Washington Post staff writer Jackie Spinner is departing Iraq after nine months of reporting. Spinner covered -- among many other stories -- the battle for Fallujah and the historic January elections. She was online Wednesday, March 2, at Noon ET to discuss her reporting and the latest news from Iraq.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Jackie Spinner: Greetings from Jordan! I have just arrived from Iraq on my way home to the U.S. Thanks for joining the discussion. I'll try to answer as many questions as possible about my experiences during the past nine months in Iraq.
San Jose, Calif.:
I've heard stories about reporters being unable to leave the green zone in Baghdad. To what extent were you able to travel, observe events, and interview people yourself? Were you forced to depend on hired assistants who would act on your behalf? How did your level of access to the public change over time?
Jackie Spinner: Hi San Jose. There's a lot of misunderstanding about the "green zone." Up until a few months ago, journalists didn't live in the Green Zone. We all lived in what we fondly referred to as the "Red Zone," which is basically everywhere else in Baghdad. When we do go to the Green Zone, it is to attend press conferences or see U.S. or Iraqi government leaders but our movement within the Green Zone is more limited than in any other place in Iraq. I can't even go to the U.S. Embassy without a special escort. But to get to your question, our movement is limited in the rest of Baghdad and in Iraq. We have to be very careful about being followed when we leave our hotels and residences. There are some roads, many roads in Iraq that Westerners cannot safely travel. We have stringers all over Iraq and rely on them to be our eyes and ears in places we can't get to. The level of access to the public has diminished greatly in the past nine months.
How do Iraqis react to reporters?
Jackie Spinner: Hi Indianapolis. I'll be passing through your city this weekend on the way to see Mom! The average Iraqi has no problem with reporters, but we've noticed in recent months is that they don't like us hanging around as much as they once did. You used to get invited into homes. But because we are targets, that makes them targets, too, and people are more hesistant to talk. That said, when we send our Iraqi correspondents to talk to people, we find that the average Iraqi is eager to offer an opinion, now that they can freely. You often can't get them to stop talking!
I know there is a great deal of resentment and animosity amongst ordinary Iraqis -- particularly men -- towards American troops. However, in broadcast stories, documentaries, written accounts, etc., I noticed that Iraqi children always seem to be waving at U.S. troops, smiling, etc. Do you see a marked difference between the attitudes of children vs. adults?
Jackie Spinner: Hi Portland, yes I definitely see a difference. I was in Fallujah two weeks ago and the soldiers were being mobbed by children, friendly, looking for candy and footballs that the Marines had been passing out. The adults were much more guarded. It was a fascinating sight to return to Fallujah after the battle and see children holding up their thumbs and shouting and waving.
Were you scared?
Jackie Spinner: Great question, and here is the honest answer. Sometimes, yes, I was terrified. There were days, strings of days, when every morning I prepared to die. The odds of it were that real. For months, I slept on the floor in my hotel room or in the stairwell of the hotel because it was the safest place during a mortar attack. It was scary to drive around Baghdad, even as safely as we do it. But I wasn't scared every day or every minute of the day. There were moments of great joy when I didn't feel any fear or was too busy or too caught up in the moment to be scared. Iraq is just not a place where you afford to let your guard down. You have to be scared enough to keep safe.
Were your reports screened?
Jackie Spinner: Not in any way. We were not censored by anyone, the U.S. military or the Iraqi government.
Hi Jackie. Is there one story you wished you'd been able
to do that you didn't? One that you didn't get to? One
that you couldn't get to?
Jackie Spinner: Hi Storrs. There were dozens of stories I wish I could have done. I wished I could have walked the streets and openly talked to people. I wished I could have driven anywhere I wanted. I know there are stories that no one is writing because we as journalists are not getting to them. But I also feel confident that we are writing all of the most important stories. We are covering the political transition. We covered the elections. I was in Kurdistan for the elections, which is relatively safe but we were facing some travel restrictions--no vehicular movement between provinces. I got around that by hiring a donkey to ride. We've found very creative ways to cover the story of Iraq. We have to. It is the only way to get you the story.
How bad off is the infrastructure in Iraq. Does anyone have water or electicity?
Jackie Spinner: It's pretty bad. Parts of Baghdad, for example, are only getting a few hours of power a day. The insurgents are effectively attacking the infrastructure, and it seems like every time progress is made, there is another setback. But that said, there are parts of the country where services are improving, slowly. It's not all bad news. For the average Iraqi, however, it's just not enough good news fast enough.
Jackie: as a professional, to what extent do you feel you were able to dig into the "real" Iraq, and to what extent were circumstances so difficult that you felt insulated or dependent on questionable news releases from the U.S. or Iraqi governments, or the limited resources available in the International (Green) Zone?
Jackie Spinner: Atherton, I think I got into the real Iraq. I didn't get in as deeply as I wanted to. I didn't get to go everywhere I wanted to go. But we have some very, very good Iraqi correspondents who work for us all over the country. They really are our eyes and ears. So we have can see and hear the real Iraq, which just have to do it through our stringers and our translators. These are people we have trained. They know how to do "Washington Post" journalism. And they bravely deliver it to us, day after day, in places where we cannot physically be. I owe them everything.
Mt. Rainier, Md.:
Jackie, I know you and other journalists try hard to bring
Iraq back home through your writings, but what does the
"average" American reader not get about the war in Iraq
that you get having been there yourself?
Jackie Spinner: Hi Mt. Rainier--I'm not sure what the "average" American reader gets or doesn't get about Iraq because I rarely hear from those people. I only hear from people when they are mad about something I've written. I get a lot of hatemail, and it comes from all spectrums. When I write a story that some perceive as critical of the U.S. military, I get nailed from people accusing me of being anti-American. I think what these people don't get is that I am not for or against anything. I am in Iraq to find the truth and at great risk to myself and at great worry to my family. So when I go out and report a story, it's not tell a side or to make point, it's simply to tell a story. I think that is perhaps my greatest frustration. I know from talking to fellow journalists in Iraq that we don't feel we have the support of the American people. There are no yellow ribbons for us, and I'm not advocating that there should be. It's just an observation after months of sharing a war zone with soldiers and Iraqis.
You hear so much about PTSD among the military personnel. I'm just curious if this is something that journalists face as well. While you yourself may not have been tagging along with soldiers, I'm guessing you have seen things that I wouldn't care to imagine. How do you deal with such emotional stress? Are there support groups for journalists returning from combat zones?
Jackie Spinner: Mesa, yeah, there is PTSD among journalists. But it's also one of those things you have to wait to assess POST the experience. I'm still in it to some extent. I jump at loud noises. The sound of helicopters overhead makes my heart race. I am quite safe in Jordan, more safe here than in parts of the USA, in fact. The risks are minimum. But when I get in a taxi here, I wonder if the driver is going to kidnap me. I suspect that every car is a potential suicide bomber. That kind of thing will go away eventually--or so I'm told! But to be frank, I know that I have an adjustment period when I get back to the US. I have to learn not to be afraid all of the time, and I have to deal with a "normal" existence.
What's the thing you'll miss the most about Iraq, and what is the thing you missed most about the U.S. while you were there?
Jackie Spinner: I'll miss our Iraqi staff the most. They became my friends and family in the absence of my friends and family in the US. I had a wrenching farewell. These people were my life for nine months. Omar. Abu Saif. Bassam. I will also miss Iraq itself, the country, its potential, its customs, its quirks, the story of its struggle and survival. I will not, however, miss the August heat. The thing I missed the most about the U.S.--cottage cheese. I'll just put it out there. I missed cottage cheese.
On my way to Borders Books...:
I'm hoping that you have read and could recommend a book which truly resonated with you as being an accurate and authentic description of what it's like in Iraq right now.
Jackie Spinner: This is a shameless plug but I'll plug it anyway. My colleague, Anthony Shadid, has a book coming out soon on Iraq. I respect Anthony and have seen him at work. I know what he does to get a story, how deep he goes to get it and how good he tells it. That would be my recommmendation.
Jackie, I hereby tie a metaphorical yellow ribbon
around my front stoop handrail in honor of the
journalists and their stringers, interpreters and
drivers covering the wars in Iraq and points beyond. I
have nothing but awe and respect for you who have
laid their lives on the line so the rest of us can
understand something so complicated and, often,
sad. Thank you.
Jackie Spinner: Thank you, Philadelphia!
Hello! I just wanted to thank you for all of your fantastic
work in Iraq these past months. I have what I hope won't
be too convulated of a question. There's a lot of talk
these days about bias in mainstream journalism, and
coverage of the war in Iraq has been part of that
discussion. I assume you've spent time around other
western journalists in Iraq, both mainstream and
independent. I won't ask you to analyse your own work,
but I'll ask you about what you've witnessed. Have the
actions/stories of other journalists ever made you
uncomfortable? Or maybe this is my question instead: is
there a biased way to report the story in Iraq? If so, what
is it? And how have you avoided doing that, whatever
Jackie Spinner: Hi Arlington, great question. I don't like the way the "press corps" always covers Iraq. I can't really offer any specifics except to say that not everyone is interested in being objective. There are reporters who come in with agendas. I've heard their loaded questions at press conferences. I've read their files. And we're not perfect either at the Washington Post. But we try to be unbiased. I can't tell you how much we try to go in asking questions, not looking for specific answers, just the truth. It is our highest goal. It is the reason I became a journalist.
You've done great work, Jackie. I hope you realize how much we (the readers) appreciate all your efforts. Being a war reporter is already difficult, but what was it like to be a female in an area where females are very restricted?
Jackie Spinner: Thanks, Easton. I have to tell you that being a female was an advantage in Iraq and for this reason. I could cover up, wear a scarf, a traditional Muslim dress. I could blend in, and that made it safer for me to go places and to go places unnoticed. I travelled a dangerous highway in Iraq by blending in with our driver's family. I was just a daughter in the back seat of his car. And because generally, as a sign of respect, men don't address women specifically, I didn't have to worry about them trying to engage me in conversation.
Saint Paul, Minn.:
Approximately how many of the "rank and file" Iraqis have you been able to interview one on one? What age bracket have they been in and what is their approximate level of education -- this is assuming you are using an interpretor. Whenever pictures appear of crowds, there seem to be an abundance of young men (14-45) Do women appear in public as often or is there just more men than women in Iraq.
It is my opinion that this is an opportunity for the women of Iraq to turn this country around. She is usually the Mother who is educating her children before and after they attend school.
Jackie Spinner: I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of "rank and file" Iraqis, men and women. We try to include all voices in our stories so we talk to poor, rich, educated, uneducated, soldiers, insurgents, teenagers, widows. In Baghdad, it is not difficult to find women to interview. It is easier for me to talk to them than a man. Women certainly are going to play a role in the future of Iraq. Keep in mind that Iraq was a fairly secular country and women enjoyed rights here that they do not in other Arab or Middle Eastern countries.
New York, N.Y.:
I've heard that many Iraqi officials are reluctant to speak
to local (Iraqi) media and prefer American or other non-
national news outlets. Have you noticed this? What is the
relationship between foreign repoters and media and the
Iraqi media? Is there a sense of antagonism, is it distant
but respectful, or is it more of a collaborative atmosphere?
Given all that, do you see the local Iraqi media (and your
relation to is) as important to the nascent democracy?
Jackie Spinner: Iraqi officials want their message heard to the largest audience through the most objective media source. Same as anywhere in the world. The best Iraqi news outlets have no trouble getting interviews. But not everyone gets in the door. The Washington Post has a great relationship with Iraqi media. We respect them as our colleagues. We defer to them at press conference. After, it is their country. We have them over for dinner. We help them when we can. Are we unique? Somewhat, yes. But one of the greatest thrills I've had is watching this Iraqi press evolve and develop. They're excited, eager, getting imboldened.
What's the first thing you'll do upon arriving in the States? Other than eat cottage cheese, I guess.
Jackie Spinner: Sleep. I'm exhausted. Our pace here is incredible. We don't take days off and because of the time difference and the filing deadlines, I'm usually up by 9 a.m. local time and often stay up until 3 or 4 a.m.
We hear about attacks on coalition members, Iraqi troops and police, as well as civilians. Is the media faithfully reporting on the number of insurgents killed in these clashes? When we hear nothing about the toll on the bad guys should we assume they got away with an attack practically unscathed?
Jackie Spinner: Vienna, we report the numbers as best we can. I am not going to tell you that we always know the toll of the bad guys. Certainly, we know little about the suicide bombers because there's not much left of them. We have to rely on the U.S. military to some extent to tell us how many they've killed in clashes. Or the Iraqi military. It is not easy. You should not assume, however, that they get away with an attack unscathed.
Good Afternoon Jackie, thank you for risking your life to provide such in depth reporting from Iraq. I would like to know what the mood of the everyday people is like in the Sunni triangle. Do they blame the insurgent attacks on the Americans and do you suspect an escalation of such attacks as the one that occured in Hilla, could lead to an all out uprising against the Americans or even worse, a civil war?
Jackie Spinner: Hilla is not in the Sunni triangle. It's a Shiite town near another triangle, the Triangle of Death. Based on my own reporting, I can tell you that many people in the Sunni triangle blame the Americans. That place--which is an insurgent stronghold, no doubt about it, remains one of the biggest challenges for U.S. security forces.
Jackie Spinner: My time is up. Thank you all for your great questions. There were a hundred I couldn't get to. I just couldn't type fast enough. From Jordan en route to the US and cottage cheese, good night.