Iraq War Coverage: Background Reading

July 23, 2011

Readings and discussion questions explore such topics as what it means to be "embedded" and how the media covered the pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue and the attack on Fallujah.

To the Teacher:

The following excerpts from a variety of news sources about the Iraq war deal with a number of issues and raise such questions as these: Why are events as we see them on TV, hear about them on radio or read about them in a newspaper sometimes not what they seem? What is the relationship between the military and the media? Why are there differences between American and Arab media in what is regarded as news? Why can what is left out of a news story be at least as important as what is included? How does the language of reporters and TV anchors affect our understanding?

Each of the following news items is preceded by introductory questions that might help you get a sense of how well informed students are on a particular issue. Following the news items are discussion questions, some of which might also be used for writing assignments.

A. The Statue of Saddam Hussein

Introductory questions:
  • How many students recall the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad?
  • What, specifically, do they remember about the event?
April 9, 2003:
TV film showed viewers a cheering Iraqi crowd in a Baghdad square pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein. The same film was shown repeatedly. But it did not show a full image of the square and the excited masses of Iraqis a TV viewer would assume were there. Photographs on the web did show the full image. "In one small portion of the square, itself sealed off by three U.S. tanks, there's a knot of maybe 150 people." The rest of the square is mostly empty. (Andrew Cockburn, The Nation, 5/12/03)
June 3, 2004:
More than a year later, the Los Angeles Times reported:
"As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel—not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV imagesówho decided to topple the statue, the Army report said. And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking."
For discussion:
Based on the information above, what do you think is the function of an "Army psychological operations team"? Why would such a team want to make the toppling of the statue "appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking"?
Note that it took more than a year for a more factual account of the event to appear. How many students who could recall the event were aware of the work of the Army psychological operations team? What difference, if any, does having that knowledge make?

B. The Attack on Fallujah

Introductory questions:
Much of the information about the Iraq war that you read in newspapers or hear about on radio and TV comes to correspondents from military officials at formal briefings or in interviews.
  • Do these officials always provide the most accurate information that they can?
  • Should they? Why or why not?

December 1, 2004:
"The Los Angeles Times revealed...that the U.S. military lied to CNN in the course of executing psychological warfare operations, or PSYOPS, in advance of the recent attack on Fallujah....In an October 14 on-air interview, Marine Lt. Lyle Gilbert told CNN Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre that a U.S. military assault on Fallujah had begun. In fact, the offensive would not actually begin for another three weeks. The goal of the psychological operation, according to the Times, was to deceive Iraqi insurgents into revealing what they would do in the event of an actual offensive....
"CNN's Aaron Brown reported the story [adding]: 'There is an important and explicit bargain between the press and the Pentagon in time of war. We don't do anything to endanger the troops or operations. They don't lie to us. Each is essential in a free society and each is made more complicated by the information age, but it seems that sometimes in an effort to mislead the enemy the military has come close, very close, to crossing the line and misleading you.'
"Of course, in this case the military did not come 'very close' to misleading the public; they did mislead the public."
—from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting,, 12/3/04
For discussion:
Compare this example of Army "psychological warfare operations" with the one about Saddam's statue.
  • Do you think that Aaron Brown's statement about the "important and explicit bargain between the press and the Pentagon in time of war" is appropriate? Why or why not?
  • Was it reasonable for the military to mislead the public in this instance? Why or why not?
  • If you think it was reasonable, then how are citizens in a democratic society to know when the military is lying and when it is telling the truth? And how are they likely to react to what they read in newspapers and view on TV?
  • If you think it wasn't reasonable, then doesn't always telling the truth make the military's already difficult task even more difficult?

C. Some Headlines

Introductory questions:
  • Who decides what news to put in a TV newscast or in a newspaper?
  • Who decides what words will be used? what pictures? where the item will appear?
  • What difference do any of these decisions make for the viewer or reader?
April 7, 2003:
Some headlines in the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times) just before U.S. troops entered Baghdad:
  • "For U.S. Soldiers, Therapy Helps Ease Battle Stress"
  • "Hope for Missing GIs Gives Way to Sadness"
  • "Rescued U.S. Private Reunited with Family"

April 7, 2003:
On the same day,the Daily Star, a newspaper in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, ran a story with the following headline:
  • "Iraqi Hospitals Offer Snapshot of Horror"
For discussion:
  • How would you explain the difference between the Tribune and Daily Star headlines?
  • Since headlines are what newspaper readers usually see and respond to first, how would you describe the likely different reactions of Tribune and Daily Star readers to "the news" of the day?

D. A Radio Interview

Introductory questions:
  • What is an "embedded" reporter?
  • How is the fact that the reporter is embedded likely to affect his relationships with troops?
  • What differences might this make in his or her reporting?

Spring 2004:
National Public Radio broadcast an interview between host Liane Hansen and Tony Perry, an embedded correspondent with Marines in Iraq for the Los Angeles Times. Perry described a decrepit public housing project on the outskirts of Fallujah that had been taken over by Marines.
To make up for its takeover of the building, Perry said, the United States was planning to spend a half-million dollars on repairs and reconstruction: "They're going to build a soccer field for the kids. They're going to spruce up a school nearby. So we are trying to make amends by money. I'm never quite sure how great an apology money is when you've uprooted people and made them flee from their homes, but the U.S. is going to do the best it can." As for the people who had lived in the unit in which he was staying, Perry said, the Marines had given them $200 and would give them more when they returned....."
Where, Hansen asked, had the family gone? "They fled into rural areas. These are tribal people, so they have connections, extended families. I think they all found ways to live and survive in this environment." A lot had cars, said Perry, "so they weren't thrown down the road and put in some refugee camps. They found places to hunker down. It also took them out of the way of the fighting. Don't forget that once the Marines moved in, the insurgents were rocketing and mortaring this location, so it got them out of the way, too, for their own safety."
(Above two items quoted in Michael Manning, "Unfit to Print," New York Review of Books, 6/24/04)
For discussion:
How would you describe Perry's attitude toward the Marine takeover of an apartment building housing Iraqi citizens? Give specific examples to support your description. What does Perry know about what happened to the Iraqis who lived in the apartment building? Why doesn't he know more? What does this interview tell you about how being "embedded" might affect reporting?

E. The Language of Reporting

Introductory questions:
  • Should a TV news anchor offer his or her opinions about the news being reported? Why or why not?
  • What language would you use to identify Iraqis who are fighting U.S. troops? Why?
  • What language would you use to identify Iraqis who are fighting with or in support of U.S. troops? Why?
  • What difference does it make what language you use?
April 9, 2003:
After the statue of Saddam Hussein was brought down in Baghdad, Neal Cavuto of Fox News directed this comment to those who opposed the war on Iraq: "You were sickening then, you are sickening now."
John Gibson, another Fox anchor, said he hoped Iraq's reconstruction would not be left to "the dopey old U.N."
November 15, 2004:
"And U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to fight in Samarra..." (Washington Post)
November 17, 2004:
"In Baquba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, insurgents kept up attacks on American and Iraqi forces...(New York Times)
November 25, 2004:
Nic Robertson, senior international correspondent for CNN, speaking of American patrols in the violence-wracked city of Mosul, said, "What they are doing has been conducting offensive operations to disrupt the anti-Iraqi forces."
December 6, 2004:
"Wave of Violence by Iraqi Rebels Kills 80 in 3 Days" (New York Times)
For discussion:
  • What is your opinion of the Cavuto and Gibson remarks? Why?
  • In the Post and Times reports, Iraqis supporting U.S. troops are called "Iraqi forces." On CNN, Iraqis opposing U.S. troops are called "anti-Iraqi forces." And in the Times those Iraqis fighting U.S. troops are called "insurgents" or "Iraqi rebels." Since over 90 percent of those fighting the U.S. are Iraqis, why aren't they called "Iraqi forces"? What makes them "Iraqi rebels," as they are designated by the Times or "anti-Iraqi forces" as they are designated on CNN?

F. Coverage of Violence on Arab TV and on American TV

Introductory questions:
Such Arab TV networks as al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera show strikingly different images of the Iraq war from those shown on American TV networks and cable channels.
  • What differences, if any, are you aware of?
  • How would you account for these differences?
September 12, 2004:
"A group of American soldiers patrolling Haifa Street, a dangerous avenue in central Baghdad, came under fire. Another group of soldiers in two Bradley fighting vehicles came to rescue them. They did, but one of the vehicles had to be abandoned, and a jubilant crowd quickly gathered around it. A banner from a group associated with Zarqawi [regarded by U.S. forces as a key terrorist leader] was produced and placed on the vehicle. Arab TV crews arrived to record the event. At one point, two U.S. helicopters showed up and made several passes over the vehicle. With the crowd fully visible, one of the helicopters launched a barrage of rockets and machine-gun rounds.
"The vehicle was destroyed, and thirteen people were killed. Among them was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a Palestinian producer for the al-Arabiya network, who was doing a TV report in front of the Bradley. Hit while on camera, his blood spattering the lens, Tumeizi doubled over and screamed that he was dying. The video of Tumeizi's death was shown repeatedly on al-Arabiya and other Arabic-language networks. On American TV, it aired very briefly on NBC and CNN, then disappeared. On most other networks it appeared not at all."
—Michael Massing, "Iraq, the Press & the Election," New York Review of Books, 12/16/04
For discussion:
  • How do you account for the differences in reporting between Arab-language networks and American TV?
  • What criticisms, if any, do you have of the Arab-language networks? American TV?

G. An Attack on Fallujah General Hospital

Introductory questions:
  • What do you know about the Geneva Conventions?
  • Can you name any specific provisions?
  • What is your understanding of why most of the countries in the world, including the U.S., have agreed to them?
  • Can you think of any reasons why U.S. forces might attack a hospital? If so, what are they?
"Early Target of Offensive Is a Hospital"
"Fallujah, Iraq, Monday, Nov.8—The assault against Fallujah began here Sunday night as American Special Forces and Iraqi troops burst into Fallujah General Hospital and seized it within an hour....Ear-splitting bangs rang out as troops used a gunlike tool called a doorbuster, which uses the force from firing a blank .22 calibre cartridge to thrust forward a chisel to break heavy door locks. Iraqi troops eagerly kicked the doors in, some not waiting for the locks to break. Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs....
"American officials...say the hospital has been a haven for insurgents in what has been a 'no-go' zone for American forces for months. And they have made little secret of their irritation with what they contend are inflated civilian casualty figures that regularly flow from the hospitalópropaganda, they believe, for the Fallujah insurgents, whom they blame for much of the car bombings, beheadings, and other acts of terror in Iraq. In all, there were 160 Iraqis found at the hospital, according to the American Special Forces commander, and at least five people suspected of being foreign fighters, including one from Syria."
—Richard A. Oppel Jr. in the New York Times
"Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict."
—Fourth Geneva Convention
For discussion:
  • According to the report, what seems to have been the reason for the U.S. attack the Fallujah hospital?
  • How would you evaluate this reason?
  • Why are the five people "suspected of being foreign fighters, including one from Syria" referred to as "foreign fighters" but not the American troops, who are also foreign?
  • In this hospital attack, did the U.S. violate to Fourth Geneva Convention? Why or why not?
  • If the U.S. did, what should be done about the violation?
  • Why do you think the Times report doesn't mention the Fourth Geneva Convention in its account of the attack on the Fallujah hospital?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: