Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spinning Troop Morale

In my lectures on the mass media, I always note the media's goal of maintaining high standards of press objectivity in reporting. But I also discuss bias in the news, which can result from things like corporate control of the press, as well as the ideological orientations of editors and reporters.

I actually give the media more credit than some on both the right and the left. Today's Los Angeles Times, however, provides an great example of media bias in reporting on the war.

In this morning's edition, the Times has a front-page article entitled, "
Morale Dips as Some GIs Say Leaders Are Way Off Base."

The piece is a really blatant example of liberal antiwar spin masquerading as journalism. Tina Susman, the author, rests her story on the sentiment among a good number of soldiers that the war is hopelessly misguided, and she's sure to quote the most dramatic statements of disillusionment in the ranks. Here's a key snippet of her spin:
As military and political leaders prepare to deliver a progress report on the conflict to Congress next month, many soldiers are increasingly disdainful of the happy talk that they say commanders on the ground and White House officials are using in their discussions about the war.

And they're becoming vocal about their frustration over longer deployments and a taxing mission that keeps many living in dangerous and uncomfortably austere conditions. Some say two wars are being fought here: the one the enlisted men see, and the one that senior officers and politicians want the world to see.

"I don't see any progress. Just us getting killed," said Spc. Yvenson Tertulien, one of those in the dining hall in Yousifiya, 10 miles south of Baghdad, as Bush's speech aired last month. "I don't want to be here anymore."
I'm sure there's much more of this thinking among those in uniform. Yet, Susman's own reporting suggests that such views represent a minority, and in areas of combat showing substantial success, morale is high:

Plenty of troops remain upbeat about their mission in Iraq. At Patrol Base Shanghai, flanking the town of Rushdi Mullah south of Baghdad, Army Capt. Matt Dawson said residents used to shoot at troops but now visit them and offer ideas on improving security."

For the 20-year-old kids here who have been shot at for 10 months in a row, the change is a tremendous feeling," Dawson said last week.

The Army cites reenlistment numbers as proof that morale remains high and says it expects to reach its retention goal of 62,200 for the fiscal year.

"On the 4th of July, we reenlisted 588 service members . . . in Baghdad. That has to be an indicator," said Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, who visits bases to gauge morale on behalf of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Based on his encounters, Hill said, he would rank morale at 8 on a scale of 1 to 10."Units that are having real success are units where troop morale is extremely high," Hill said.

"Units that are sustaining losses, whether it be personnel losses, injuries or casualties -- those are organizations where morale might dip a bit."
Here are some poll numbers:

The latest in a series of mental health surveys of troops in Iraq, released in May, says 45% of the 1,320 soldiers interviewed ranked morale in their unit as low or very low. Seven percent ranked it high or very high.
The article would have been credible if the interpretation were flipped around 180 degrees. Perhaps the title might have said: "Troops in Iraq Upbeat but Morale Issues Linger."

Such a heading would have been much more honest.

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