picked up by Al Jazeera; it gets shown all over Iraqi television -- you know, when they've got power. What we need in Iraq is Iraqis stepping forward to secure their own freedom. They're going to be reluctant to do that if they're seeing nothing but bad news and, and bad comments coming from the United States, so we need to be upbeat and positive about our intention, about our objectives, and it's our positiveness that can help lead toward Iraqi involvement. More Iraqi involvement means fewer troop deaths for us.
BOB GARFIELD:You're making a, a very familiar argument, because we heard it during Vietnam -- the war that you fought in. Do you believe that the press muzzling itself so as not to egg on opposition leaders to criticize the administration -- do you think that leads to clear thinking in the government? It, it certainly didn't do that during the Vietnam era.
JIM MARSHALL: Let's not talk about Vietnam versus Iraq right now. Look, I'd like to have more balance in the story that's being reported from Iraq, and I think that our country and our politicians are served by making their decisions within the context of a balanced picture.
BOB GARFIELD:You invoked the embed program, and it was a remarkable experiment, but it, it's also received mixed notices. Obviously it got many journalists close to the action, and then, you know, by extension, the world of viewers and readers closer to the action. But it also get them there according to the Pentagon's overall PR agenda -- allowing the government to shape the message and, and people's perceptions of what was going on in Iraq. In a sense, during your visit to Iraq, were, were you not an embed yourself being led from success story to success story by people seeking to impress you?
JIM MARSHALL: Hm. I'm not a critic of the embed program in the sense that you describe, and of course you don't know me. I'm one of the world's biggest skeptics here. And it's true that the agenda that we had while we were in Iraq was one that involved our contact with an awful lot of military commanders and soldiers. But we set the agenda, and we effectively were able to see what we wanted to see, within the constraints of security.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let me ask you one more question.
JIM MARSHALL: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD:I don't know whether you're flattered or horrified by this, but House Republican leader Tom DeLay is using you as a foil to excoriate other congressional Democrats, notably several presidential candidates and, and Senator Ted Kennedy, for criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the war and, and the reconstruction. How does it feel to be a poster child?
JIM MARSHALL: I, I really don't care who wants to carry my message. I believe the message, and I wish I could convey it to every American.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jim Marshall, thank you very much.
JIM MARSHALL: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Congressman Jim Marshall represents Georgia's Third Congressional District. He spoke to us from his office in the House.