As Usual, the NYT Ignores Iraqi Opinion; Anecdotes trump polls on withdrawal

The New York Times failed spectacularly in its coverage of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, helping lead the country into war and only much later (5/26/04) publishing a half-hearted mea culpa. As the near-apology acknowledged, the paper’s failure resulted in large part from its lack of skepticism regarding its sources, most notably exiled Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi.

Despite the mea culpa, though, the Times continues to mislead on Iraq, particularly on the issue of whether or not Iraqis want the U.S. military to exit their country. Once again, that journalistic failure seems to be rooted in the same fundamental problem of overconfidence in the paper’s sources and ignoring the obvious contradictory evidence.

An article by Times reporter Stephen Farrell headlined, “Should U.S. Forces Withdraw From Iraq? The Iraqis Have a Few Opinions” (9/9/08) serves as a recent example. The piece, which also kicked off a special series on “the debate among ordinary Iraqis over the presence of American troops” that ran in the Times’ online blog section, purported to bring readers insight into Iraqi opinion on withdrawal. “As Iraqi and American diplomats negotiate a deal for American troops to stay in Iraq, or not, Iraqis are also debating the issue,” Farrell wrote—as though there is a great deal of debate among Iraqis about whether they prefer that their country continue to be occupied.

The Times reporter split Iraqis into “three categories” of opinion, with only one actually supporting the withdrawal of occupation forces. Besides a group that “simply [wants] the Americans to leave, period,” Farrell described one pro-occupation group of Iraqis that “worries that the brief period of improving security which Iraq has witnessed this year will be vulnerable if the Americans abruptly withdrew.” Those in this group, according to Farrell, “say the United States has a moral obligation to remain, and that continued presence of the occupiers is preferable to a return to rule by gangs and militias.”

Farrell described the other pro-occupation group as sharing “a common worry, that without a referee, Iraq’s dominant powers—Kurds in the far north and Shias in the center and south—will brutally dominate other groups.”

Farrell gave no indication of the relative sizes of each group, but the Iraqi quotes featured below the piece seemed to suggest that the pro-withdrawal group was quite small: Only two of the ten people who expressed a personal opinion about the troops spoke in favor of immediate withdrawal.

Survey says

Notably, Farrell opted not to include polling data in his article. Perhaps that’s because had he done so, it would have undermined the thesis of his piece.

A poll from March 2008 conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB) for the British Channel 4 (2/24–3/5/08) found 70 percent of Iraqis wanting occupation forces to leave. Within this group, 65 percent wanted them to leave “immediately or as soon as possible”—meaning fully 46 percent of Iraqis would fall under Farrell’s “leave immediately” group. Another 19 percent wanted them out within a year or less, while 12 percent wanted to wait until “whenever the security situation allows it.” (Interestingly, in Baghdad—where Times journalists are based—the number of those who wanted troops out immediately was only 42 percent, while 20 percent wanted to wait until the security situation improves; still, a majority wanted troops out within a year.)

Another March 2008 poll conducted by D3/KA for ABC News and other media outlets (2/12–20/08) similarly found that 73 percent of Iraqis either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed the ongoing foreign troop presence in their country, with 38 percent in favor of immediate withdrawal. Only 7 percent of Iraqis—primarily Kurds—“strongly” supported the presence of occupation forces.

The D3/KA survey, which did not offer a timetable for withdrawal as a choice, found 35 percent of Iraqis wanting troops to stay until security is restored and another 24 percent wanting them to stay until the government is either “stronger” or can “operate independently.” But with respect to the “improving security” that Farrell pointed to as a reason many Iraqis want troops to stay—a result, according to media conventional wisdom, of the successful troop “surge” (Extra!, 9–10/08)—61 percent of Iraqis said the U.S. troop presence was making security worse, compared to only 27 percent who said better. The same survey found that 70 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. and other “coalition” forces had done “quite a bad job” or “a very bad job” in carrying out their responsibilities in Iraq.

To illustrate the U.S.’s “dilemma,” Farrell made references to two previous occupations of Iraq: the failed British occupation during the 1920s and the Empire of the Caliphate under the Ummayad provincial governor al-Hajjaj in 694 AD. The examples presented Iraqis as irrepressibly “fractious” and “troublesome” going back to ancient times; as Farrell concluded loftily, “Names and governments change, but there is nothing new under the Mesopotamian sun.”

According to such logic, chaos, violence and majority Iraqi opposition to the occupation would seem to have less to do with the occupation itself—which has left an estimated one million dead and nearly 5 million displaced (9/18/07; UNHCR, 8/08)—and more to do with an inherent incapacity to accept the “civilization” or “democracy” that a brutal occupation brings.

Unchanging trends

Bylines and dates change, but there is nothing new under the Manhattan sun. A look back at New York Times coverage of Iraqi opinion over the years shows a long trend of ignoring polling data despite their ready availability and their remarkable consistency.

A Gallup poll from April 2004 (USA Today, 4/28/04) revealed that “a solid majority [of Iraqis] support an immediate military pullout.” Fifty-seven percent said the coalition should “leave immediately.” The same poll found that 75 percent of the residents of Baghdad favored an immediate withdrawal. At the same time, a poll from the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies (4/28/04), which was partly funded by the State Department and had coordinated its work with the Coalition Provisional Authority, found that more than half of all Iraqis wanted an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces, an increase of 17 percent over the previous October.

In writing about Iraqi opinion, though, the Times’ Ian Fisher (5/23/04) ignored this data, asserting, “There are still far more people . . . who are skeptical of, and maybe even hate, the Americans but see them as the only way to save themselves.” As evidence, Fisher cited not scientific surveys—as those would have contradicted his claim—but rather a tally conducted by Sadim Samir, a 23-year-old political science student at the University of Baghdad, who “canvassed five neighborhoods” of Baghdad for a “class paper.”

Two years later, Times journalist Michael Gordon, who co-wrote some of the Times’ most misleading WMD reports with Judith Miller and still periodically files stories from Iraq, criticized Democrats calling for a withdrawal from Iraq because, Gordon argued (CNN, 11/15/06),

there are a significant number of players in Baghdad today who don’t mind if the Americans withdraw. These are the militia leaders. They would be happy if the United States withdrew, because, then, they can go and carry out their ethnic cleansing campaign against the Sunnis.

But a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (9/1–3/06) found that then, as today, 7 in 10 Iraqis favored troop withdrawal within a year—not just a small band of “militia leaders” bent on ethnic cleansing.

More recently, 18 Iraqis were interviewed for the Times article “In Iraq, Mixed Feelings About Obama and His Troop Proposal,” by Sabrina Tavernise and Richard Oppel (7/17/08). Again, the Times preferred to rely on the opinions of less than two dozen Iraqis rather than refer to available polling data that would have undercut the theme of the story: that Iraqis faced “a deep internal quandary” about Obama’s support for withdrawal.

The first Iraqi quoted was a general who, when asked about Barack Obama’s plans to draw down troops in Iraq, shook his head and said: “Very difficult. . . . Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: For now, we don’t have that ability.” When the piece mentioned one Iraqi who favored immediate withdrawal, his quote (“I want them [U.S. soldiers] to go to hell”) was framed in rhetoric couching the situation as “complex.” The piece concluded by quoting an Iraqi government official who, having traveled to Germany and seen the U.S. bases there, said: “I have no problem to have a camp here. . . . I find it in Germany and that’s a strong country. Why not in Iraq?”

Writing history by anecdote

One of the New York Times’ chief perpetrators of skewing Iraqi opinion is John Burns. The paper sent Burns to Baghdad during the lead-up to the invasion of 2003, and he served as bureau chief there until the summer of 2007; his perspective on the occupation no doubt heavily influenced the Times’ reporting from Iraq.

Burns, the son of a NATO general, has publicly voiced his remarkably uncritical view of U.S. foreign policy, telling Rolling Stone magazine (7/04):

The United States has been overwhelmingly a force of good in the world. This is very unfashionable talk, but I think this ought to be remembered here. I grew up in a world where the survival of democracy depended on the military and economic power of the United States. If that power became less credible here, I think the world would be a lot less safe. The stakes are extraordinarily high. I think this is a tipping point in the fate of the American empire.

Many journalists with the Times used to regularly report from the streets of Iraq in the early days of the war, before the security deteriorated to the point where most decided against venturing out; Burns, however, was not generally one of them. Those of us reporting from Iraq rarely saw Burns, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, leave the heavily guarded New York Times compound unless he was going on an embed or taking an armored convoy over to the Green Zone to report on the military press conferences that we referred to as the “five o’clock follies.”

When journalists report this way in Baghdad, they put themselves in a position of total reliance upon the Iraqis they hire to send out into the streets with questions; they then have to sift through the answers those Iraqi reporters bring back to find anecdotes to fit their stories. In this way, history is written by anecdote, and this is exactly what the Times does by quoting individual Iraqis or referring to “Iraqi opinion” without citing available polls.

Despite his limited perspective on Iraqi opinion, Burns has repeatedly presented that perspective to the public without caveats, both in the Times and in other outlets—most frequently the Charlie Rose show on PBS—and it’s a perspective that runs counter to the survey data.

“In my experience, the great majority of Iraqis are . . . very loathe to see those American troops leave now,” Burns told Rose on June 14, 2006, shortly before the State Department’s own polls showed nearly half of Iraqis wanting immediate withdrawal and seven in ten wanting troops out within a year (Washington Post, 9/27/06). Burns told Rose a year later (PBS, 7/17/07):

I think, quite simply that the United States armed forces here—and I find this to be very widely agreed amongst Iraqis that I know, of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds—the United States armed forces are a very important inhibitor against violence. I know it’s argued by some people that they provoke the violence. I simply don’t believe that to be in the main true.

Meanwhile, Iraqis were telling pollsters the opposite: 69 percent believed U.S. troop presence was making the security situation worse (D3, 2/25–3/5/07), and they believed security would get better rather than worse in the immediate weeks following a coalition troop withdrawal by two to one (ORB, 2/10–22/07).

As Baghdad bureau chief, Burns’ influence reached beyond Times reporting. When the National Journal (12/9/05), for example, wanted to give readers the “assessment” of the Iraqi people, they cited Burns: “I think you would get overwhelming assent from Iraqis that should American troops be precipitously withdrawn from the war, civil war and escalation of the sectarian conflict already under way would become virtually inevitable.”

Mismeasures and misjudgments

Burns’ piece on the fifth anniversary of the war (3/16/08) gave some insight into the paper’s attitude toward both polls and the situation in Iraq. The lead photo of the piece showed U.S. bombs exploding over Baghdad during the initial invasion, with the title “The Air Show.” The caption read: “The war began with a mesmerizing display of American might. But the United States made a basic misjudgment about the Iraqis’ readiness to share power.”

Burns downplayed the number of Iraqi civilians killed by the war—“tens of thousands”—in another instance of the Times’ refusal to accept surveys when they have to do with Iraq. Burns’ number, the number preferred by the Times, comes from Iraq Body Count, which only counts violent civilian deaths actually recorded in cross-checked media outlets, and supplemented when possible by morgue, hospital, NGO and government data. Estimates based on scientific polling methods, which are widely accepted by the Times and other outlets when reporting on, say, Darfur, placed Iraqi deaths due to violence at over 600,000 in 2006 (Lancet, 10/11/06) and at over a million by mid-2007 (ORB, 9/07). Those numbers do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but even if one only counted women, children and the elderly as “civilians,” more than 100,000 had died violently in Iraq as of two years before Burns’ article was written (Lancet, 10/11/06).

Burns also blamed journalists for failing “to uncover other facets of Iraq’s culture and history that would have a determining impact on the American project to build a Western-style democracy, or at least the basics of a civil society”—facets such as “how deep was the poison of fear and distrust” and the “harsh reality that Iraqis . . . had little zest for democracy.” Again, Burns chose to fault “traumatized Iraqis” for the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, rather than the illegal, brutal invasion and occupation of their country.

And despite his moment of self-critique, Burns continued to do precisely what he faulted journalists for doing in the past—failing to uncover Iraqis’ perspectives. He laid out very explicitly his view of polls:

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

In other words, because they don’t reflect his “own experience,” Burns simply dismissed the validity of all polls (and most reporting!) on Iraqi opinion, and declared his own conversations with a minuscule slice of the Iraqi public a more reliable measure of the opinions of the entire country.

A problematic practice

“It’s a tradition for journalists to see themselves as the researcher to go out and get the story, so that’s their default position,” said Dr. Steven Kull, director of World Public Opinion (WPO), when asked why he thought some media outlets tend to ignore polling data.

Some journalists are not well-trained to interpret polls, so they might be uncomfortable with them. And they might see them as a source of competition to the traditional approach of interviewing people and getting their anecdotes. But a few anecdotes here and there don’t really give you the picture.

Kull also directs the Program on International Policy Attitudes that plays a central role in the BBC World Service poll of global opinion and the polls of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; he gives briefings on world opinion on various issues to Congress, the State Department, NATO, the United Nations and the European Commission.

“The problem is that when these [anecdotes] are at odds with polling data, these are incorrect stories,” Kull added. “The universe of people who may be willing to talk to a reporter may not be indicative of the attitudes of the general population.”

Certainly the Iraqis John Burns “know[s] best” are not representative of the population as a whole; those Iraqis, he told Charlie Rose in 2006 (PBS, 10/20/06), were “almost all on their way to the passport office” to get out of the country—an option he acknowledged was “only available to the middle class, primarily to those who are being paid in dollars.”

Kull explained that when reporters interview some Sunnis in Baghdad who express fears of a U.S. withdrawal,

then a reporter can reason, ‘They are a minority, and the Shia are ascendant, and this makes sense that the Sunni feel as they do.’ But the polling data suggest the Sunnis are eager for a U.S. withdrawal. I think it’s problematic when there is an anecdote reported and there is polling data available to the contrary.

Kull admits that polling in places like Iraq has its challenges, and is imperfect, but hastened to add that when it comes to capturing overall national opinion on topics, there is no substitute for scientific polling: “It is far superior than the method of a reporter going out on the street and talking to people. There’s no question.”