In Iraq, going for the upbeat

TV/RADIO COLUMN

February 18, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Newscasts on Baltimore County-based Sinclair Broadcast Group stations are reporting and airing stories this month that, under ordinary circumstances, would send viewers scurrying to the fridge.

Their journalists are describing school construction and consumer sales and energy infrastructure. They're talking about people getting their first mortgages and the unemployed desperately looking for their first jobs in years. All in all, it's what would normally be considered mundane fare.

But Sinclair's Jon Leiberman and Mark Hyman are reporting from Iraq. And they are presenting what they say are the positive, "untold stories" that the "liberal media" don't recount during constant coverage of the attacks against U.S.-led forces and simmering political unease during the occupation of Iraq.

"What's really fascinating to me is the optimism that so many Iraqis have," Hyman says by satellite phone from Baghdad. And, contrary to what the rest of the media says, he finds they are brimming with good cheer toward Americans.

Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations and editorialist, has been contributing commentaries from Iraq, while Leiberman, its Washington bureau chief, has reported stories.

Much like Fox News Channel, Sinclair positions its centralized news programs as running counter to the conventional media wisdom. In Washington, Leiberman's regular feature is titled "Truth, Lies & Red Tape" - suggesting an institutionalized skepticism toward government as bureaucracy. In his editorials, Hyman has railed against government regulations.

In Iraq, however, Hyman and Leiberman paint a picture of a world where the United States - largely through the presence of troops - has improved the lives of millions, in ways large and small. They have shown soldiers rebuilding and painting a school. Military doctors giving checkups to children. Soldiers raising money for social services from friends back home. (Transcripts are available the Sinclair news Web site, newscentral.tv.)

Before their arrival in Baghdad, Hyman says, even Sinclair stations - including flagship WBFF-TV in Baltimore - had failed to provide balanced coverage, because of reliance on mainstream outlets for developments from abroad. Hyman says he hears the same refrain from U.S. troops and officers: Major American media outlets fail to balance the bad news with the good.

A similar charge was recently leveled against NBC by Bob Arnot, a medical reporter turned foreign correspondent for the network. His contract was not renewed this winter. And, in an e-mail memo disclosed by the weekly New York Observer, Arnot wrote to NBC News President Neal Shapiro to complain that the network disdained stories that publicized the successes of the American-led occupying government in Iraq.

Arnot told the Observer that his coverage from Baghdad offended Shapiro because it "was just very positive." Shapiro could not be reached for comment yesterday, but told the Observer that he rejected Arnot's claim, pointing to stories that he said reflected well on the American military.

While U.S. officials have complained that network anchors have failed to appear in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, which would bring greater attention to the country, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw just spent last week in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His trip was an effort, Brokaw told USA Today, to remedy the absence of coverage of the rebuilding of Afghanistan since the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Reese Schonfeld, a news veteran who served as the founding president of CNN, says the lament of Hyman and Arnot is timeworn, familiar to those who covered Vietnam and every conflict since. "There are good things the U.S. always does," Schonfeld says. "What's commonplace is not news. It can be a great feature [story] - but it's not hard news. "

Andrew Tyndall, who monitors network news as publisher of the Tyndall Report, says the networks actually have broadcast the kinds of stories championed by Arnot. "He's saying [stories of violence] aren't supplemented by a sufficient number of features," Tyndall says. "It's a matter of opinion. It's not a matter of good journalism or bad journalism."

A protest against the U.S. occupying force, calling for a quicker turnover of power to Iraqis, could be considered a positive story, Tyndall says. After all, he says, under Saddam Hussein, such protests would likely have been suppressed violently.

Indeed, transcripts show that, in recent months, NBC Nightly News has aired stories on an American girl who traveled to a Baghdad suburb to see the ailing Iraqi grandmother she had never met; an Iraqi athlete who hopes to compete in this year's Olympics; and the increase in weddings that have taken place since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Not altogether different from some of Leiberman stories. On Friday, he told viewers, "If you think only bad news comes out of Iraq it [can] take a little bit of digging to find good news."

Hyman says American reporters for major media outlets stay almost exclusively in the safe Baghdad zone behind U.S. tanks and Iraqi security posts. "Hopefully, what we've done is given our viewers more of a sense of what's happening, beyond `There was a car-bombing today,'" Hyman said.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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