Reporting Under a Shadow
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; 8:30 AM
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 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.
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.
Anyone who saw "Meet the Press" yesterday witnessed quite a moment:
A State Department staffer tried to pull the plug on Tim Russert yesterday.
Toward the end of a "Meet the Press" interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Jordan, the camera suddenly moved off Powell to a shot of trees in front of the water.
"You're off," State Department press aide Emily Miller was heard saying.
"I am not off," Powell insisted.
"No, they can't use it, they're editing it," Miller said.
"He's still asking the questions," Powell said.
Miller, a onetime NBC staffer who recently worked for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, also told Powell: "He was going to go for another five minutes."
Undeterred, Russert complained from Washington: "I would hope they would put you back on camera. I don't know who did that." He later said, "I think that was one of your staff Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate."
As the delay dragged on, Powell ordered: "Emily, get out of the way. Bring the camera back please." Powell's image returned to the screen, and Russert asked his last question.
What happened was that both NBC and Fox News were using Jordanian television facilities for back-to-back Powell interviews. Russert was allotted 10 minutes, and was asked to wrap when he went over by about two minutes. He said "Finally, Mr. Secretary," but abruptly lost his guest.
Russert was still puzzled afterward. "A taxpayer-paid employee interrupted an interview," he said. "Not in the United States of America, that's not supposed to go on. This is attempted news management gone berserk. Secretary Powell was really stand-up. He was a general and took charge." Powell later called the NBC anchor from his plane to apologize for the glitch.
State Department spokeswoman Julie Reside disputed Russert's characterization, saying that NBC "went considerably beyond the agreed end time. Other networks were waiting for their interviews and had satellite time booked and we didn't want to keep them waiting."
Asked why he simply didn't edit out the awkward interlude from the taped interview, Russert said: "It's part of the story."
In other news, there is no other news other than Iraq, which is on the cover of Time and U.S. News. The Los Angeles Times takes note:
"Pity the advocates of overhauling Social Security. They have been told for months that President Bush would give a major speech pushing their cause as the cornerstone of his new domestic agenda. But so far it has remained just another laundry-list item in Bush's campaign speech, overshadowed by the president's response to the avalanche of trouble in Iraq . . .
"That is just one symptom of the toll being taken by the war in Iraq, a festering crisis that has become the political equivalent of a black hole, absorbing White House energy, public attention and the media spotlight."
Speaking of Iraq, Sy Hersh is out with another New Yorker piece that attempts to tie the prisoner abuse scandal to a Rummy order last year--prompting a Pentagon denial that includes such words as "outlandish" and "conspiratorial."
I had thought the media's McCain flirtation was over in the face of repeated denials, but the New York Times is reviving it:
"Despite weeks of steadfast rejections from Senator John McCain, some prominent Democrats are angling for him to run for vice president alongside Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, creating a bipartisan ticket that they say would instantly transform the presidential race . . .
"Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, 'continues to be interested in' Mr. McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran whom Kerry aides describe as the candidate's best friend in the Senate, as a running mate, said one longtime Democratic official who works for the Kerry campaign.
"But the official said the plan was unrealistic, because Mr. McCain 'won't do it.' In an interview on Friday, Mr. McCain said, 'I have totally ruled it out.'
"Even so . . . "
Even so, we will run this front-page story anyway.
McCain refused to budge on "Meet the Press": "Popular Republican Sen. John McCain yesterday 'categorically, categorically' rejected the latest Democratic bid to get him to be Democrat John Kerry's running mate - and said he'll campaign to re-elect President Bush," the New York Post reports.
But Dennis Kucinich is available. The NYT finds that he's still running for president.
National Review's Byron York explains Bush's sinking poll numbers (hint: it's a country beginning with "I"):
"In a new Gallup poll, taken last weekend, 56 percent of those surveyed say they disapprove of the president's economic performance. Forty-one percent say they approve, and three percent have no opinion. The 56-percent disapproval figure is the highest-ever in Gallup polls taken during the Bush presidency.
"It doesn't make much sense. Disapproval of Bush's handling of the economy was significantly lower when economic problems were more pronounced. Last December, for example, before the jobs turnaround gathered speed, 49 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy, while 48 percent approved. In March 2003, when jobs were still being lost, 42 percent disapproved of Bush's economic stewardship, while 52 percent approved. And back in June 2002, just 33 percent disapproved of the president's performance, versus 63 percent who approved.
"There's a trend here: The more the economy improves, the more people say they don't like Bush's handling of the economy. If the trend continues, and if the robust recovery gathers even more strength, there could come a time when there is a combination of strong economic growth, low unemployment, and virtually universal disapproval of the president's handling of the economy.
"What's going on? There is a clue perhaps, in the comparison of opinion about the president's economic performance with opinion about his handling of the war in Iraq. The public has about the same view of both. In the latest Gallup poll, the 56 - 41 disapproval/approval split on the economy is virtually identical to the 58 - 41 disapproval/approval split on the issue of Bush and Iraq. In other words, the public has the same view of the president's handling of the economy, which is going well, as it has of Iraq, which is going badly."
Andrew Sullivan is getting more bugged by Bush all the time:
"This refusal to take full responsibility himself is related to his difficulty in disciplining others. He has fired no one of any consequence in his term of office. The CIA director, George Tenet, presided over both the 9/11 catastrophe and the WMD fiasco. He brazenly told Congress recently that it would take years before the CIA could be up to speed on terrorism. Yet his job is secure. Donald Rumsfeld had the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib prison abuse in January, failed to bring it to Bush's attention in full, and went into a press conference last week declaring that he had only read the 'executive summary.' . . .
"There's something intangible about the dissonance between what the administration says and the way it sometimes acts. I don't buy the notion that this president is a liar. But he does seem at times to be putting it on somewhat. It didn't help that during the Abu Ghraib mess, the president was in a bus campaigning in Ohio. Did he not understand the gravity of what had happened? Nor did it exactly reassure even the administration's supporters to see Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in black tie and evening wear, chatting and beaming and socializing with the like of Ben Affleck at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
"Either there's a war on or there isn't. And there's a troubling disconnect between the president's stirring and vital admonitions of the threats we face and his ideas for Americans at home. When people after 9/11 were prepared to do anything to help their country, Bush advised them to go shopping."
The latest veepstakes buzz is settling on Wes Clark, which may not mean a heckuva lot. After the two men appeared together, the Boston Globe reported:
"Campaign aides would not describe the two men's private conversations, yet some signs of a Kerry-Clark fit were clearly evident. Both men are combat veterans, modest about their own heroism in public speeches, and they enjoy assailing Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for 'wrapping themselves in the flag,' in Kerry's words, when neither Republican served in Vietnam. Clark, who is a head shorter than Kerry, does not emit the kind of magnetism that might upstage him, and Clark's unadorned speaking style does not invite unfavorable comparisons with Kerry."
Wes Clark: Boring enough to be No. 2?
The AP tosses in this monkey wrench:
"Clark's standing also is not helped by Kerry advisers' belief that the former general helped spread rumors that Kerry had had an affair with a young woman."
To which the New Republic's Ryan Lizza replies:
"I don't necessarily think Wesley Clark would be the greatest pick. With Bush in freefall, the guiding principle for Kerry in choosing a veep should probably be caution and the rule of do no harm. The more chaotic the situation gets in Iraq and the more Bush sinks in the polls, the more the situation calls for a safe, vetted, vanilla pol like Dick Gephardt. Clark would reinforce Kerry's national security credentials, but as an amateur politician prone to saying embarrassing things, he is also a gamble.
"But that doesn't mean that he really has said every silly thing attributed to him. Maybe Kerry's aides have additional evidence of Clark spreading the rumors about an affair, but as far as I know it's a false accusation."
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