A contingent of conservatives talk radio hosts is headed to Iraq this month on a mission to report "the truth" about the war: American troops are winning, despite headlines to the contrary.
The "Truth Tour" has been pulled together by the conservative webcast radio group Rightalk.com and Move America Forward, a non-profit conservative group backed by a Republican-linked public relations firm in California.
"The reason why we are doing it is we are sick and tired of seeing and hearing headlines by the mainstream media about our defeat in Iraq," Melanie Morgan, a talk radio host for KSFO Radio in San Francisco and co-chair of Move America Forward, said.
Morgan said the media is "imposing a Vietnam template on this war."
"This is not Vietnam," she said. "War is war, and it's dangerous, and the killing is taking place all of the time. At the same time, where there is danger, there is success and there is a mainstream media that is determined to shut out that success."
She said the group is going to Iraq to support American troops, who see a disconnection with what they experience and what's being reported in the United States. She said the incongruence is leading to "morale problems."
But critics, including independent journalists who have reported from Iraq, say the trip is a propaganda mission for the U.S. military and the Bush administration and cannot be considered "journalism" by any standards.
"This is the most pathetic thing I've heard in a long time. They should be ashamed of themselves," Peter Beinart, editor of left-leaning The New Republic magazine, said.
"They have no idea what journalism is, and to pretend they are journalists is laughable," Beinart said. "You do not achieve victory by not facing reality. I think these are the kinds of people that will lead us to lose there."
The delegation, which Morgan said is being funded by individual radio stations and the hosts themselves, will be leaving on Friday for about a week.
They will be broadcasting from U.S Central Command headquarters in Baghdad's Green Zone (search) and will be traveling with the troops daily.
The group will kick off the trip with a "Thank You BBQ" for the troops at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Fla., before traveling to Kuwait to visit with soldiers. They will be flown from there to Iraq via military transport and will be sleeping in tents inside the secured Green Zone.
According to retired Col. Buzz Patterson, host of "The Buzz Cut" on Rightalk, the delegation of seven to 10 conservatives will also include two writers from the website FrontPage Magazine, which is published by David Horowitz and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
"The war is being won, if not already won, I think," Patterson, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, said. "[Iraq] is stabilized and we want the soldiers themselves to tell the story."
The trip comes at a time when public support for the war is at its lowest ever, according to polls, and as daily insurgent attacks against U.S. and Iraqi troops have increased. The last two months have been among the most violent since the June 2004 handover of sovereignty to the new Iraqi government with more U.S. soldiers dying than in any other months except for the two preceding the January 2005 election.
"I think they are going to discover very quickly that Iraq is an extremely dangerous place," Joe Conason, editor for American Prospect magazine and author of Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, said. "The realities of the war zone are likely to intrude on whatever ideological disposition they have going in there."
According to government statistics and aggregated news reports compiled by the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, aside from insurgent attacks, the quality of life for Iraqis is mixed. Oil exports in June were down from the same month last year. Unemployment is only slightly better, but still high: 27 percent. Electricity in Baghdad lasts for about 9.4 hours a day — down from 10 hours a day.
Lack of clean water and sewage problem, and resulting water-born illnesses, also continue to be a problem in many parts of the country, say Iraqi medical officials. Less than half of the $20 billion allocated for reconstruction projects had been disbursed as of June.
Nonetheless, more than 1 million more Iraqi children are going to school than in 2002, the index shows. Power, water and sewage projects are ongoing. Public works jobs are being created and the government infrastructure is developing, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, a lead agency in post-war reconstruction.
"In my opinion, the mainstream media is being biased in not reporting enough of what is going on — they are not reporting the grinding situation on the ground where Iraqis are living in a state they've never lived in before," Dahr Jamail, an American freelance writer who was un-embedded in Iraq until February, said.
Mark Williams, talk show host for KFBK in Sacramento and a member of the delegation, said the group will report "what we see and what we are told," but their collective feeling is that there is mostly good.
"We believe that the emphasis has been placed on the negative and if Americans knew what really was going on over there they would have an entirely different picture," said Williams.
"We are Americans first and journalists second, as opposed to the crop of 'pinkos' that tell us on the news every night that America is going to hell in a hand basket," he said.
Steve Rendall, senior analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, said with an attitude like that, the trip will probably be useless in terms of real news-making.
He pointed out that not a single "mainstream" newspaper has editorialized in favor of a military withdrawal from Iraq and challenged the radio jocks to get any unfiltered information during their "velvet rope" treatment.
"If these talk show hosts are going over there to find good news no matter what, their trip is useless," he said. "It would be laughable if it wasn't as troubling as it is when they call it 'The Truth Tour.'"
Morgan, a former television reporter, said she and the others are tired of "hotel journalists" from "the mainstream media" who "sit around in a hotel bar" cribbing other writers' quotes and clips "so they don’t have to go out and cover the war."
"We are not going to engage in hotel journalism," she said.
"If that's what they are going to do, than my hat would be off to them, but that would mean they would have to go around, un-embedded, without military escort," Jamail who runs a Web blog and has written for the BBC, Asia Times and The Nation, said. "That would mean talking to ordinary Iraqis."
Rendall said that such a pro-Bush administration mission might be inappropriately supported by taxpayer money, considering the delegation will be hosted on bases and brought over on military transport.
"If they were actually reporters out to tell the story, good, bad, warts and all, than it wouldn't be entirely objectionable," he said. "But if they are acting entirely as government propagandists, which seems to be the case here, it's improper."
Rendall noted it "bears comparison to the Armstrong Williams and the other instances" of government payment for good news, referring to conservative talk show host Williams, who was paid by the Department of Education to pump up school choice on his radio show in 2004.
The radio hosts balked at the suggestion.
"We're paying our own accommodations. My wife and I are paying $15,000 for this trip," Williams said. "We're cargo. We're given a smelly cot and the same accommodations as the troops. Basically, all the U.S. military is doing for us is letting us pay our own trip into war."
The talk show hosts say more of the successes must be told and the troops need to know that Americans see the positive things they are allowing to happen in Iraq.
"If we see things that aren't going well, sure we're talk show hosts, we'll talk about it," Patterson said. "But there has been no balance. I'm concerned that there are all of these positive things not being reported."