Letters Home: So much for fair and balanced
1st Lt. Esteban “Ted” Vickers
June 11, 2008

Editor’s note: In his series “Letters Home,” local resident Ted Vickers, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines, provides periodic updates from Iraq.

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Part of my job here in Iraq is to facilitate embedded media into our four different infantry battalions as well as answer any queries that the media may have about the 7,000 service members within Regimental Combat Team 1.

The part of my job that has been extremely easy lately has been facilitating media embeds into our infantry battalions. It’s been easy because embeds are an extremely sparse commodity lately. The most recent statistics show that there are about 10 embedded media in all of Iraq. You heard me right, there are only 10! So doing the math — that is 10 embedded media covering more than 150,000 service members. Now let’s compare that to the Michal Jackson trial where there were more than 2,200 credentialed media covering one trial. Then there was the death of Anna Nicole Smith where there were 48 different media outlets in all five sectors of the media covering her death. Hardly seems to be fair and balanced.

One of the questions I hear the most from fellow service members is, “Why does the media always get it wrong?” Or “Why don’t they tell the good stories? Why do they always focus on the negative?” My answer is simple, there are very few embedded media, and the majority of the embedded media is not major news networks. They are usually international press or independent journalists, so most of their reporting falls on def ears. Moreover, most of the large western news agencies have bureaus based in Baghdad, but they spend most of their time sitting there waiting for something to happen before they come out and cover an event. And unfortunately, a good news story such as a hospital opening or a school being built doesn’t have the same flashy impact as a bombing, or firefight.

The majority of things happening in Iraq are good news stories, but without embedded media covering the event to the rest of the world, it didn’t happen. The good news is out there, just look at the numerous military news sites such as Marines.mil or Army.mil/news. The military has created thousands of blogs and even created MySpace accounts in an attempt to get the news out. With the advancements in technology today, a first-hand account of what it is like over here is just a mouse-click away. Unfortunately, the good news is out there, but the mainstream media is not. Good news does not sell. Explosions and body counts do.

If the media is not focused on an explosion, then it is focused on an inappropriate act of a service member — that is what gets highlighted in the news. Take for example a recent instance in my area of operation that got a lot of media attention. A Marine acting independently and in violation of the military’s no proselytizing rule handed out a few coins that quoted a Bible verse. Once the Marine Corps found out it immediately took action and re-emphasized certain procedures and guidelines to ensure this did not happen again. It was a single person’s action, not the actions of the entire military. However, the press jumped on it, with catchy headlines such as “Marines trying to Convert Iraqis” and “Marines’ Christian coins cause Iraqi anger,” comparing us to crusaders. Both these headlines were written after the military announced that it was a single Marine, yet the headlines state it as a plural. And as much as the western media seems to want this to become a big controversy, the fact is the Arabic media saw if for what it was ... the single act of an individual Marine — nothing more. Only one local Arabic news outlet even covered the story and it was a five-second radio clip, yet every major Western news organization had it on their Web site within hours.

Was this really news? Let’s compare this to just a few things going on in and around Fallujah that day. The Fallujah police working on their own without Marine Corps assistance captured 36 suspected terrorists. Three different small operating bases were demiled by the Marine Corps and turned back over to Iraqi control, 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines, Regimental Combat Team 1, installed a solar powered reverse osmosis water purification system in Albu Jassim. These are just a few of the numerous examples of good news stories that happened that day, but guess what makes the western headlines — a Marine handing out coins.

A few weeks ago I met with a group of journalists in Fallujah who formed an organization called the National Assembly of Iraqi Journalists. The association was started in 2004 when the local journalists found that they often were covering the same events but with differing facts and that their ability to cover the entire city depended on them pooling their capabilities together. This grew into a professional association of journalists to become the NGO “National Assembly of Iraqi Journalists.” They now have branches throughout al Anbar province and are continuing to grow. The association encourages other journalists in al Anbar and throughout Iraq to join the organization however; they must abide by journalistic standards set forth in their charter. One of their key traits is to report accurate and non-bias journalistic news articles, radio broadcasts and video news packages. Members found violating this practice will not be allowed to join the association.

It is amazing to me that a group of journalists working in the war-torn city of Fallujah practice more journalistic integrity than their large Western counterparts. The journalists that we spoke to who are in this organization, but write for Western media outlets, had no intention of writing about the coin incident until their bureau chiefs required them to. Moreover, one journalist who works for a major Washington, D.C.-based news organization was told to find a resident who had received a coin and get a quote about them feeling like the Marines were trying to convert them, or be fired. Oh and the rest of the association who do not write for Western media, their biggest story was on a heated battle taking place in the city of Fallujah, the battle between local flower shops competing for business. Yes that’s right; the Iraqis were so upset over the coins that they reported about competing flower businesses.

As military members we act as ambassadors to the Iraqi military and police force. We hold ourselves to high standards helping to train, equip and mentor them into being a legitimate security force for their government. If a service member does not live up to that standard they are held accountable. I only wish that the main stream large Western media companies took it upon themselves to do the same.

1st Lt. Esteban “Ted” Vickers is a Marine currently serving with Regimental Combat Team 1 in Fallujah, Iraq. He is a 1994 graduate of Fruita Monument High School and is a Fruita resident.