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Sunday, March 23, 2003

Press Briefing (and Swirlies)

Steven Chapman dares to criticize the holy Lileks's completely accurate description of the BBC reporters:

NPR is running . . . the BBC. It's interesting, listening to these guys - I'm unsure how it's possible to sneer the entire time you're speaking. I fear the announcer's face will stay that way. Perhaps you can recognize an old Beeb hand by the permanently curled lip. I've tuned in twice in half an hour; both times they were talking about the FAILURE to get Saddam, and what this FAILURE means for the war which might be hindered by this initial FAILURE...

The interesting part is not in Steven's post, but in his comments, where he says:

Incidentally, it's been noted over here that in press conferences the 'challenging' questions are mostly asked by non-US reporters. I'm not quite sure what was meant by 'challenging' but I've seen zillions of press conferences from the Pentagon, State Dept, White House, in Afghanistan and now in Iraq and I'd have to agree that the US reporters' questions are noticeably softer than the rest. I've even on occasion noticed the person at the podium get somewhat snippy with the non-US questioners.

Huh. Maybe it's because the non-US reporters' questions frequently boil down to: "Now that you've begun prosecuting your vicious and illegal war, and found that the Iraqis will actually shoot back, and you've lost simply, er, a handful of men, and have killed two civilians' donkeys, don't you think it's time you admitted that you are in a Vietnam-style quagmire that will humble the United States and cause the fearsome Arab Street to rise against you in wave after wave of terrorist attacks? Oh, and I have a followup about the brutal Afghan winter."

Now, there are only three possible answers to that:
1) "No."
2) "Fuck you."
3) Click BANG! "Next question?"

So what's the point in asking the flipping question? Is it to see how uncomfortable you can make the guy while he tries to politely answer your stupid question? Is showing up at the press conference cutting into your drinking time? Or is Qatar alcohol-free, and drying out is making you all cranky?

Here's the sort of thing I mean. This is from the 3/22/03 CENTCOM press briefing. First three questions are from American reporters, and then there's this one:

Q General, Jeff Meade (ph), Sky News. Can I ask you to talk to the blitz on Baghdad. How does it help you to be regarded as liberators by the Iraqi people when they are being terrified by that display of ordnance? And also bearing in mind that some of the targets may have suspect military value, because if they are obvious regime buildings they would have long ago been evacuated.

Now, you can read the long-winded response Franks gave him yourself. What would Tommy really like to have said?-------

"The people were so terrified of our ordnance that some of them came out into the streets to watch the show. And how is it that you know so much about where the Iraqi military is? Do you think they don't have infrastructure, that they can just do their planning and communicating in a barn somewhere? Guards, take this man away and find out what he knows about the Iraqis' plans."


Q ... ITB (ph) News of London. General Franks, what can you tell us about the success in attacking so-called regime targets? What can you tell us what you know of the status, whereabouts or health of Saddam Hussein? And what do you say to those people who say that the people who are most likely to be shocked and awestruck by the shock are the Iraqi civilians you claim to be liberating?

"Well, Mr. So-Called Journalist, I don't know yet whether Saddam Hussein continues to waste oxygen, but we did hit the bunker where he was staying. As for the rest, you weren't listening to what I told that last fella, were you?"

Q General Franks -- (inaudible) [Jonathan -- A.S.] Marcus from BBC World Service...One of the most striking things in your briefing was your comment several regular Iraqi army divisions have surrendered or their leaders have surrendered...the troops have abandoned their weapons, the soldiers have gone home. You showed us a picture of troops in the desert -- it wasn't a great picture as far as I was concerned -- I couldn't see much about it. This is a very important propaganda issue -- if Iraqi forces hear through a whole variety of means that the units are just simply melting away...That would be information that would be very useful for you to have imparted by the world's media. What further information, what further evidence can you give us that leads us to accept that probably tens of thousands or many thousand Iraqi troops are simply melting away or going home?

"I've told you what's true and if you don't want to believe it that's up to you. Feel free to go count every captured soldier and every one still at large. Are you afraid there won't be enough corpses for you to report in a short war?"

That one prompted a letter to and comment from Andrew Sullivan. One of Sullivan's readers was astonished that Marcus had essentially said that he didn't know why he should report what Franks was telling them about Iraqi surrenders, given that it would just be propaganda for the US. I wonder whether they're such tough guys with the Iraqis. CNN was kicked out of Iraq for not being obsequious enough, if you can imagine.

Q First of all, thank you for being with us finally. Do you have any personal message for the families of the casualties? And for the second question, do you think Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would become a black shadow like Osama bin Laden is right now?

"I think Osama is a black shadow on a cave wall right now. As for the casualties, I already said what I had to say about that at the beginning. Who the hell am I, Oprah? I'm not going to sit here and cry, if that's what you mean."

[Actually this reporter, who was a foreigner, probably meant the Iraqi casualties. Franks took him to mean the US casualties and went right on to the next question. And he did say things about the US casualties in the beginning. This is where I turned the conference off, by the way.]

Q This is Li Jingxian (ph) from Shanghai TV, China. General Franks, it was reported that more than 200 Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured ever since the war began. Do you have any comment on that? And what kind of measurements has the coalition taken or is going to take in order to minimize the civilian casualties during the military action? Thank you very much.

"Two hundred, huh? That's less than your government killed deliberately at Tiananmen Square."

Q (Off mike.) There's an impression here in the region that you're having more trouble than you're willing to admit, that you're meeting stiffer resistance than you're willing to admit. One case being brought to mind is Umm Qasr. If you can talk about that.

And yesterday, following the air strikes, the Iraqi information minister said that your forces are going to be decapitated and routed. If you can comment on that. Thank you.

"Yes, it's true. The enemy is firing real bullets at us. But we thought of everything, including this remote possibility. My comment on the Iraqi information minister is that you can feel free to take him at face value if you want to. I'm not gonna."

Q (Off mike.) We are getting close from the fourth day of war, and until now, we can't see any sign of weapons of mass destruction, we can't see anyone using of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq. Was it a big lie or just a cover to justify your invasion of Iraq and to remove its regime, which still cannot use any kind of these weapons to defend itself against your attacks? Thank you.

"Oops, you have found us out. I knew that if we didn't discover any WMDs after ninety minutes, you sharp-witted lads of the press would expose our dastardly scheme. Yes, yes it was all a lie. In fact, the whole war was so that Poppy Bush could get hold of Saddam's magnificent feather boa collection. sigh And now that you know that, I'll have to kill you all. Guards!"

The sad thing is that I've not had to go digging for choice stupid questions---they made up about half the press briefing. And the pattern is pretty clear. American media asked questions designed to elicit actual information. Sometimes they were softball questions, but at least they were generally questions a person could answer.

The foreigners' questions were not generally meant to elicit information; they were designed to make a propaganda statement. I don't know why they bothered, since their organizations' editorial writers make all the facts up back at the home office anyway.

[I will admit that many of the affiliations were not recorded, so I can't say for certain it was mostly foreigners who were making statements with their questions. But there was certainly a pattern.]

The next day followed much the same pattern. Tommy Franks, probably in disgust, stayed away and let John Abizaid handle them. The fourth question asked if this wasn't a new Vietnam.

After that, he mostly called on Americans, and as a result, real information flowed. Though he did call on Al Jazeera and got an actual real question rather than a disguised accusation.

And apparently, if I understand Chapman correctly, the press (and public?) in Britain is sitting around congratulating themselves on the "challenging" nature of their questions, in contrast to those old-fashioned who-what-where-when wheezes the dumb Yanks come up with.

UPDATE: Today's briefing was much the same, with even fewer foreigners called on. We had one sneering Brit whose question I don't remember, one Chinese who asked if the glorious Iraqi people weren't rising up against the American imperialist aggressors, and a guy from Iraqi TV who clearly wished he had asked the Chinese guy's question (the Iraqis are not nearly as practiced as the Chinese in revolutionary rhetoric), but who settled for asking if the reports that the coalition had taken much of the southern countryside weren't "Lies! All lies!"