09 August 2006

The problem of media misreporting

I have previously looked at the problem that modern media, both MSM and online, face with reporting factual imagery and allowing contextual work to be put up for review, so that veracity of actual news reporting can be performed. While a picture may say a thousand words, when it supports a fraudulent or misleading text so as to mislead the reader into thinking one thing when another is going on, then a hard line between analysis and ideological propaganda is crossed. That crossing also happens in the purely textual realm, case in point this Much Undone In Rebuilding of Iraq article at the Washington Post (2 AUG 2006).

The lede and top paragraphs paint a sad and sorry picture of inept military trying to actually build things and falling behind schedule and leaving critical work undone. They are a litany of unending doom and gloom for six paragraphs: 500 projects not started, $2B of $21B left to be spent by the end of September, a poor handover of a prison complex job to an Iraqi firm. Why it is a vertible cloud of doom over the reconstruction effort... until you hit a key contextual paragraph 7 which gives us the following:

The United States has completed 82 percent of its planned projects, having spent $15 billion. Those funds have brought oil and electricity production above prewar levels. They have given 5 million more people access to sanitized water. And they have paid for more than 1,200 security facilities such as fire and police stations.
This is known as 'burying the lede' and putting a huge amount of spin on something. How so? Well let me give you a perspective point that they do *not* put in: the Federal Fiscal Year (FY) starts on 1 OCT, so all funds must be *spent* or fully *committed* by then for spending.

Now, that doesn't seem like much, does it? But consider that there is about 15% of the FY left and they have 10% of the funds left to spend. To anyone inside the Federal Government these figures bespeak of a well run program, contractors holding to deadlines and generally good oversight on fund use going on. The spending profile one would *love* to see in the Federal Government is a nice and easy 1/12 spent every month so that there is ZERO left to be spent by the last few days of September because the money GOES AWAY on 1 OCT and you are into the NEXT FY. Being a bit ahead of the game and still having dollars left to commit at this point that are well within the spending profile is *wonderful*. This points to a rebuilding effort ON TRACK and running well.

The next paragraph really starts begging questions with the stirring 20 out of 140 primary health care facilities started and the oil pipeline problem. They have apparently forgotten that to get people safely to primary medical facilities one needs adequate police protection, and to ensure public safety from rampant fires that fire stations that are manned and operational are *also* needed. So of the 500 projects left, 140 are health care facilities that need highly trained medical specialists, well constructed facilities and ways to ensure basic safety of those using it. And on the pipeline, the question of *why* it is necessary never arises. If the Saddam-era equipment is outstripping what the pipelines that are in place can *deliver* then you absolutely need another pipeline. And maybe, just maybe, the US Army Corps of Engineers is doing an Environmental Impact Study and Safety Study to find the *best* route that is safest for construction, use, maintenance and against leaks due to terrorist attacks. Maybe it is waiting for a good bidding process on this. You will never *know* from the 'story'.

So, even though the bad is put first and the good things are buried, the context belies the tone of the 'story'. Things, from a perspective of Federal programmatic spending and accountability, far from being hapless and hopeless are actually running well and smoothly. Those numbers do not happen by accident on multi-FY cycle budgeting. Nor are they reflective of poor management skills or poor programmatic capability.

The latter part of the 'story' to show that there may have been misappropriation of funds... well, let me say that this is also relatively common in Federal programs where different budgetary sources have different needs and some programs need intra-year shifts of money between pots to get the work done. This is the 'color of money' problem: money for Procurement cannot be used for Operations & Maintenance and vice-versa. Yes, money is divvied into particular expenditure categories and if need shifts you then need to do hard and fast trading between categories, all the while the clock is ticking because something unforeseen has happened that absolutely *must* be addressed for the project to continue. Being 'behind schedule and over budget' is the NORM for Federal work, not the exception. And this is even *before* talking contract legalities and who may or may not be used as a sub-contractor and who may or may not work on a project, and what happens if the contractor project lead is replaced by someone new that is clueless...

What world do these journalists come from where everything is on-time, on-budget, on-track and works *perfectly* the first time out? Even businesses have problems with that.

And in the era of the Internet this thing does *not* go unnoticed. It has gotten a response.

From Major General William H. McCoy, Jr. the man IN CHARGE of the reconstruction effort from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

To sum it up: he is less than pleased with the reporting done by the journalists in question.
After spending almost three days traveling with and being interviewed by one of the co-writers of a very poorly written article (“Much Undone in Rebuilding Iraq, Audit says”, Washington Post, August 2, 2006), I’m astounded at how distorted a good story can become and what agenda drives a paper to see only the bad side to the reconstruction effort here in Iraq. Instead of distorting the facts, let’s get to the truth.
In point of fact I would say that after showing the journalists quite a bit of hospitality, taking them to many work sites, showing them the good and hard work being done by IRAQI contractors and the effort to ensure that Iraqi's can control the projects handed over to them, yes I would say that 'ticked off' is a bit of an understatement. He laid out the programmatics for them, showed them the spending figures, demonstrated how things were going, admitted to rough spots, but put forward to these journalists that things were going rather well after a poor start-up in 2003. The journalists seem to think it is STILL 2003, apparently.

I thank Maj. Gen. McCoy for all of the excellent work being done and for having a highly competent and capable staff that knows how to get programs spun up even when they need to re-order them with changes in Governmental outlook in Iraq and Washington. That has to be a deucedly complex thing to do and they are doing it well if not superbly.

This is *not* fraudulent depiction with images. It is wholesale misrepresentation and fabrication of a 'story' using a cherry picker to get the few bad cherries while ignoring the tons of cherries harvested, then complaining about the few bad ones they had to search for.

This reporting is not journalistically 'fair', even for biased reporters.

It is propaganda to put forth a viewpoint on the capability of the US Armed Forces and, in particular, the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The folks at USACE have *enough* problems dealing with local politics, regional politics, national politics, international politics, changing priorities from all of those levels, estimating funding, put work up for bid, vetting the bids, ensuring that good bids are chosen from reputable contractors, ensuring the work is started properly and in the proper order, keeping a full accounting of funds and, oh, by the way, needing to defend themselves from hostile fire now and again.

Of the bullet and explosive sort.

Are there problems in Iraq? Yes.

Do I have problems with USACE on other things? Yes, I do. But those criticisms *also* take the multi-variate political schema into account. Plus they can only do today's state of the art, not tomorrows. They get lots of leeway for that.

Are these problems in Iraq worse than, say, the Dept. of Agriculture has on programs and projects? No.

Actually, they are probably doing a much *better* job than Agriculture, which *still* has not found a way to test for 'Mad Cow' disease across the entire herd. Not that they have been studying it for 5 years or anything....

My deepest thanks to the US Army Corps of Engineers for the fine work they are doing in harder circumstances than *any* civilian will ever know.

1 comment:

A Jacksonian said...

I always enjoyed my Uncle Joe's quote: "Figures don't lie, but liars sure can figure!"

I apply that to the MSM constantly... even for the so-called 'elite' at the WaPo, they don't seem to have a good handle even on the local beat, which is the Federal Government! Insane that they do not even do the basic contextual work of looking at the numbers they get.