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Friday, July 15, 2005

Do you think so, Mr Yost?


From Editor & Publisher:

Knight Ridder's Baghdad Chief Replies to Criticism From Back Home

Early this week, Mark Yost, an editorial writer at Knight Ridder's St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote a column that sharply criticized Iraq war coverage as "bad" for focusing on the negative. Today, another Knight Ridder writer who may actually know what's going on in Iraq, penned a reply.

By Greg Mitchell

(July 13, 2005) -- On Tuesday, Mark Yost, an editorial writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a column that sharply criticized Iraq war coverage as "bad," for focusing on the negative aspects when there's so much progress to report.

Yost, of course, is welcome to his opinion, but some of his colleagues in the press quickly counter-attacked, in letters to Romenesko and others, pointing out that, ironically, Iraq coverage by the company he works for, Knight Ridder, had been hailed by many (including E&P) for often running a step or two ahead of all others.

One of those letters was written directly to Yost, by a colleague at the Pi-Press, Chuck Laszewski. "With your column," he declared, "you have spat on the copy of the brave men and women who are doing their best in terrible conditions. More than 20 reporters have died in Iraq from around the world. You have insulted them and demeaned them, and to a much lesser degree, demeaned the reporters everywhere who have been threatened with bodily harm, who have been screamed at, or denied public records, just because they wanted to present the closest approximation to the truth they could. I am embarrassed to call you my colleague."

Pretty strong stuff, but I wondered, in a note Tuesday to Knight Ridder's Washington chief Clark Hoyt, if we would hear a defense from his estimable Baghdad bureau, or what's left of it, following the death of one of its prize reporters there last month.

The KR response arrived late Wednesday.

But first, a bit more from Mark Yost, writing from the air-conditoned splendor of his office or home in leafy Minnesota.

"I know the reporting's bad because I know people in Iraq," he revealed. "A Marine colonel buddy just finished a stint overseeing the power grid. When's the last time you read a story about the progress being made on the power grid? Or the new desalination plant that just came on-line, or the school that just opened, or the Iraqi policeman who died doing something heroic? No, to judge by the dispatches, all the Iraqis do is stand outside markets and government buildings waiting to be blown up.

"I also get unfiltered news from Iraq through an e-mail network of military friends who aren't so blinded by their own politics that they can't see the real good we're doing there. ...Why isn't the focus of the story the fact that 14 of 18 Iraqi provinces are stable and the four that aren't are primarily home to the genocidal gang of thugs who terrorized that country for 30 years? And reporters wonder why they're despised."

Now here's the Knight Ridder reply, first from Hoyt, then Baghdad bureau chief Hannah Allam, from a memo sent to KR editors.

***
From Clark Hoyt:

It's astonishing that Mark Yost, from the distance and safety of St. Paul, Minnesota, presumes to know what's going on in Iraq. He knows the reporting of hundreds of brave journalists, presumably including his own Knight Ridder colleagues Hannah Allam and Tom Lassetter, is bad because his Marine colonel buddy tells him so.

Yost asks why you don't read about progress being made in the power grid, which the colonel oversaw. Maybe it's because there is no progress. Iraqis currently have electricity for an average of nine hours a day. A year ago, they averaged 10 hours of electricity. Iraq's oil production is still below pre-war levels. The unemployment rate is between 30 and 40 percent. New cases of hepatitis have doubled over the rate of 2002, largely because of problems with getting clean drinking water and disposing of sewage.

The "unfiltered news" Yost gets from his military friends is in fact filtered by their isolation in the Green Zone and on American military bases from the Iraqi population, an isolation made necessary by the ferocity of the insurgency. To say that isn't to argue that their perspective is invalid. It's just limited and incomplete.

Knight Ridder's Baghdad bureau chief, Hannah Allam, has read Mark Yost's column. Her response, from the front, says it far better than I could.
***

From Hannah Allam:

It saddens me to read Mark Yost's editorial in the Pioneer Press, the Knight Ridder paper that hired me as a rookie reporter and taught me valuable lessons in life and journalism during the four years I spent there before heading to Iraq.

I invite Mr. Yost to spend a week in our Baghdad bureau, where he can see our Iraqi staff members' toothbrushes lined up in the bathroom because they have no running water at home. I frequently find them camping out in the office overnight because electricity is still only sporadic in their sweltering neighborhoods, despite what I'm sure are the best-intentioned efforts of people like his Marine buddy working on the electrical grid.

Mr. Yost could have come with me today as I visited one of my own military buddies, who like most officers doesn't leave the protected Green Zone compound except by helicopter or massive convoy. The Army official picked me up in his air-conditioned Explorer, took me to Burger King for lunch and showed me photos of the family he misses so terribly. The official is a great guy, and like so many other soldiers, it's not politics that blind him from seeing the real Iraq. The compound's maze of tall blast wall and miles of concertina wire obscure the view, too.

Mr. Yost can listen to our bureau's morning planning meetings, where we orchestrate a trip to buy bottled water (the tap water is contaminated, when it works) as if we're plotting a military operation. I wonder whether he prefers riding in the first car -- the most exposed to shrapnel and bullets -- or the chase car, which is designed to act as a buffer between us and potential kidnappers.

Perhaps Mr. Yost would be moved by our office's tribute wall to Yasser Salihee, our brave and wonderful colleague, who at age 30 joined the ranks of Iraqi civilians shot to death by American soldiers. Mr. Yost would have appreciated one of Yasser's last stories -- a rare good-news piece about humanitarian aid reaching the holy city of Najaf.

Mr. Yost's contention that 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces are stable is pure fantasy. On his visit to Baghdhad, he can check that by chatting with our resident British security consultant, who every day receives a province-by-province breakdown of the roadside bombs, ambushes, assassinations and other violence throughout the country.

If Baghdad is too far for Mr. Yost to travel (and I don't blame him, given the treacherous airport road to reach our fortress-like hotel), why not just head to Oklahoma? There, he can meet my former Iraqi translator, Ban Adil, and her young son. They're rebuilding their lives under political asylum after insurgents in Baghdad followed Ban's family home one night and gunned down her 4-year-old daughter, her husband and her elderly mother in law.

Freshly painted schools and a new desalination plant might add up to "mission accomplished" for some people. Too bad Ban's daughter never got to enjoy those fruits of her liberation.