Within the larger debate over the American-led war in Iraq,
the question of the media and its coverage of the war has often
been as contentious as the war itself. Major Amy Connelly
is the commander of the US Army’s 204th Public Affairs
Detachment. From January 2004 until February 2005, Major Connelly
served as the deputy director of the Press Center in Baghdad
and also ran the Coalition Press Information Center. During
her time in Baghdad, Major Connelly saw firsthand the way in
which the media—both in the West and in the Arabic-speaking
world—covered the war in the aftermath of the American-led
military operations that ended the rule of Saddam Hussein. TBS
contributing editor and Iraq War veteran Andrew Exum
interviewed Major Connelly for TBS about the war and the media
in the chaos of Iraq.
Major Connelly, if I can start off with a somewhat general question,
what has been your overall impression of the way the media has
covered the Iraq War so far?
I would say my single biggest impression is that they are not
telling the entire story. But that’s not a criticism.
I think it would be really naïve to say that a legitimate
news agency—and the criticism that people have is that
they’re not covering school openings or the building of
bridges—is going to cover those things when a car bomb
has exploded and people have died. Now, the loss of life or
limb is always the most important thing, even if there
are other powerful events going on. So I don’t think their
choice of coverage is necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t
give the full spectrum of what is happening in Iraq.
But some news agencies say that it’s impossible or at
least difficult for them to cover the so-called “good
news” stories because if they, for instance, visit a school
in Iraq that’s just opening, the teachers will tell them:
“Don’t come here again, because if the insurgents
see this on the news, they’ll target our school.”
The press corps in Iraq is obviously operating under a lot of
constraint. And incidentally, that would probably be true. Overall,
for whatever reason, the whole story is not being told …
but I don’t think their choice of what they’re telling
is necessarily incorrect.
Well, do you think the media coverage has changed in tone over
time with regard to before the invasion, during the invasion,
and now during what I guess we can call the state-building phase?
prior to US forces going into Iraq, and prior to the liberation
of Baghdad, I can’t really speak to the media’s
coverage, because at the time I was still part of the media
audience. I arrived [in Iraq] about six months into it. And
I can say that coverage evolved while I was there.
In what way?
There was a lot more coverage of the political process they’re
trying to establish in Iraq. What became very important were
the political structures they’re trying to put into place.
And so there was more focus on that. For example, Al Iraqiyya
elected to function as the C-SPAN of the National Assembly.(1)
And since they were an Iraqi-run station, other stations starting
picking up on their feed. At first, they weren’t the most
technologically advanced news network. But they advanced with
the help of a lot of other news networks. CNN helped them out
… Fox News helped them out … making sure they came
up to speed, technologically speaking, with the rest of the
international press corps. So that changed.
With regard to the Arabic-language media, and specifically the
Pan-Arab news networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya, what
has been your impression of their coverage? Did you come into
contact with any of their correspondents?
Oh, sure. They were at all the press conferences. And I took
them out a lot of places before Al-Jazeera left the country.(2)
They were on all of our media tours. They’re a professional
news organization. They were easy to work with, they sought
fact-based reporting, and they were always open to us correcting
errors. I think a lot of people in the US (and probably most
of the Western world) throw out a lot of allegations, particularly
at Al Jazeera, as being a biased news agency. I don’t.
I don’t really like to play that game. All news agencies
are biased. And they all editorialize. They start editorializing
the minute they pick the stories they’re going to cover.
Had you worked with Arabic-language media outlets before?
Not before I arrived in Baghdad, no.
So given the American perceptions of Al Jazeera, for example,
were you surprised by the way the Pan-Arab networks covered
Not really surprised at how they covered it, no. I was surprised
more by what I guess you can call the professionalism of the
Al Jazeera correspondents. They were a very professional group
You mentioned professionalism, but speaking specifically about
television coverage, did you notice any specific differences
between the way, for example, Fox News covered the war and the
way Al Jazeera covered it? Or between CNN, say, and Al Arabiya?
I didn’t notice any differences in what they covered.
But certainly, they each have their own biases with regard to
how they covered it. But that would be where the main difference
is. They were all receptive to making sure they got the story
correct. There were many instances in which Al Jazeera simply
had their facts wrong, for example, yet they were always receptive
to us correcting facts and would correct their news tickers
Can you give me an example of where they had their facts wrong
and the military corrected them?
In the press center
we monitored Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Al Iraqiya, and the rest
(of the Arabic-language television stations) with an Arabic
media team. They would assess the networks for content—not
on whether or not the networks were pro-American or pro-coalition
but whether or not they were getting the facts correct.
Was this Arabic media team comprised of Americans? Or were these
So you have a team of Iraqis who monitor the Arabic-language
media as what? Fact-checkers?
Yes, essentially, as fact-checkers. And when the facts were
wrong, we would challenge those facts. Not the editorial content,
but the facts.
Could you determine any difference between the coverage of the
different Arabic-language news networks? Did you feel that any
were more or less professional or fair than others?
Well, “fair” is a tricky word. Because, you know,
any time an opinion isn’t your own, people cry foul, bias,
and that the opinion isn’t “fair.” No, I would
say of the major networks—the legitimate news agencies—they
were all committed to presenting fact.
Shifting gears somewhat, in America there is the impression
that the media coverage from American news outlets such as CNN
only project the bad news coming out of Iraq. But by contrast,
outside America there is a perception that the American news
outlets are biased toward the American military effort. How
would you compare the American media to the media outside America,
and not just the media in the Arab world, but also European
media such as the BBC and other outlets?
Well again, like we discussed, if the opinion doesn’t
match your own, it’s going to look biased. So if you asked
ten people on the street, “How does Fox News report?”
in America they’ll tell you that they’re fair and
unbiased and give you the straight scoop.
Well, maybe not all ten!
AC: Right. And if
you asked ten people in Saudi Arabia, they would tell you differently.
And the same is true for Al Jazeera. Or Al Arabiyya. Everyone’s
got their own brand of reporting and their own political opinion.
Do you think the American military has done a good job doing
liaison work with not just the BBC or the rest of the European
press but also with the Arab media? Or do you think it’s
been a learning process and that there are still problems out
Oh, there will always be problems. Do I believe we did a good
job? Yes. I think we did a good job. Do I think we could have
done a better job? Absolutely. If I had to go back to Baghdad
today, there are things that I would do differently in running
an international press center. But there are also things I think
we got right. One of the things we got right was insuring that
all the international press corps, regardless of who they report
for and regardless of their political opinion, received the
exact same press card. They are considered equals when it comes
to access to news events, media escorts to see ground operations,
etc. They were all in the same pool. That’s one thing
we got very right. Do we have trouble, sometimes, communicating?
For example, across language barriers? Absolutely. So that’s
something we can do better.
Well that brings me to my next question. Is the American military
speaking the same language as the Arab media? And by that I’m
not talking about the obvious Arabic/English linguistic divide.
But are the ways in which the American military and the Arabic-language
media talk about the war and think about the war just too different?
In other words, is the gap too far to bridge between the two
groups? Or do you find common ground in the way that the two
groups talk about what’s going on in Iraq?
Oh, there’s absolutely common ground. And then there are
also things in which we are 180 degrees out on too. One of those
is, dealing with the Iraqi media in particular, [the way that]
Iraqi culture deals in rumor. They’ll give a rumor the
same credence that they’ll give “ten killed.”
It’s not fact, but they’ll treat rumor as fact.
It’s just acceptable within the Iraqi culture.
Why do you think it’s the case?
I think it’s just a cultural difference. I’m certainly
no Iraqi culture expert, but I do know it was a very real phenomenon.
And there are [Western] reporters and bureau chiefs over there
like Ingrid Fromenek at CNN who have absolutely set the bar
in helping (Iraqi) bureau chiefs to—and I hate to say
this—meet the Western standard of international broadcasting.
Maybe a better way of saying it is to say that they helped the
Iraqi media to find a common ground for international broadcasting.
I mean, these are emerging news agencies in Iraq. Before [the
fall of the Hussein regime], they were forced to accept the
word of what was basically a state-run news outlet. And now
they’ve been thrown into the NFL of international broadcasting.(3)
So now, they can no longer deal in rumor because they’ll
get called on it. And as the Iraqi audiences become more and
more media savvy … When I arrived, they were not, but
now satellite dishes are popping up like dandelions in the spring.
And it hasn’t stopped. These people are becoming more
and more savvy to what is—I don’t even like to call
it a “Western” standard—an international
standard for broadcasting.
On a different note, the head of Al Arabiya’s new division
has said that embedded reporters from the Arabic-language media
were viewed as a problem in American units with regard to security.
Did you see this problem?
I’m not going to say it didn’t happen, but I did
not see it. Arab reporters were very welcome to embed. I had
a lot of ground commanders who would contact the press center
wanting to take embeds of any kind. They could care less who
they were. We tried to provide a translator to go with them
and asked them to bring translators to embeds with the units.
But I know that a lot of Iraqi reporters were pretty reticent
to go out and leave their homes overnight. With the unstable
situation, I saw more reticence from Iraqi broadcasters to actually
go out and stay with U.S. troops. They didn’t want to
be away from their homes and families.
Do you think, though, that the US soldiers looked at the Arabic-language
media as suspect because they were Arab? Maybe not the public
affairs officers but the infantrymen? Do you think there was
some distrust of the Arabic-language media?
I didn’t see it, but I really couldn’t answer that.
I didn’t see anything like that, but that’s not
to say it doesn’t exist.
Fair enough. If I put you in charge of all media operations
for the forces in Iraq, what changes would you make today?
King for a day, huh? Gosh … Well, I would have cancelled
the five o’clock operational update, I’ll tell you
that much. Because that really never got across to people what
they needed to see. I also would have brought in a lot more
ground commanders, people who are actually out there pursuing
insurgents and fighting the missions. I would have brought them
in and allowed them to speak frankly and one-on-one with the
reporters rather than issuing so many press statements. I would
have also turned it over to the Iraqi people much sooner. They
have a brilliant, hyper-intelligent set of people who are ready
to go. While they may not have the infantry battalions, they
have the press personnel. I would put them in charge and put
them on camera maybe, I don’t know, six months in? Let
them tell their own story. Because the US doesn’t need
to be saying what the Iraqi people think. The Iraqi people need
to be saying what the Iraqi people think.
Is there anything else you want to say, as far as the coverage
of the war is concerned?
Well, one thing I would like to say is that there is a huge
untold story with the—and I don’t throw this word
around lightly—heroism of the Iraqis and particularly
the Arab reporters who have gone in and established this new,
free Iraqi press corps. From the time I got there until the
time I left, they risked their lives to come to the international
press meetings and to get on camera (we saw this tragically
with Al Arabiya recently) and to risk their lives to tell the
real story.(4) And whether or not they’re pro-American
or anti-American, if they’re risking their lives to tell
a fact-based story, that’s something that’s necessary
to a new democracy even if it doesn’t agree with my own
political opinions. A fledgling democracy of all places needs
those brave people. And while Western reporters will come and
go with their personal security, that’s not a luxury these
people have. So these people are, actually, heroes. And one
day their story will be told. It will be an interesting one.
1. C-SPAN is an
American cable news network that films the proceedings of the
2. Al Jazeera was expelled from Iraq in 2004.
3. National Football League: a major professional sports league
4. Al Arabiya reporter Atwar Bahjat and two co-workers were
killed outside the Iraqi city of Samarra in February of 2006
in sectarian violence that followed the destruction of a prominent
Shia shrine in that city.