The Western Media Effect

In Sept. 2005, Randall Joyce, then-CBS News acting Baghdad bureau chief, told me that one of the hurdles in covering "good news" stories from Iraq was that the presence of Western news organizations can draw the unwanted attention of insurgents.

"We run into situations where we're willing to go someplace but the people beg us not to come, because we're putting them at risk by our presence," he said. "They can be seen as collaborators by the insurgents. We pack up our cameras, and then five hours, five days, five weeks later, who knows what happens."

The Western media effect is still something Iraqis need to watch out for, as a story in today's USA Today illustrates. The 14th of Ramadan Mosque, which has become one of the defining monuments in Baghdad, has served as the backdrop for many a TV report. And that has made it a target.

"The maximum number of people you would see is about 15 at the noon and afternoon praying," Sheik Omar al-Saedi, the imam of the Sunni mosque, told USA Today. "Nobody comes at the dawn prayer." al-Saedi's predecessor was killed last year.

More from the paper:

A truck bomb that tore through the nearby Sadeer Hotel in 2004 blew tiles off the rear of the mosque's dome, al-Saedi said. More damage occurred when the Palestine Hotel was bombed later that year.

When Sunni insurgents bombed a shrine in Samarra in February 2006, Shiites retaliated against the 14th of Ramadan Mosque, which was hit by gunfire. Shiites briefly took over the mosque until U.S. forces protecting the Palestine chased them away, al-Saedi said.

Bullet marks remain on the sand-colored outer walls.

There is a certain circularity to a media report about the damage done to the mosque as a result of various media reports, though an American newspaper story probably doesn't have anything near the impact that a report on an international news network might. Regardless, the mosque's ordeal is a reminder that reporting in Iraq is never simple, and that even the most innocuous journalistic conventions – in this case, the desire for an evocative backdrop to a particular report – can have unintended consequences.