WASHINGTON – Even before Hurricane Katrina blasted through the Gulf Coast, dominating newspaper headlines and television news broadcasts, some Americans were starting to wonder what happened to the ongoing story of Iraq (search).
According to recent polls, many Americans think the U.S military is not doing a good job of informing the public about military and national security issues. Others blame the media for ineffective coverage.
"The public is skeptical and wants to know what is going on," said Mark Hallett, interim journalism program director of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, a charitable organization that supports work in journalism, civics and education.
The foundation, in conjunction with the Gallup Poll, released a report on Aug. 24 that said 54 percent of those surveyed said they believe the military keeps them well-informed, compared to 77 percent in 1999. The media fared slightly better: 61 percent of respondents said the media were keeping them well-informed, compared to 79 percent nearly six years ago.
"The poll clearly shows that Americans want better information, more clear information about what's happening," Hallett said.
In a recent FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 41 percent of respondents said they approve of the way President Bush (search) is handling the war in Iraq -- down from 44 percent at the beginning of the year and a high of 75 percent in April 2003, when Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. The poll, released Sept. 1, found that 33 percent wanted U.S. troops to come home now while 58 percent said they wanted the troops to finish the job.
One potentially troubling finding for the administration is this number: 46 percent of Americans think that in the long run, the situation in Iraq will turn out badly for the United States, while 33 percent think it will turn out well. Two years ago, those numbers were essentially reversed.
Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq veteran and director of Operation Truth (search), an Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' organization, says recent polls citing Americans' skepticism is a by-product of the lagging confidence in the Iraq war policy.
"Unfortunately it is rubbing off on the way Americans perceive the military," he said, noting that while soldiers still enjoy solid support from the public, the military as an institution is suffering from a credibility problem. "If you have a flawed policy on the ground, [support] is going to unravel."
Military officials in Iraq couldn't disagree more.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan (search), a spokesman for U.S.-led coalition forces in Baghdad, said that the military has redoubled its efforts over previous wars to get information out to the American public – from accommodating hundreds of embedded reporters with the troops to sending direct feeds via satellite to local and national television networks back home. The blame, he said, lies squarely at the feet of the media.
"Our basic premise is to have an informed public so that they can make informed decisions. But we rely on the media to do that," Boylan said, adding that reporters and news organizations are less interested in embedding with the military today – there are now around 60 embeds as opposed to 600 when the war in Iraq began in March 2003 – or reporting the "good news" in places where things are more stable.
"Almost all of the journalists here want to be where something is going boom," he said. "If the media were to go out into the other areas of Iraq, the story going on is that life is getting back to normal."
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll from July found that 51 percent of those asked thought news reports out of Iraq focused on the negative while 27 percent said they focused on the positive. But compared with earlier polls, the public is giving the media more credit for seeing the positive -- in May 2004, 70 percent thought the media focused on the negative compared to 11 percent who said reporters were telling positive stories.
Even supporters of the war don’t believe that the public attitude about the media is the only reason for the decline in confidence in the military's information.
Retired Col. Gary Anderson, a senior fellow with the Virginia-based Potomac Institute (search), said he believes the daily advisories and briefings by the military in Iraq are pretty solid and lacking overt spin. On the other hand, "the White House and Pentagon are spinning – the American people aren't stupid, and they understand there are problems," he said.
"I think there are good solid things being reported by the media," he added, "[though] some major newspapers are tending to skew their stories towards the darker side."
Still, "that doesn’t get the administration off the hook," he said. Anderson said he believes the administration has contributed to public skepticism by not clearly articulating its strategy and continuing to sugarcoat bad news.
According to the McCormick/Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans say they do not get enough information about military matters to make informed decisions. A majority also blames both the government and media for poor reporting before the war, particularly on the reasons for invading Iraq in the first place.
Mark Williams, a conservative talk show host at KFBK in Sacramento who in July went on a week-long trip to Kuwait and Iraq with a contingent of conservative broadcasters, said reporters have gotten "lazy" and prefer to stay safe in hotels in the Green Zone rather than be embedded with military and talking directly to soldiers. This, he contends, has altered public perceptions of the war.
"When the public information officers are talking to the press, the spin is there," he said. "But there is no way a PIO can spin what these guys are telling you when you are sitting with them in their Humvee."
David Enders (search), a freelance journalist who has spent nearly 16 months in Iraq since the start of the invasion, said it is nearly impossible for a Western reporter to travel outside the protected Green Zone without security. And even if a reporter does venture out, he said the key is to not look Western or speak English.
"It is not safe to be in Baghdad, it is patently unsafe and that's true for whatever political persuasion you are. They will kill you if you are Republican, they will kill you if you are Democrat," Enders said.
Covering Iraq is hazardous duty. An Iraqi journalist working for The New York Times was killed after men claiming to be police officers abducted him from his home in the southern city of Basra late Sunday night.
According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (search), Fakher Haider, a 38-year-old reporter, is the 68th journalist killed in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003 and the 19th this year.
Enders has reported as an embed and by himself, mostly for magazines like Mother Jones, the Nation and The Progressive. He has reported from trouble spots in Basra and Fallujah and said that while most areas are open to reporters, they are not always easy to get to.
He suggested that the military has tried hard to "manage the news," and the public is sensing that, and reacting negatively, because after two years they don't see progress.
As for the media, Enders said it is not his job to balance every bad event he covers with a positive one. At this point, he added, he would prefer to write only "good news."
"I'm sick of doing stories that make me want to drink myself into a stupor," said Enders, who is now in New York. "We want stories to reflect the daily life for people in Baghdad – unfortunately, it’s a terrible existence."
FOX News' Dana Blanton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.