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Anchors Try To Get Close To the Story In Baghdad

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page C01

When Peter Jennings arrived in Iraq this week, he rejected the constraints of staying in the heavily guarded Green Zone in favor of a place with no heat or water.

Still, says the ABC News anchor, "I feel obliged to say to the audience on a fairly regular basis that we are limited in what we can do and some of their criticism about our failure to cover the country adequately is legitimate."

Fox's Shepard Smith interviews an Air Force official in Iraq. The star anchors are here for a few days, but it's getting hard to recruit longer-term reporters. (Fox News)

The big-name anchors are staging their own Iraq invasion this week, with NBC's Brian Williams, CBS's Dan Rather, Fox News's Shepard Smith and CNN's Anderson Cooper among those planting the network flag in the days before Sunday's tension-filled elections. But the temporary airlift comes at a time when major news organizations are having trouble persuading reporters to take on the high-risk assignment on a longer-term basis.

"The people who have experience there are exhausted," says Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. "It's terribly dangerous in ways that other wars haven't been. You could always get killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, just by being a westerner, you're perceived, or fear you're perceived, as a partisan. Reporters don't want to be seen as partisan at a cost of their lives."

Tim McNulty, the Chicago Tribune's assistant managing editor for foreign news, agrees. "The pool of people willing to go has steadily shrunk over the last two years," he says. "The number of people who have spent a good deal of time there have said they've done their time and are not eager to go back. . . . If they say no, I don't ask the reasons."

The Pentagon says 162 journalists were embedded with military units as of Saturday, compared with more than 650 at the height of the 2003 war. Most major news organizations have three to six correspondents in Iraq, although the numbers have grown slightly because of the looming election. The length of stay varies by media outlet. ABC moves correspondents in every three to four weeks, for example, while Washington Post reporters are asked to stay six to eight weeks.

The Post has had trouble filling the job of Baghdad bureau chief, which has twice been advertised in the newsroom and discussed with more than one reporter. "We're emptying cupboards to keep our people there, taking them from other assignments, other places and other staffs," says foreign editor David Hoffman.

Iraq may be the most difficult war to cover since Vietnam, Hoffman says, because "the violence is random and it's aimed at Americans." But, he says, "we feel that with 150,000 American soldiers there, we can't pull out."

The hazardous conditions have prompted most journalists to spend much of their time in the Green Zone, a heavily fortified area around Baghdad's main government buildings where the U.S. military headquarters are located. But even that area has not been immune to insurgent attacks.

Forty-nine journalists and support staffers were killed in Iraq last year, according to the International Federation of Journalists, and many others have been kidnapped, detained or shot at by Iraqi insurgents. In June, for example, gunmen near Fallujah opened fire on a car carrying Post reporter Daniel Williams, who escaped unharmed when his driver sped away.

It's little wonder, then, that most reporters aren't clamoring for a Baghdad assignment. Some are tempted to take their chances, editors say, only to bow to the objections of spouses or parents.

The anchors, who tend to have extra security, are acutely aware of the conditions. It is "deeply frustrating" for ABC's correspondents in Baghdad "to be trapped in the compound," Jennings says. He says he has heard talk on the street about bounties being offered in Sunni-controlled areas south of the capital: $1,000 for a Shiite, $2,000 for a journalist, $3,000 for a U.S. soldier. "It's very intimidating," he says.

But the anchors insist they are not just parachuting in for a few days of stand-ups. "Often in our coverage we get caught up in the horrible explosion of the day or the policy shift of the day," NBC's Williams says. "I'm looking for something different: What about water and power? What about life in the city, inside and outside the Green Zone? I can do a whole lot of talking to U.S. military officials who are not reachable from my desk in New York."

One way that western journalists deal with the danger is by relying on Iraqi surrogates. A typical story last week credited "an Iraqi employee of the New York Times from Mosul" as a contributor.

ABC, using Iraqi reporters vetted by the network, has just completed its third "Where Things Stand" survey of 1,300 Iraqis across the country, finding that most are optimistic despite their daily difficulties. Three Iraqis working for ABC "have changed their names in public records so they can continue to work for us," Jennings says.

The military can also provide a protective cocoon, at least temporarily. Rather has spent time with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit for reports on the evening news and last night's "60 Minutes Wednesday." Jennings traveled with Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. Both anchors broke into regular programming yesterday after a helicopter crash killed 31 Marines.

Fox's Smith says the military plans to fly him and a camera crew to polling stations in areas outside the capital today. "Conditions for reporting are difficult, but we've been able to do some," he says. Asked if he was nervous, Smith says: "We have flak jackets and helmets. I feel like it's too important a story to just rely on press releases." But despite Fox's "incredible" security team, he says, "we're trying not to move around a lot."

CNN's Cooper told viewers about the harrowing ride from the airport to Baghdad: "There's the fear of suicide car bombers, of snipers, of improvised explosive devices. And on that road, I can tell you, when a car suddenly pulls up alongside you, you were checking them out several times to make sure that they're not bad guys looking to blow you up."

A major factor in correspondents' declining to stay in Iraq, editors say, is that the danger is coupled with a sense of frustration that firsthand reporting opportunities are so limited. "Traveling by road outside the capital has become unsafe since abductions became commonplace during the summer," Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times wrote this week.

Although reporters often turn to the U.S. and British embassies for transportation help, she wrote, "Western government officials exert control over the journalists' itineraries, set up interviews and decide who and what will be seen." On one such trip to southern Iraq, arranged by British officials, Rubin and her colleagues failed to obtain promised interviews with candidates in Sunday's election because their helicopter arrived hours late.

Still, some journalists remain determined to serve as eyewitnesses, however briefly. Says Williams: "I don't think you can explain this long, ongoing story that affects the United States without smelling it and touching it and coming back and saying, 'This is what I found.' This speaks to our credibility."

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