June 21, 2007

A Media Mystery

In-Depth Coverage

While the bulk of the coverage treated PSCs as secondary factors in stories about other Iraq-related issues, there were over the course of the four years, a handful of notable in-depth pieces.

The Virginian-Pilot’s coverage, in particular, is a case of how the location of an outlet can play a large role in its content – even on an issue as big and complicated as PSCs. Much of the paper’s coverage can likely be attributed to the fact that the Pilot is based in Norfolk, Va., is just 29 miles up Route 168 from Blackwater in Moyock, N.C.

Much of that paper’s PSC reportage grew out of a six-part 2006 series that looked at Blackwater as a way into the issue of private security companies. The story list: “A New Breed of Warriors,” “Profitable Patriotism,” “On the Front Lines,” “When Things go Wrong,” “On American Soil,” “New Horizons.” The series, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist, looked at PSCs through several lenses combining colorful anecdotal reporting with issues.

Take this section from the “On the Front Lines” piece:

“Executives of the North Carolina-based company landed a meeting with Paul Bremer III, the diplomat chosen by Bush to head the Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq's interim government.

Nobody had really figured out exactly how they were going to get him from D.C. and stand him up in Iraq," Blackwater President Gary Jackson said. "The Secret Service went over and did an assessment and said, 'You know what? It's much, much more dangerous than any of us believed.' So they came back to us."

In August 2003, Blackwater was awarded a $21 million no-bid contract to guard Bremer, and U.S. agencies have been tapping the Blackwater well ever since. The company now has about 1,000 contractors in Iraq – the most it has ever had.

Other players also have rushed in to meet the demand. Last month, the government estimated that there were at least 180 security companies operating in Iraq…the largest private military deployment in history.”

The stories the Pilot ran became a source of content for other outlets as well. The Greensboro (North Carolina) News & Record, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel and Contra Costa Times all published stories that first ran in the Pilot.

Among the national outlets, the New York Times Magazine ran an 8,000-word piece in its August 14, 2005 issue that looked at the growth of PSCs – “The Other Army.” The Washington Post ran a front-page piece on September 10, 2005 – “Security Contractors in Iraq Under Scrutiny After Shootings” – that mentioned the number of PSCs along with some of the complicating factors in their use. And the April, 2007 Vanity Fair ran a 5,000-word piece on contractors as “the second-largest army in Iraq.” But ultimately, these stories were few and far between.

National Public Radio’s coverage was arguably the most issue driven. Coverage specifically about PSCs was relatively frequent on the radio network, which aired 17 stories on the subject. Those pieces were usually not on Morning Edition or All Things Considered (NPR’s morning and evening news programs) but rather on talk programs such as Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. And many of these segments were largely interviews with one person – often the Brookings Institution’s P.W. Singer. While these pieces examined the PSC question in depth, they usually featured the perspective of one analyst, albeit a knowledgeable one.