Our "Top Secret" academic seminar took us to the Iraqi Consulate late this afternoon. There we met a member of the diplomatic staff who spent more than an hour answering some pointed questions from the students.
Owing to my professional and academic background, I took particular note of the critical comments made about the American media. He (and forgive me for not offering his name; I never got a proper spelling of it) suggested the media have continually offered a "negative" image of the country. Too often, we were told, the media make Iraq "look like hell" where people are killing each other all the time. "Iraq is not like this," we were told.
Later he returned to the same subject, telling the students that they were getting a poor image of Iraq and the Iraqi people through the U.S. media. He invited students to talk to Iraqis living in the U.S. about the country, and he also welcomed students to consider study abroad or a cultural exchange that could take them to Iraq. (In the interim they might consider the new Iraqi Cultural Center that opened in Washington last week.)
And then it hit me -- he's right. The media have not done an especially good job telling the story of what is taking place in Iraq. A few items for the reality check list:
1. The closed society that was Iraq under Saddam Hussein ensured a lasting negative image during his reign
2. The wars of the early 1990s and mid 2000s reinforced the idea of a society in utter chaos
3. The sectarian violence became the story once the intensity of the second war abated
4. The media's inability to get to other parts of the country allowed the U.S. government and its leaders to dictate the media frame that has grown since
5. Coverage of Iraq in recent years has ebbed due to the financial pressures of reporting from the country and because of the international focus turning to Afghanistan
Though positive in his remarks about the United States, our host noted that the Americans made a "great mistake" once the intensity of the second war began to wind down as they focused too much on the religious differences between the Iraqi people. He suggested that decision allowed the extremists to successfully divide the people by insisting that the U.S. had firm designs on Iraq's oil.
When our time with him ended, our students gave him a standing ovation. Considering the time he gave to us and the careful attention he gave to the students' questions, he deserved it.