The Unspoken Bias in Western Media

Mainstream American mass media tends to suggest that the rise of ISIL in the Middle East has been predominantly countered by the efforts of the United States. But while we should undoubtedly recognize the American response to ISIL, we cannot disregard the efforts of other countries, notably Iraq. The Iraqi response in particular is noteworthy, since it had to combat an ingrown entity. While the Iraqi response to ISIL has not been completely neglected by the American media, it has received less attention than the American military response in everything from air strikes to strategic development. Based on the American media coverage, it seems there’s an inherent and historical bias against giving regional players like Iraq their due and showcasing their efforts in a wholly positive light.

Unbalanced American news coverage of Middle Eastern events is not a recent development. Ever since the start of the Global War on Terror, US and Iraqi coverage of terrorism has diverged in very different ways. Iraqi media sources tend to analyze the political, regional, social, and economic impacts of terrorism within its neighbors and focus more on the causes and long-term effects of terrorism. With specific relation to ISIL, Iraqi news gives substantial attention to the war in Yemen and Turkish troops within Iraq. The mainstream American press, on the other hand, has focused almost exclusively on strategic influence while responses to regional conflicts are given less priority. Within this realm of policy, there is a general consensus that peace in the Middle East will be achieved through this US military victory.

But contrary to what many articles suggest, Iraqi and Syrian forces deserve credit for contributing to the recent ISIL retreat. ISIL has already lost 22 percent of its territory to Iraqi and Syrian forces, including the cities of Tikrit and Ramadi, and a variety of strategic positions in northern Syria. For over a year, ISIL units have consistently suffered strikes that have destroyed caches, bases, and heavy ammunition. This June, Iraqi security forces also recaptured Fallujah from ISIL after a year-long battle. This victory was essential, both strategically and symbolically, as Fallujah was the first major city that ISIL had captured in January 2014. Syrian government forces have liberated the city of Palmyra, which ended the 10-month long ISIL invasion that destroyed many of the city’s monuments. Iraqi and Syrian forces have been responsible for a string of defeats for ISIL.

Iraq continues to be a major force in combatting ISIL despite its own governmental instability. In the past week itself, Iraqi media outlets discovered that Iraqi security forces were the driving force behind a series of military operations. On September 29, the Iraqi Air Force killed 14 ISIL members, including prominent ISIL leader Wali of Hawija, Abu Nasser al-Zawbaei, and 13 of his aides. The day before that, Iraqi security forces liberated two areas west of Ramadi and killed 33 ISIL members during the conflict. In liberating the Anbar province from ISIL forces the past year, the Iraqi army was successful in killing 70 ISIL terrorists and defusing 40 car bombs. Governmental spokesperson of al-Hashd al-Ashaeri Ghassan Eithaway explained that “security forces also advanced towards Albuassaf,” ensuring complete liberation from ISIL control. This victory came soon after Iraqi forces destroyed another 32 ISIL vehicles. On September 26, the Iraqi government held a conference in Baghdad to discuss the reconstruction of the liberated areas in the northern and western parts of the country. Fifty-seven companies were present, representing the 16 Arab and international countries.

However, hardly any of these efforts were mentioned in CNN, BBC, WashingtonPost, HuffingtonPost, or Newsweek. In fact, Newsweek portrayed Iraq’s crucial reclamation of Fallujah as a temporary and politically motivated act rather than a truly significant accomplishment. The article claimed that Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi had faced political tensions and declared a “sudden attack” on the ISIL stronghold in order to save the administration. The representation of the victory as a last ditch political play not only misrepresents the efforts of the Iraqi army, but also does not begin to address the long-term significance of this victory. Many analysts have pointed out how difficult it was to reclaim the city, citing it as one of the biggest armed confrontations fought against the Islamic State. After their victory in Fallujah, the Iraqi military plans to build a “11 kilometers long, 12.5 meters wide, and 1.5 meters deep” trench around the city, for which digging has already begun. While IraqiNews applauded Iraq’s mobilization of 65,000 Iraqi soldiers for the upcoming Mosul offensive, CBS titled it as “US troops preparing Iraqis to retake Mosul.”

Iraqi forces are planning to perform an offensive similar to Fallujah on Mosul, one of cities that ISIS had captured in June 2014. Instead of applauding their strategic achievements, articles in the New York Times focus on US involvement.

This divergence in coverage has been particularly noticeable recently in the New York Times, the American newspaper with the second highest online readership. While less than 30 articles were published in the New York Times in the entire month of June regarding Fallujah, 19 articles were published in the IraqiNews in the week preceding the victory alone. Only 4 of those articles in the New York Times deal exclusively with Iraq and not with the United States. None have applauded Iraq’s victory. Similar discrepancies exist in the coverage of other recent battles.

In fact, rather than focusing on the achievements of Iraqi troops, their coverage of the Ramadi battle focuses on the “attack helicopters and accompanying advisors” that America was willing to provide despite the fact that Prime Minister Abadi has already rejected the idea of American ground troops, clarifying that the Iraqi military would decide the targets of airstrikes. Another article discusses the Iraqi offense in Ramadi to a greater extent, but incorrectly suggests that this is “the first time Iraqi forces engaged the Islamic State,” ignoring the repeated smaller offenses that the Iraqi troops have carried out against ISIL without American aid. This implicit suggestion that America is primarily responsible for Iraqi success against ISIL also serves to discredit Iraqi forces, such as when Pentagon officials even “attributed the recent Iraqi success in Ramadi to new equipment provided by the US.”

Iraqi forces are planning to perform an offensive similar to Fallujah on Mosul, one of cities that ISIL had captured in June 2014. Instead of applauding their strategic achievements, articles in the New York Times focus on the US involvement. An article explicitly stated that the Pentagon was behind “groundwork for the fight” for Mosul while another suggested that Iraq was “ill equipped to retake Mosul from ISIS, despite US aid”. This misrepresentation of dynamics between Iraq and the US incorrectly suggests that Iraq is entirely dependent on US support. The same article brushed the recent Iraqi Ramadi offensive and the Fallujah offensive in the Iraq War in 2004 as US-led, even implying that it would be difficult to wage a war against ISIL in Mosul without American air support. This is misleading because it disregards the military capabilities demonstrated by Iraqi forces in recapturing Fallujah, which was carried out against the approval of American advisors.

But a graver concern is the tendency of American mass media to group Middle Eastern countries together under a common umbrella. For instance, the New York Times has published sweeping statements on “Arab” countries and their response to ISI:. In one such article, the newspaper indicated that while the US prepared to “intensity airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the ‘Arab allies’ have ‘vanished from the campaign’ to fight the ‘rebels in Syria.'” This statement embodies the major issues in Western media coverage of Iraq’s response to ISIL. First, the idea that “Arab allies” have a collective and cohesive response to ISIL is not only false but ignorant as well. Iraq’s response to ISIL differs radically from Saudi Arabia’s response and so on. Second, the Western media has quantified efforts against ISIL in a Western way by looking at the scale of military operations. Iraq simply cannot afford to repeatedly carry out air strikes and drone attacks on a terrorist organization embedded in its society. And finally, the coverage overlooks the fact that Iraq has had to face a broader range of stressors and concerns than the US over the rise of ISIL, including questions over Middle-Eastern solidarity post-ISIL, resources for humanitarian reconstruction and stabilization of the society, deployment of troops, and the reduction of the ever-widening divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Iraq deserves some acknowledgement because it has managed to find substantial success against ISIL without the liberty of distance that the US and other Western states have.

The discrepancy in reporting on terrorist attacks not only has dangerous consequences but also speaks to a larger empathy gap in discussions of ISIL and Iraq. The imbalanced understanding of the security efforts in the Middle East has led to a disproportionate media focus on the American response to ISIL. This framing perpetuates the inaccurate belief that nations like Iraq are not doing enough to combat ISIL. In the long run, this belief can harm regional stability and is counterproductive to stronger cooperation between US and Iraqi forces against ISIL.