October 9, 2007

The Murky Blackwater Story Fuels Iraq Coverage

PEJ News Coverage Index Sept. 30 - Oct. 5, 2007

On Friday Oct. 5, the “CBS Evening News” offered viewers a kind of primer on Blackwater USA, the powerful private security company operating in Iraq.

The dangerous job of protecting dignitaries in Iraq, correspondent Bob Orr said, had been “Blackwater’s biggest bonanza,” generating more than $1 billion in revenue from U.S. tax dollars. That also came at the cost of the lives of 27 Blackwater staffers. And the company’s founder Erik Prince, Orr noted, was a former White House intern for President George H.W. Bush, who was seen by critics as “a profiteering mercenary who’s landed lucrative no-bid contracts from cronies inside the Bush administration.”

Still, the CBS report concluded that, given its daunting line of work, Blackwater had become almost “untouchable” and “impossible to replace.” Declared one analyst somberly: “It’s really emerged to become one of the most powerful private actors in the so-called war on terror.”

Until recently, it’s quite possible that most Americans knew little about the North Carolina company and the murky world of the roughly 10,000 U.S. private security forces in Iraq. Earlier this year, a PEJ study examining coverage of these firms in over 400 mainstream media outlets during the first four years of the war found that with some exceptions, private security firms were “a relatively unknown commodity” in war reporting, generating only occasional in-depth coverage.

That appears to have changed dramatically, particularly in the days since a Sept. 16 incident in Baghdad that the Iraqi government has characterized as an unprovoked killing of 17 civilians by Blackwater employees. (Iraq is asking the company to pay $136 million to compensate the families of the victims. Blackwater has said it came under fire and acted properly.) Last week, the incident took center stage in Washington where Congress, the FBI and the State Department all took roles in the scramble for oversight of private security outfits.

And when the focus moved from cratered urban battlefields in Iraq to the committee rooms of Congress, it became a much easier story for the media to follow.

With the Blackwater controversy accounting for a large majority of stories on the subject, the situation inside Iraq was the second-biggest story in the news last week. It accounted for 13% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index from Sept. 30-Oct. 5. Events inside Iraq led the coverage in the newspaper sector (20%), online (19%), and on network TV (11%).

The Blackwater saga has been percolating in the headlines for several weeks. In the interval between Sept. 16 (when the Baghdad killings took place) and Oct. 5, events in Iraq have been the second-biggest story (at 9%) in the News Index. And nearly 60% of all the stories on that topic involved coverage of Blackwater.

Last week, events in Iraq finished just behind the top story, the 2008 Presidential campaign, which filled 14% of the newshole. In terms of horserace coverage, it was a good week for Democrat Hillary Clinton who out-fundraised top challenger Barack Obama and stretched her lead over him in a new national poll. The third-biggest story, the Iraq policy debate (at 6%), was driven by a heated talk radio debate over conservative host Rush Limbaugh’s use of the term “phony soldiers” on his Sept. 26 show. (That helped make the policy debate the top subject on radio, where it filled 20% of the airtime.)

Rounding out the top-five stories in the news last week were the immigration debate (fourth at 3%) and U.S. domestic terrorism (fifth at 3%).

If the media have been playing catch-up on Blackwater, it may be because the shadowy realm of private security contractors was largely overshadowed by the sectarian violence in Iraq and the activities of U.S. forces on the ground. (One notable exception was the much covered killing and mutilating of a team of Blackwater contractors in Fallujah in March 2004.) Often doing jobs that were once the province of the U.S. military, these firms seemed to function in a netherworld where lines of accountability were uncertain, and press access or even interest, at least by the national media, was limited.

But last week, as the fallout from the Sept. 16 tragedy continued to build, Blackwater emerged into the glare of public and media scrutiny. A front-page New York Times piece on Oct. 2, based on a new Congressional study, reported that “employees of Blackwater USA have engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, in a vast majority of cases firing their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded.”

In highly publicized testimony, Blackwater chairman Prince appeared before Congress on Oct. 2 to state that his employees have “acted appropriately at all times” and that the company quickly dismisses people “if there is any sort of a discipline problem.” He came under sharp criticism from Democrats. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, for one, was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman warning about “privatizing our military to an organization that has been aggressive and…in some cases, reckless, in the handling of their duties.”

Even in the midst of this criticism, Blackwater generated some good news last week. On Oct. 3 its employees rescued the Polish ambassador who’d been injured in a Baghdad ambush. As viewers watched video of a Blackwater helicopter landing the in the middle of a Baghdad street and whisking the bandaged diplomat to safety, CBS anchor Katie Couric announced that today, “it was Blackwater to the rescue.”

By the end of the week, however, U.S. officials were busy trying to impose a stricter set of standards and controls on security contractors. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced his intention to strengthen oversight of such operations, while the U.S. House of Representatives voted to subject such companies to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. That move “would close a loophole that now leaves security contractors immune from prosecution,” PBS “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff noted.

As CBS national security correspondent David Martin put it in an Oct. 5 story, “right now, it’s unclear if anyone has legal jurisdiction [over the contractors.] As one attorney who defended a contractor accused of shooting at Marines in Iraq said, ‘these guys think they’re above the law. And they’re right.’”


Steroids Back in the News

One person who decided she wasn’t above the law last week was Marion Jones, the once-great Olympic track star who admitted to lying about steroid use. In a tear-filled confessional Oct. 5 press conference, Jones said, “I have betrayed your trust,” and “I want to ask for your forgiveness.” Jones’ saga was the sixth biggest story last week, at 3%. It was the third biggest story on network news (filling 6% of all airtime last week).

In his lead story Oct. 5, NBC anchor Brian Williams called her “the best female athlete of her time.” As for her confession, Williams said “Marion Jones’ admission today was the exception, though. It’s mostly rumors about role models that have ruined the sports experience for so many fans.”

Without saying so directly, it certainly seemed like the NBC anchor was alluding to Barry Bond’s joyless, and often begrudged, passing of Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run king this past season.

But the Jones story itself was not yet over. While she is reported to have handed back the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, the fallout, in terms of sentencing for her misleading investigators, was still to come.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ