Thursday, August 18

Ugly Implications

Today's top performing industry: Cigarettes.

I'm embarrassed today for my colleagues at the American Society of Business Publish Editors, on account of this "inspiring story" in the current newsletter about the "editor of the embattled nation�s [Iraq's] first trade magazine." Mr. Abid, who is "director-general of private-sector development for the Iraqi Ministry of Trade," "launched his country's first business-to-business magazine in early 2004 to spur private investment and encourage public debate on the country's shift twoard a free-market economy."

Doesn't the notion of a "business-to-business" magazine published by a government official--in order, writes Ms. Quigley of Realtor Magazine Online, to "dispel Iraqis' fears about foreign investment and privatization"--strike you as sort of semantically incoherent?

I always thought that the trade press was made up of independent journalists who, under the "service journalism" paradigm nominally endorsed and celebrated by the ASPBE itself, provide business readers with specialized reporting, under the same ethical guidelines as any journalist, mass-media or trade-press. In Mr. Adin's magazine, the contributors are "a range of people involved in government, business, or trade." Where's the independence in that?

Remember how hard when we protested when it turned out our own government was producing "news reports" promoting its policies? What is the difference here?

Not that there is anything wrong with a government promoting the economic well-being of its nation. More power to Mr. Adin. But this is public relations, not journalism.

And a difficult job of public relations, at that. Mr. Abid, the guest of honor at our recent conference, is quoted as saying,

Many Iraqis have been taught to believe foreigners will exploit them, which makes them especially resistant to foreign investment.

I have read a great deal, in my spare time, as an amateur Mideast buff (I read Arabic well) about the course of Iraqi reconstruction and the "economic shock therapy" approach taken by Ambassador Bremer during his time at the Coalition Provisional Authority. Upon his hasty departure from the country, in fact, Az-Zamman--by no means an anti-American, anti-business newspaper, as Juan Cole points out--described Bremer as second only to Saddam Hussein in the entire history of Uruk, going back to Hammurabi, as a thieving bastard. I think its fair to say that experience has taught Iraqis to believe that foreigners will exploit them. The nation produces less electricity now than before the war. State-run industries have been stripped of employees and capital goods as they await leasing to foreigner investors as shell corporations.

What exactly is the difference between Mr. Adin and the Iraqi minister of information that gave the world a belly-laugh when the U.S. tanks he denied were entering Baghdad started rolling by as he was talking? I can't see any. The free market economy is this case looks a lot like a Hobbesian state of nature, with suicide bombers and enough unsecured ammunition floating around the countryside to keep the roadside bombers going for decades. What does it have to offer the people of Iraq? Full unemployment and fewer hours of electricity per day, even, than Saddam was putting out after a decade of bombing attacks on the country's infrastructure.

You hear a lot of complaints from the noise machine that the press does not report enough of the good news out of Iraq. That's partly because 56 of them who ventured outside the Green Zone to report on what is really happening never made it back.

But let's stick to the subject, shall we? If Minister Abid is a journalist, I'm a monkey's uncle. And I would have to say the same thing for Ms. Quigley. What use are you to your readers if you just rewrite the press release? I like to think that people rely on the trade press, including the modest little tabloid I work for, to provide a little independent reality-testing, not shill for the suppliers. The trade press pays better because specialized publications with small circulation cost more, a lot more. Have we really arrived at the conclusion that our readers will pay us more to lie to them? Maybe there are business leaders of whom that is true, but you don't want to bet your pension money on their capacity to confront and transform reality in valuable ways.

How would you like to be talked into investing in a cement factory in Tikrit and then arrive to find your workforce is moonlighting for the insurgency? It�s called due diligence; our job is supposed to be to help you business folks cut to the chase. The bottom line here: The idea that free markets are going to spring up in Iraq without law and order is a massive joke. And if you don't believe me, I've great a great deal on a bridge, maybe I can get a writeup in the next edition of Realtor Magazine Online ...

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