Outsiders, Looking In
The Press: Too Far From the Story?
By Philip Bennett
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page B01
It's a curious vocation that calls you to risk your life for a story. This occurred to me over dinner last week during a visit to the shabby confines of The Post's Baghdad bureau. The five foreign correspondents around the table had covered, by my calculation, nearly the entire map of conflicts since Vietnam: Lebanon, Grenada, Central America, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Chechnya, Kosovo, the West Bank and Gaza, East Timor, Colombia, Afghanistan.
Iraq is different. Good reporting is as urgently needed as ever, with lives and the political futures of perhaps two countries at stake. But it has never seemed more dangerous. Kidnappings and ambushes have driven most foreign civilians out of the country, or into bunkers guarded by U.S. soldiers. For journalists, the familiar rules of engagement have been stripped away. Gone is the assumption that correspondents are more valuable as witnesses than as targets, and that they share only the risks that all civilians face in wartime. To insurgents, foreign journalists are foreigners first, just another element of an occupying force to which we don't belong. This was brought home to us on Friday, when gunmen followed and ambushed an armored car carrying Post correspondent Daniel Williams and a driver. Their escape, unharmed, seemed providential.
An atmosphere of particular menace has diminished independent reporting about the conflict, especially since the Sunni and Shiite uprisings began in April. Original and courageous work is still coming from the best journalists. But the overall effect has been to separate correspondents from the story they're in Iraq to cover. After more than a year of relative freedom to follow questions wherever they led -- often into the heart of Iraqi experiences -- the media have renewed their reliance on embedding themselves with the U.S. military and on filtering reports from Iraqi stringers who can go where they cannot.
It is worth asking whether these conditions make coverage overly negative, expressing journalists' oppressive sense of siege, or too complacent, reflecting the reporters' estrangement from Iraqis and their lives. As an editor spending a few days in Baghdad with Post correspondents and local staff, I didn't see evidence to support either view. But I was struck that what is invisible in Iraq now feels much larger than what is visible. Seeing what's going on there is probably the most hazardous and important job today in American journalism, but it requires getting out into a harrowing world.
"If you talk about it too much, you'll never do it," admonished Abu Saif, a former engineer with Iraqi Airways. He is the chief translator and guide for The Post's Baghdad bureau, which is run by our bureau chief, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, with a rotation of three or four Post correspondents from other bureaus. About a dozen Iraqis are employed as translators, managers and office guards.
But how much talking is too much? On May 28, the day I arrived in Baghdad, two Japanese journalists and their driver were killed in an ambush on the highway through Mahmudiyah, 15 miles south of Baghdad. We had been discussing a similar trip. Should we drive the same notorious stretch to get to Najaf, the scene of recent fighting? Would it make a difference if the correspondent were fair-skinned? Would a woman be safer? Should we send the armored car or a battered wreck, which would be less conspicuous? Was it true that Iraqi police at roadblocks were alerting insurgents when foreigners passed? In the end, that day, no one from the bureau went. Other journalists made it safely. Had we made the right call?
Even within the confines of Baghdad, the specific risks are difficult to gauge. It feels normal on the surface, with a cold, creepy undercurrent grabbing at your feet. As I rode to appointments in an armored car, the driver, Falah, would say, "This is a good area," and a few minutes later, "This is a bad area." The streets were crowded with people, with traffic, with trash simmering in the blinding heat; that is, they looked like Baghdad before the war. But a British security consultant who has worked with The Post, Tug Wilson, said that in his view, "Foreigners are targets at all times everywhere in Iraq." This is apart from the gunfire and explosions, which have become so ubiquitous in the city that most go unreported. One bright morning last week, Post correspondent Williams looked out the window of an office during an interview to see a small circle of men raise and fire a mortar from the banks of the Tigris River. In a car a short distance away near the American occupation headquarters, our colleague Ed Cody watched the same mortar explode in front of him.
Foreign journalists in Baghdad live outside the Green Zone, the fortified downtown enclave of several square miles that contains offices and living quarters for American administrators attached to the Coalition Provisional Authority. The architecture of the occupation reinforces its isolation. The Green Zone (or Emerald City, some joke) is encased in concrete barriers, razor wire, sandbags and warnings in English and Arabic that "deadly force is authorized." The defenses are thoroughly justified -- the compound is a regular target of car bombs and rockets. But an unintended consequence of the Green Zone's creation is to have transformed the rest of Iraq into the Red Zone, presumably hostile.
The press has constructed an archipelago of mini-green zones, either in leased homes with private security guards or in hotels, some protected by U.S. forces because the hotels also host foreign contractors. In February, Post correspondents and staff abandoned the oasis of a private residence after an attack on one of our translators (he was unharmed) and surveillance of the house by unidentified men. They moved into a floor of the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel. The Sheraton and the adjacent Palestine Hotel have become fortresses, surrounded by concrete barriers, a U.S. guard post and a perimeter that keeps traffic blocks away. It is debatable whether the precautions deter or incite attackers (the "Sheraton Ishtarget" a colleague called it). It seems the safest option for now.
The security firm employing Tug Wilson helped design a safety plan for the new bureau, and trained local drivers and office guards. Most daily decisions about security fall on the shoulders of Chandrasekaran, who at 31 has spent nearly two years in Iraq, and whose long days (Washington deadlines fall at 2 a.m. in Baghdad) are divided between journalism and keeping everyone safe. He hired the generally overqualified Iraqis who often keep the same punishing hours as the rest of the bureau, and who risk being targeted for collaborating with Americans. I won't describe details of our security precautions, but it requires Chandrasekaran to know the whereabouts of correspondents and to assess trips outside the hotel.
Correspondents try to keep a low profile. Post reporters and photographers do not conduct interviews with armed escorts, as do some media organizations. Journalists do not wear body armor in most settings so as not to appear to be government contractors or paramilitaries. Carefully calculated risks still seem reasonable. Over the past week, Williams, Cody and photographer Andrea Bruce Woodall of The Post have traveled independently to Baqubah and Sadr City for stories about anti-American sentiment -- but only after careful discussion and, in the case of Sadr City, a preliminary trip to test the mood.
But there are areas where firsthand, independent reporting is not possible. This has made us more reliant on official sources, especially on American authorities. Such was the case after a U.S. attack on a village in western Iraq on May 19 killed about 40 people. Witnesses said that the victims, among them women and children, were attending a wedding; U.S. officials said they were insurgents. We tried for days to figure out a safe route to the village to resolve this dramatic discrepancy. Our Iraqi employees agreed that they, too, would be at risk if they reported from the scene.
To cover the U.S. military offensive against the forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, arguably as decisive to the country's future as the naming of an interim government, we have relied on Iraqi stringers filing by telephone to our correspondents in Baghdad, and on embedding with the military. The stringers are not professional journalists, and their reports are heavy on the simplest direct observation. Embedding has provided a fleeting and partial view. The 1st Armored Division, which is fighting Sadr's forces, is able to accommodate four embedded reporters at a time. Unlike during the invasion last year, when embedding (despite its limitations) yielded a valuable portrait of at least one side of the battle, we are currently seeing a dim picture of both.
Most profoundly, the threat of violence has distanced us from Iraqis. In a narrow sense, it has left unanswered critical questions about the forces opposing the occupation. Who is the enemy? What does its religious and political identity say about the future of the country and the U.S. presence there?
Broadly, reporting Iraqi experiences of the invasion and occupation over the last year has been the key to understanding what is going on. Intimate portraits of Iraqis won The Post's Anthony Shadid a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year (he is now on leave to write a book) and conditioned the way journalists assessed the challenges, successes and failures of the occupation. To report this now, American media will have to continue to adapt, including turning increasingly to journalists whose proficiency in Arabic and physical appearance allow them to move through Iraq without standing out.
Reporting Iraqis' views and aspirations seems more critical today than at any point since the invasion. The people of Iraq have gone from being spectators and objects of American plans to being agents of change. They are leading their country, and ours, down an uncertain path. This is a story waiting to be told.
Philip Bennett is The Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
In the line of fire: An Iraqi policeman inspects the car of two foreign journalists ambushed and killed on May 7.
(Muhammed Muheisen -- AP)