Al-Sahaf charade prompts ethical questions for press

NEW YORK - As the voice of Iraqi officialdom and the link between the Hussein regime and the outside world, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has been the face of the Iraqi wartime PR effort.

But al-Sahaf's apocalyptic rhetoric bespeaking the inevitable doom of American and British invaders became a story itself. With bombs literally bursting in the background of his press conferences, and coalition troops moving on Baghdad, the information minister remained resolute in his promises of the defeat of coalition forces -- much to the bemusement of Western reporters.

"In the last few days, it's turned into a joke -- into a 'Saturday Night Live' skit," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.

Media outlets in the US and abroad have devoted column space to al-Sahaf's technique, which, before he disappeared when US troops rolled into Baghdad, was more Book of Revelation or the nastier parts of Dante's Inferno than any media relations manual. "God is grilling their stomachs in hell," he has said of the enemy, leading The Guardian to conclude that al-Sahaf has "secured his reputation as the Panglossian figure of the Iraqi regime when he denied what was obvious to all."

In addition to chortles, al-Sahaf has provoked a debate over a number of ethical implications of the Iraqi PR effort, which has included broadcasting video of slain US soldiers, prisoners under interrogation, and dead and wounded civilians.

For some experts, coverage of al-Sahaf's briefings signals sloppy reporting because his messages are far removed from reality. Others contend that the briefings should be covered, but that the information should be carefully vetted.

"There is a value in covering the Iraqi government and attending its press briefings and reporting what it says so long as it is put in context with regard to how it squares with other, independent sources of information," said Aly Colon, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute.

A discussion of how to cover Iraqi PR has led to the question of whether American journalists are being too hard on American leadership, and not skeptical enough of what the Iraqis say about the war's progress and their attitudes toward reporters who are critical of them.

"Our issue with it is that the Iraqi information ministry has been rigid in their policy of, 'If you don't like what we say, you're out,'" Graham said. Colón agreed that fear of losing access can be a factor in how a story is reported. But, he added, "If the journalist has wonderful access but is simply a mouthpiece for an institution, then the journalist will have no credibility."

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