Friday, May 20, 2005

Walk a mile in their shoes 

In every story I read about the failings of the reconstruction effort in Iraq (and God knows there are many, as President Bush himself admits) - about the slow pace or the lack of real progress despite the effort so far, and about the consequent frustrations of the Iraqi people - I get the impression that the journalists, while in possession and aware of all the relevant facts, somehow in the end fail the grasp the totality of the problem.

Take, for instance, the question of electricity supply. Both the American and the Iraqi authorities are doing their best to make sure that more people have greater access and more reliable supply than before, but these efforts are being continually hampered by three factors.

Firstly, there is the general state of the power grid at the time of the liberation. In one word, it was shambles, because for the last two decades Saddam chose to spend Iraq's oil bounty on costly foreign wars and on keeping himself in style. Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division says that when workers get down to repair a generator or a turbine, they often find they have to do "wholesale rebuild of those items or replace them completely. So the cost is much higher than initially estimated." Reconstruction becomes a matter of repairing the damage not just of the last few years but the last few decades.

Secondly, nothing remains static, including demand. People are complaining that they are not getting enough electricity, but they also want and need a lot more than they were getting before the liberation, mostly because the improved standards of living, at least for a large part of the population, mean that more people are now happy owners of a whole lot of energy-consuming electrical appliances they weren't able to afford in the past. According to General Bostick, the demand has increased from about 5000 MW before the liberation to around 7000 to 8000 MW today. Thus the reconstruction effort has to run to stand still.

Finally, there are the insurgents and terrorists who are constantly sabotaging the grid. These people couldn't give a stuff about the wellbeing of ordinary Iraqis, whom they merely use as pawns in their war, thinking (rightly, unfortunately) that less electricity there is, the more frustrated the Iraqis will be at the US and their own government rather than at the insurgents who are blowing up the pylons and attacking power stations.

And so, in story after story, the reconstruction authorities are portrayed as negligent, wasteful, inefficient or incompetent, when faced with a depilated system, rising expectations, and saboteurs who destroy almost as fast as the authorities build, their work is simply not progressing enough.

It's time for a bit more perspective. My modest proposal: before "The New York Times", or any other major mainstream media outlet writes another negative piece about the reconstruction, they should try the following:

1) move from the publishing ivory towers into disused premises of "The Chattanooga Daily Express-Examiner";

2) accept that your readers now demand that you bring out an extra edition every day on top of the one you already do; and

3) try to do it while somebody constantly keeps blowing the fuses in your office, crashing the computers, and putting spanners in the printing press.

But as ABC News' Terry Moran told Hugh Hewitt,
There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media. One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong. I think that that is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it's very dangerous. That's different from the media doing it's job of challenging the exercise of power without fear or favor
. When the media puts itself in an automatic antagonistic position to the military (and the authorities generally) itÂ’s hard to expect that reporting will be informed by empathy and understanding.


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