The cognitive dissonance on display whenever the media attempts to cover an election gone right is truly a sight to see. Watching the vote progress in Iraq throughout the day on Saturday, one was left with the unfortunate impression that there would have been a lot less squirming in the anchor chairs if there had been mass bloodshed in the streets of Baghdad rather than a marked decrease in violence since the last election or if five percent of Sunnis had come out to vote instead of 65 percent.
Even in the absence of tragedy, some reporters were unwilling to dwell too long on the positive and instead used their imaginations to conjure up assertions that were not only willfully ignorant in historical context, but also suspect journalistically. For example, during CNN's coverage of the election Christiane Amanpour got off on a riff about a Sunni she had met who was opposed to the new constitution.
"Never before did we talk about Sunni, Shia, Kurd," Amanpour directly quoted the man as saying without referring to a tape or any notes. "For many, many years, despite our difficulties, despite the oppression under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis never really talked about their ethnic differences. They were Iraqis first and foremost."
Then without a clear line separating the two -- "our" somehow became "their" in a single sentence -- Amanpour continued on with her analysis.
"Many people are very concerned, they say, that it is only since the war that these differences have reared their very ugly heads," she said, adding moments later, "People are very, very concerned about the possibility that somehow in the future their country will lose its unity and will be fragmented."
If this were true, then why did U.S. warplanes spend the better part of 12 years patrolling the skies over Northern Iraq to prevent further genocide of the Kurds or over Southern Iraq to protect Shiites as well as Kuwaitis from the same unscrupulous Sunni minority running the country?
It's a curious bit coming from CNN's "Chief International Correspondent," who it has to be assumed must have some rudimentary understanding of the history of Iraq. If the role of the news media is to enlighten and educate, Amanpour's statement that "it is only since the war" that ethnic differences "have reared their very ugly heads" borders on criminal negligence.
To hear Amanpour relay it, during Operation Anfal when Iraq was bombarding Kurd villages with chemical weapons and hauling untold thousands of men, women, and children off to mass graves, the Kurds must have been thinking, "Well, at least we are all Iraqis. At least, God forbid, our nation has not lost its unity or is fragmented." And when Saddam Hussein drained the southern marshlands as retaliation against Muslim Shiites that had rebelled in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, killing or making refugees out of all but 40,000 of the 450,000 inhabitants, Amanpour seems to believe it was not Sunnis killing Shiites, but simply Iraqis killing Iraqis. (The marshlands, according to the United Nations Environment Program, are recovering at a "phenomenal rate" in the aftermath of this divisive war. Surely Amanpour doesn't believe Shiites would prefer to be unified as dead Iraqis rather than fragmented as living Shiites.)
Further, when the Kurds rose up in 1961 and again in 1975 to demand some semblance of the autonomy robbed of them by the arbitrary British imperial arrogance that created Iraq's borders in 1922, they must have been somehow confused about their ethnic identity. After all, how could the Kurds not have seen themselves as Iraqis back then? How could they have wanted out? The imperialist neocons hadn't even upset the authoritarian apple cart at that point.
Fifteen minutes later, Amanpour allowed sans irony that "the constitution is seen as a big victory for the Shiites and the Kurds who were very much oppressed certainly in the last years of the Saddam Hussein rule."
Hold the presses. I thought none of these sorts of identity politics had reared their heads until the Americans showed up. I thought Iraq had long been unified and was only now coming apart? If Amanpour is willing to acknowledge the oppression of Kurds and Shiites under Saddam Hussein, it only serves to make her earlier argument all the more ridiculous. Is unity enforced by the mechanisms of a police state really unity?
IGNORING THE SURPRISINGLY SUCCESSFUL vote in favor of on-air hand-wringing over the sectarian violence that has been promised for more than two years yet failed to materialize despite al-Qaeda's best murderous efforts was not merely the order of the day at CNN. On MSNBC correspondent Mike Boettcher attempted a one-way conversation with an anchor about the "significant" enthusiasm he was seeing on the ground in Iraq, even in Sunni areas, for the democratic process and to a lesser degree, the constitution.
Without pause, the next question put to Boettcher after this descriptive first-hand account was, "But did you get a chance to ask any of the Sunni voters how they voted. Would that have been 'No'?"
"No, no, I did," Boettcher repeated immediately. "I asked several of them. I would say easily over half in areas we were in voted 'Yes'."
There was a storyline embraced before the first Iraqi stepped into a polling place, as made clear by the fact that even an eyewitness -- a professional journalist on the ground, no less -- has difficulty coaxing an anchor in a studio in D.C. or New York City to believe anything that fails to fit what is apparently the conventional "wisdom."
The truth is that it is sad enough that both pro-war and anti-war partisans insist on ignoring good or bad news to create a reality more to their liking. When the mainstream press engages in similar intellectual dishonesty, however, it is inexcusable.
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