Scrambling for Cover -- and Coverage
Spiraling Iraq Violence Keeps Reporters Away From Action
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page C01
The view from Iraq is getting narrower just as things are getting worse.
Growing violence is forcing Western correspondents to change their approach to reporting, restrict their travel and pass up stories that are now deemed too risky.
John Burns, the New York Times's Baghdad bureau chief, and several colleagues were blindfolded and driven to a makeshift prison last month before being released after eight hours. The next day, Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and his driver were abducted by gun-toting men with scarves tied over their faces, but released when their captors were convinced they were not spies.
"Once you're taken hostage and blindfolded and driven out into the desert by angry, threatening men, there's really nothing you can do," Burns says. "Did it change the way we operate? Yes it did." In consulting with the paper's security guards, "we feel now we have to be reasonably satisfied the hazards are acceptably low before we'll contemplate a trip. It's a very, very dangerous assignment. . . . And that's uppermost in the minds of all the reporters all the time."
Many journalists now spend much of their time inside the capital's "green zone," which is protected by the U.S. military.
"We've been largely confined to Baghdad," says Bill Spindle, the Wall Street Journal's Middle East editor, who recently returned from Iraq. "With the checkpoints and the kidnappings and the shootings that seem deliberately aimed at people working for Western organizations, moving around has been a dicey proposition."
Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody agrees. "Some days our guys just don't get out of the building where we're located," he says. "Travel across the country is almost impossible now because the roads are too dangerous. It's constricted our ability to report stuff going on that's not just a comment from the CPA," the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Few dared venture into Fallujah when U.S. soldiers were battling Iraqi insurgents there. In a rare move, the five major networks formed a pool to cover the fighting and took their reports from CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul. "The fewer people we have in these crazy places, the better," says Marci McGinnis, vice president for news at CBS, which contributed a camera crew.
More journalists have resumed traveling with military units through the Pentagon's embedding program, which proved so popular during the war against Saddam Hussein. The number of embeds jumped from 26 in February to 71 last month during the fighting in Fallujah and Najaf, and is now back to 26, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says.
"We're much more dependent on embeds than we were, and much more restricted to Baghdad," says Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. "We do get out from time to time. But we haven't really been able to report from Fallujah. It's very frustrating."
The paper's reporters moved out of the house they were living in after rumors of possible danger and had just finished putting up a satellite dish at a Sheraton when the hotel was hit by a grenade. "Pick your poison," Miller says.
Pamela Constable, a Washington Post reporter who recently left Iraq, says conditions for journalists have "dramatically deteriorated," making it more difficult to "cover real people and events in a turbulent and complicated country, not just go to sanitized official briefings surrounded by barbed wire."
Her experience as an embedded reporter in Fallujah "was both enlightening and frustrating. We had near-total access to Marines of all ranks . . . but of course it all occurred within a military bubble of sorts, with no chance to gauge the numbers, motives or degree of popular support enjoyed by their insurgent opponents."
Journalists in the region shuddered earlier this month when a leading Polish TV correspondent, Waldemar Milewicz, and his producer were killed in a machine-gun ambush south of Baghdad although their Daewoo sedan was clearly marked with a "Press" sign.
Editors and reporters describe such precautions as always traveling with two cars in case one breaks down or is attacked, or limiting a foray to Najaf to a single day. Many are leaning more heavily on Iraqi stringers.
"I've put out an edict that I don't want unnecessary travel if it isn't discussed ahead of time with our security and with me," McGinnis says.
The bottom line is that the fog of war is considerably thicker.
"In the end," says Burns, "you're faced with an irreducible risk because there is nothing that will protect you against a rocket-propelled grenade someone fires at a motor vehicle. Nothing will protect you against hostage-taking. Nothing will protect you against roadside bombs."
In a period in which the media are putting out shocking images, the Boston Globe has apologized for running purported pictures of U.S. soldiers raping Iraqi women that appear to be fake.
The Globe last week published a photo of a city councilor and an activist holding supposed pictures of the sexual assaults -- and editors were concerned enough to reduce the size of the picture in later editions.
But after the Web site WorldNetDaily said the pictures were taken from online porn sites, Globe Editor Martin Baron said in a statement that "this photo should not have appeared in the Globe." The images were "overly graphic," he said, and as an accompanying story noted, "those images were never authenticated as photos of prisoner abuse." He apologized for the paper's "lapse in judgment."
Amid the embarrassment, Baron would not say whether the Globe now believes the pictures are phony.
Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter turns out to be quite the Hollywood dealmaker. But magazine executives are denying suggestions in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that he's favoring Tinseltown pals.
Most eye-catching is the $100,000 consulting fee that Carter received from Universal Pictures for suggesting the book excerpt that became the Oscar-winning film "A Beautiful Mind." Carter passed the suggestion to the film's backers, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who have made the last two Vanity Fair lists of new establishment power brokers. Magazine spokeswoman Beth Kseniak says Carter got the six-figure thank-you 18 months after the movie's release.
Carter and three former colleagues also shared a $1 million advance from the book unit of Miramax Films, run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, for an anthology of material from Spy, the now-defunct journal co-founded by Carter. And that doesn't even count his $12,000 fee for a small role in the forthcoming Paramount Pictures remake of "Alfie." Vanity Fair has run a sizable photo of "Alfie" star Jude Law.
Kseniak dismisses the notion that Carter's moonlighting is "somehow making him change the editorial content of the magazine."
"He's not affected by these deals," she says. "As a case in point, Graydon ran an excerpt from a book in February which was very tough on Harvey Weinstein after signing a Miramax book deal in December." A Conde Nast spokeswoman says Carter kept his bosses informed of the deals.
Who You Calling Conservative?
Fox News is demanding a correction from the New York Times for an article describing it as "the conservative cable network."
Since the Times makes no reference to "liberal" networks, is that, well, fair and balanced? "It is either the writer's editorial opinion, which should not have been evidence in a news story, or an intentional attempt to mislabel Fox News," spokesman Robert Zimmerman wrote the paper about Alessandra Stanley's piece.
Times culture editor Steven Erlanger says: "Our decision was that Alessandra, writing as a critic, is well within her rights to call Fox pretty much whatever she wants." He told Fox there was no need for a correction.
Says Stanley: "I think I owe the reader a better definition of Fox and other networks than what they put in their own promotional ads." Besides, she says, "I don't see why they find the label 'conservative' so insulting."
First the Oregonian admitted it shouldn't have used a headline about an "affair" in reporting that former Oregon governor and Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s. Then it ran a column by Bob Burtchaell, a self-described close friend, lauding Goldschmidt as another John F. Kennedy. But rival Willamette Week, which broke the story, said Burtchaell had served as Goldschmidt's intermediary with the girl. "It would have been nice if he had disclosed it to us," said Oregonian editorial page editor Robert Caldwell.
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