JOE PALCA, host:
Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.
Comedian and author Al Franken just returned from his fourth USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan. In an op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he wrote about media coverage of the American presence in the war-torn region and the conundrum of finding and reporting, quote, good news in Iraq.
As always, we'd like to hear from you. What is relevant in reporting in Iraq? What do you think the media should focus on? Is it their job to report good news, or should they focus on the big picture? Our number is 800-989-TALK. That's 800-989-8255, and you can send us an e-mail at talk - I'm sorry, firstname.lastname@example.org. That's it, email@example.com. Got it.
Al Franken joins us by phone from New York. Welcome and Happy New Year.
Mr. AL FRANKEN (Op-ed Appeared in Sunday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune): Happy New Year.
PALCA: So you write in this column that many troops are frustrated with the way that the media is covering the war. Certainly, the administration has, at times, been extremely frustrated about the good things that are going under-reported. What about that?
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, I think there's a big difference between the administration being frustrated and the troops being frustrated, and that's sort of what the story's about, or the op-ed is about. Because, you know, when I do these USO tours and I talk to - you know, we do a show, and I tell some jokes, but a lot of what I do is just sit in the dining halls and talk to these guys.
And there a sense of frustration that they have that the good things that they do don't get reported. And I think it's legitimate. On the other hand, you hear from, like, Laura Bush, you know, a few days before I went there, complaining that not enough good stories are reported, and I really bridle at that because the press' job is really to report the big picture and all - I mean - and the small picture, but as it relates to the big picture.
So you'll hear sometimes from right wing people saying oh, you know, these guys, these soldiers and Marines, they go visit schools and give them school supplies and paint the schools, and you don't hear about that. And part of the reason you don't hear about that is the macro picture, which is - or part of the macro picture, which is that the principals at the school beg reporters not to write about it because if it's written about, the school becomes a target.
So there's sort of a - I make distinction between micro stories and macro stories. I point to three stories that I sort of encountered when I was there. I was at the hospital in the green zone, where they treat American troops, but they also treat Iraqis who have been hurt in violence that either involves American troops or where they're brought there because of collateral kind of things or other violence. And you know, a great thing, treating an Iraqi 12-year-old, you know.
Mr. FRANKEN: But the reason he was in there was that there was this spasm of sectarian violence, this up-tick in sectarian violence. So while obviously, our medical people are doing unbelievable stuff that deserves to be reported on and is reported on. That's another thing, is that some of these things are definitely reported on.
And then there was a sewage system, a fairly primitive one, that's being rebuilt in Ramadi by these troops. But that's the good story. The bad story is that I talked to one of the infantrymen who works out of a forward-commanding combat operating base, which is like a house, basically, with like 20 guys, 20 troops there.
And he's lost a lot of friends, and he's scared, and he's depressed, and he wants to get out of there. But they've helped rebuild this sewage system in this area of Ramadi, which is just, again, out of control. But then there's some other good stories there that are being reported, that some clergy there are cooperating. But that is a bigger story.
And another point I didn't make in the piece but should - would like to make is that without these good stories - another story I reported on was a JAG officer who is helping, working with Iraqi judges to try to implement, you know, a judicial system, a provincial judicial system in the province he was in. He believes that we never should've invaded Iraq, this guy, but he thinks if we left precipitously, the place would just explode in sectarian violence.
So there's all kinds of - there's the micro good story, and there's sort of the macro awful story. And this administration has - one of the things I was going to say is that if we weren't doing these good things, which by the way we've done throughout - a lot of these kinds of things throughout the whole history of the war as the whole situation has deteriorated.
So to report the good things and, you know, the feel-good stories or the good-news stories, there's a frustration from these troops who are putting - you know, waking up every day doing the best that they can. They are absolutely dedicated. They're courageous. They're the ones bearing the sacrifice, and they don't see these stories reported. But on the other hand -
PALCA: Well, hang on. We're talking to Al Franken about the op-ed piece that he wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Sorry, go ahead, Al.
Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, okay. Where was I? I was just saying that, you know, the press got it from this administration, you know, that there were definitely - there was no doubt there were weapons of mass destruction.
PALCA: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. FRANKEN: They got that we're sending enough troops, that we've always sent as many troops as the commander -
PALCA: So in other words, you're arguing that they've gotten as much good press in the past as they could have hoped for, and now that the situation has taken a turn for the worse, they've got to expect that the bad is going to catch up with them.
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, they're not credible.
PALCA: That they're not credible. I see what you're saying. Okay.
Mr. FRANKEN: They're absolutely not credible, and then for them to complain -and my basic feeling at the end of the piece is that if the president, and this is through his wife, I guess, is going to complain about the lack of good-news stories, it's really him. He needs to take responsibility for all the amazing amount of bumbling that's been going on throughout the course of this war.
Now first of all, invading in the first place on a false pretense, I believe.
PALCA: Well, here's the question that occurred to me as I was reading your op-ed piece, and that is - this is this whole notion of balance. And even you mentioned that there's hundreds of thousands of good stories, and certainly there are bad stories, as well. And you sort of get the feeling like yes, the bad stories are probably the proximal ones, but the media has a tendency, have a tendency, to go after the bad stories.
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, I think they need to go after the stories that speak to the American people's desire to either get, you know - to get out with the least damage and least hard to our troops and to our position internationally and to the Iraqi people.
PALCA: Okay. Well, we have time for one quick call. Let's go to Mike in St. Louis, Missouri. Mike, welcome to the program. Are you there?
MIKE (Caller): Thanks to your guest. I heard your posit, and I think that we need to have the information that helps us make the decision, and too many stories about individual soldiers and the kind of stories that kind of stories that tend to make headlines takes us away from the decision we have to make. You know, should we be at war, or should we not? So we need the larger picture, I think. And I wonder what your guest might think about that.
PALCA: Okay. Mike, thanks for that call. Al Franken, we only have about a minute to go.
Mr. FRANKEN: Okay. Well, that's sort of what I'm saying with the piece, is that the troops are focused on what they're doing that day and on their mission that day, and they're serving admirably, and they have an understandable frustration that doesn't get reported.
But what the press really does need to report is what impacts the story of are we going to get out, and what is the progress of the war. And because this administration has really, throughout the history of the war, over-sold our successes and under-sold our failures, and we find ourselves in pretty much a no-win situation, they have to report the tough stuff.
PALCA: We have to wrap it up. Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. FRANKEN: Thank you.
PALCA: That's Al Franken. He joined us from New York. His op-ed piece appeared in yesterday's Minneapolis Tribune. You can find a link at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.
And remember, all our recent Opinion Pages are available for download as podcasts. Just stop npr.org/talk for more information.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca in Washington.
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