Home / Opinion / Flying blind in Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State has accompanied its brutal takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria with the kidnapping and beheading of journalists. Any Western journalists who would dare to venture into Islamic State territory today would be risking their lives every second. So the US is now involved in the first prolonged war in the modern Middle East that American reporters and photographers can’t cover firsthand on a daily basis. That is not good.

But it gets worse. The Times reported last week that the Islamic State had one of its British hostages act as a combat reporter in a propaganda video from the Syrian town of Kobani, and suggesting that the Islamic State was getting even more savvy in promoting its cause by adopting the techniques of a 24-hour news channel.

And it will get even worse. Dylan Byers, Politico’s media reporter, wrote on 23 October that the FBI had sent a bulletin to news organizations warning that the Islamic State had identified reporters as “legitimate targets for retribution attacks".

What are we missing by not having reporters permanently present inside Islamic State territory? A lot. Retiring Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns recently authored a piece in Foreign Policy magazine with his parting advice to US diplomats. He quoted Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News giant, advising incoming diplomats that the “really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact—one person talking to another.’’

The same is true for reporters and photographers. Sure, polls, graphs and Twitter feeds are important. They are one form of data. But interviewing another human being about hopes and dreams, fears and hatreds, is also a form of data collecting and analysis. You can’t capture in numbers a raised eyebrow or a wry smile or the fear in a refugee’s eyes or the regret in a militiaman’s voice. Sometimes just listening to someone’s silence speaks volumes.

I often reflect on interviews I did with Egyptian women in Cairo in the 2012 election that brought a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency. Almost all of them had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi. But when I asked why, not a single one cited religion. Instead they said that Morsi would bring jobs, security, sidewalks, better living conditions and end corruption. Morsi was eventually toppled for bringing none of those, not because he was impious.

Recently, Vice News used the veteran Al-Jazeera and Arabic photojournalist Medyan Dairieh to produce a compelling documentary from Syria, called “The Islamic State." But that was a one-shot deal done with “conditions in order to get in and get out with your life," Jason Mojica, the Vice News editor-in-chief, told a panel at NYU, according to The Huffington Post.

I asked Mina al-Oraibi, assistant editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, how an Arabic daily covered the Islamic State, also known as ISIS: “We have our correspondents supported by a few local stringers who risk their lives by being in touch with us from Iraq." But the reality, she added, “is that much of what we know is either from ISIS militants, or anecdotal stories from observers or people with families in places controlled by ISIS."

Indeed, the Islamic State is telling us what it wants us to know through Twitter and Facebook, and keeping from us anything it doesn’t want us to know. So be wary of what anyone tells you about this war—good, bad or indifferent.

© 2014/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

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