In and around Baghdad right now, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” is public enemy number one. At least that’s what Pentagon officials say. But McClatchy reporter Mike Drummond thinks journalists should be more skeptical when “Al Qaeda” is uttered.
CHRIS BANNON: This is On the Media. I'm Chris Bannon. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When the so-called troop surge began in Baghdad this year, we heard a lot about the threat of the Shiite militias there. Now we're hearing more about Sunni insurgents, specifically Al Qaeda in Iraq. That group, we're told, is the focus of a new offensive in the Diyala Province.
On Wednesday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Brigadier General Kevin Bergner which was the biggest problem right now, Al Qaeda in Iraq or the insurgency at large. KEVIN BERGNER: Well, Wolf, you know, this is a complex environment. It's a place that's a mosaic of different threats and problems. But Al Qaeda has clearly been the main engine fueling the sectarian violence and driving this violence in Iraq. BROOKE GLADSTONE: News coverage reflects the Pentagon's focus on Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group is often mentioned, usually without any analysis of what exactly it is. And that bothers Mike Drummond. He's a correspondent for McClatchy newspapers, just arrived in Iraq for his second reporting tour there.
Last weekend he wrote that, quote, "The Bush administration's recent shift toward calling the enemy in Iraq "Al Qaeda" rather than an insurgency may reflect the difficulty in maintaining support for the war at home more than it does the nature of the enemy in Iraq."
We asked Drummond why he's so skeptical. MIKE DRUMMOND: You know, last year, Al Qaeda in Iraq was rarely mentioned, and now it's mentioned multiple times daily. Over the last week, even, they've mentioned it 33 times in a barrage of press releases, whereas just last month they mentioned it all of 9 times. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any way for you or your staff to independently verify what you're hearing about the presence of al Qaeda in the Diyala Province? And can you go up there and have a look around yourself? MIKE DRUMMOND: We do have a stringer there on the ground right now in Diyala, and what he's seeing is all sorts of what the U.S. military used to term as "rogue elements." Among them is Al Qaeda in Iraq, but you also have Shi'i militiamen. You also have Sunni tribesmen and you have other sort of criminal opportunists.
I do think the U.S. military has a default, a de facto sort of identifier they use now, and that is Al Qaeda in Iraq. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you don't think it's really justified by the forces on the ground, or is there even any way to know? MIKE DRUMMOND: Oh, I'm not saying that al Qaeda in Iraq doesn't exist. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying let's be cautious in embracing the loaded term "Al Qaeda." It's a not-so-subtle link to 9/11.
And too often you're seeing reports from here on the ground, particularly among my embedded colleagues, who are just using Al Qaeda without any qualifiers. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. But, I mean, you've been there, you know, all of eight days. Are you in a position to be skeptical of those people embedded, writing that it's Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, when you haven't been there long enough to see who it is exactly? MIKE DRUMMOND: I appreciate your challenge on that. And you're right. Actually it takes several weeks, if not months, to really get the story. And all I'm suggesting is I think there's a way that we can qualify that term, "Al Qaeda," and we often do by saying, you know, according to U.S. military officials it was Al Qaeda in Iraq. You could use phrasing like that, you know, or even snicker quotes.
Too often - I don't know - in my thinking it could be used as sort of indolent [LAUGHS] shorthand. I'll admit I'm probably guilty of using that indolent shorthand as well, but, you know, we shouldn't risk eroding our credibility to save space in the newspaper. Spin is the U.S. government's job. I think our job as journalists should be a little bit more neutral on this. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you think, as you stated in your piece, that's why the term has become the current term of art, because the support for the war is waning so much there's no place to turn except for that association with 9/11. MIKE DRUMMOND: It certainly makes the war more palatable. You know, support for the war at home is at an all-time low, and who among us would oppose fighting Al Qaeda? BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, one reason why we wanted to talk to you so much is because the McClatchy news agency, which used to be Knight Ridder, was one of the very few organizations that seemed to be appropriately skeptical when it came to statements made by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war.
Is this something that people at McClatchy talk about over coffee - you know, let's not be pushovers? Does it become a reflex after a while or do you think it just is as necessary as ever? MIKE DRUMMOND: Well, you know, there's that axiom in journalism that goes, your mother says she loves you. Check it out. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And that's sort of engrained in our culture. You know, as a smaller news organization, we don't have major papers in the Beltway or New York, and so we often don't get the top-level access that our larger brethren enjoy. So we often rely on, I guess for lack of a better term, second-tier sources. And I think because we're not in that upper tier, we rely more on a healthier sense of skepticism. I think that it served us and it is serving us very well. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike, thank you very much. MIKE DRUMMOND: Oh, it's been my pleasure, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Drummond is interim Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.