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Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq

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Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq by Tom Basile. Potomac Books, 2017. 320 pp.

“Quid est veritas?”  Pontius Pilate’s famous question to Christ in the Gospel of John (John 18:38) has puzzled mankind for thousands of years, from the time of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle to the modern age. What is truth? What is reality?  How is it that we know what we know—or think we know?  In an era of conflicting worldviews, politicized reporting, social media-fueled public shaming, and real or imagined “fake news,” these are questions that cut to the heart of what it means to live in the modern world.  In a time when perceptions are fractured, and public opinion can be shaped by any individual with a smartphone, a Twitter account, and an opinion, the power of mass/social media to enlighten and inspire, or, conversely, to obfuscate and divide, is stronger than ever before.

In Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq, Tom Basile, a media commentator, author, and recent New York State Senate candidate, takes questions of public perception and media power as his objects. The lens through which he examines these questions is Iraq. As the war in Iraq began in March 2003, Basile was serving as a communications director for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); in July of that year, he was offered a new opportunity: a civilian deployment to Baghdad to serve as a senior press advisor to the newly-minted Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Tough Sell details Basile’s seven-month deployment to Iraq and, in the form of a memoir, aims to provide a firsthand account of the Bush administration’s media and communications strategy within the CPA, as well as examine the ways in which the international news media presented, or, in Basile’s opinion, unfairly misrepresented, the US’s and its allies’ progress in Iraq. 

In his introduction, Basile kicks off the action in media res, detailing his harrowing initial descent into Baghdad and then widening his aperture to outline his concerns about how media/communications intersect with geopolitics and national success. Framing his goal for the rest of the work, Basile writes that, in this age of information, policy makers must “effectively articulate policy, manage their message strategy, and counter misinformation[.]” Failure to do these things, he argues, will result in policy makers being “unable to execute policy.”  

From this ambitious beginning, Tough Sell dives into a largely chronological narrative, beginning as Basile decides to leave his job at the EPA and accept an offered position as a press advisor for the CPA. The reader watches Basile prepare for deployment; experiences his first days in Iraq, installed in a makeshift barracks set up in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces; follows him to new quarters in Baghdad’s Al Rashid Hotel; and accompanies him on his day-to-day work managing media affairs for the CPA.  Along the way, the author has myriad adventures that, as advertised, portray his unique experiences in Iraq. Basile plans press conferences and media events in Baghdad, travels Iraqi Kurdistan to coordinate the opening of the memorial/museum dedicated to victims of Saddam’s chemical attacks on the city of Halabja, survives the bombing of the Al Rashid and chafes at the mainstream media’s focus on reporting the news that “bleeds” at the expense of covering Iraq’s “good-news” stories. He also meets a wide range of interesting characters—Iraqi, American, British, and more—devoted to making Iraq a better place; indeed, perhaps no portion of Tough Sell is better than Basile’s chapter devoted to Iraq’s fledgling post-Saddam journalists and their attempts to develop a robust local media after decades of tyranny. 

Although Tough Sell is fascinating in many respects, it has at least two significant flaws. The first is its unabashedly conservative political bent. It is not surprising that, given Basile’s position as an executive branch political appointee during the Bush presidency, his book should convey his political beliefs. Indeed, Basile’s political passion is precisely what has motivated him to note the significant problem of media bias and its very real, and sometimes pernicious, effects on public perception. The problem is not Basile’s conservatism per se; it is the frequency with which Tough Sell is peppered with pithy antiliberal barbs or overdone praise of conservative principles or politicians. President George W. Bush, for instance, made the “boldest presidential decision in decades” (implementing the “surge” strategy in Iraq in 2006), had “fortitude to stay the course” in Iraq, and, perhaps most significantly of all for a media advisor, had “a wonderful way of breaking down complicated concepts into their most basic form.” President Barack Obama, on the other hand, “discounted [the Islamic State] as fantasy” and made the “catastrophic decision” to order a “precipitous withdrawal of troops” from Iraq, resulting in the Islamic States’ take-over of large areas of the country. Writing his book in this way is a missed opportunity for Basile. Rather than attempting to persuade readers of varied political stripes that media bias and limited media perceptions are problematic, Basile has contented himself to preaching to the largely conservative choir.

The second flaw is, perhaps, simply a consequence of Tough Sell’s being written as a memoir rather than a direct examination of the problem of media bias. A book should not be criticized for failing to be something its author never intended it to be. As I was reading Tough Sell, however, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what the book could have been—especially given Basile’s ambitious introductory chapter. As I noted above, the questions underpinning the media’s role in modern society and modern war could not be more timely. While Basile, near the end of the book, offers his thoughts on why the Bush administration lost the media war in Iraq (a combination of media bias, staffing issues, interagency communication failures, flawed media engagement strategies on the part of the Administration itself, and the shifting winds of politics), Tough Sell would have been improved by a greater emphasis on how the Bush administration—or any presidential administration or military operation—could have managed its media engagement and messaging better. 

All this said, Basile’s project with Tough Sell is an important one. As Basile writes in the introduction to the book, “regardless of one’s views on the Iraq War, we may very well engage in a mission like this again. Our ability to counter terrorism requires our active engagement and that requires our ability to sell and sustain policy.” In our information-rich age, truer words could not be written. Current and future policy makers cannot ignore the influences of the mass media or the largely unpredictable influence of social media, when formulating and pursuing policy goals. Particularly in the realm of armed conflict, the stakes of articulating policy; clearly messaging goals, successes, and strategies; and countering misinformation could not be greater. With Tough Sell, Basile draws needed attention to this dilemma.

 

Capt Jeremy J. Grunert, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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