The Post and the Whole Picture in Iraq

By Deborah Howell
Special to
Sunday, March 26, 2006; 12:00 AM

When the Iraq war started, more than 700 reporters were "embedded," traveling with U.S. troops in the field. Embedding brought a newfound respect between reporters and soldiers. Members of the media and the military hoped that this would bring a new day of military-press relations and help bury the resentment that had lingered from the Vietnam War.

Most reporters left after the big battles, and now, after three years of slogging through the insurgency, covering the war is mainly the province of those few news organizations, such as The Post, that can afford to do so.

The Post's work (and that of other news media in Iraq) draws intense attention and a steady stream of complaints from readers, military and civilian, who say the coverage is excessively negative and too focused on violence.

It's clear that many of those readers see war coverage through their own political filters. One reader wrote a Post reporter a few weeks ago: "Be nice to see your traitorous ass shot." Another reader who writes frequently, Bob Youcker of Bethesda, said: "Iraq is a country the size of California. Is there not one good thing happening in the country?"

Those complaints anger journalists who risked their lives to cover a war in which 67 of their colleagues have been killed and many others, including ABC-TV's Bob Woodruff, have been injured. There are other risks; Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor is still held captive by terrorists.

After talking and corresponding with Post staffers and other journalists with Iraq experience and experts in and outside the military, I find no easy resolution to the complaints.

Here's why:

· The press corps is trained to see the story, and the war is the story. The Post has heavily covered the efforts to build a democracy, but the continuing insurgency and the lack of security for Iraqis are still the main news.

· Reporters are scrambling to keep up with daily events in an atmosphere so dangerous that Post reporters find it impossible to freely move and report.

· There is a built-in tension between the press, always skeptical of authority, and the military culture of respecting authority and keeping secrets.

About 60 Post journalists, from the buildup to the war through the insurgency, have covered the war by being embedded with troops in the field; by traveling on their own; and by interviewing Iraqi politicians and civilians in Baghdad and around the country. Many have been there several times. The Post has three full-time U.S. employees in Iraq: Ellen Knickmeyer, the bureau chief; Jonathan Finer, a correspondent; and John Ward Anderson, in a position through which Post reporters rotate in for six to eight weeks at a time. The Post also has four Iraqi reporter-translators: Naseer Nouri, Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim.

The staff has written hundreds of daily news stories and dozens of more in-depth pieces. A recent reporting trip by senior military reporter Thomas E. Ricks produced broad and deep stories on counterinsurgency training; civilians in Iraq; the 3rd Armored Cavalry's improvement from mediocre to outstanding performance; how doctors are holding up under grueling conditions; and how the Army published a study by a senior British officer criticizing . . . the Army. Military reporter Ann Scott Tyson's story on the importance of female helicopter pilots showed how far the military has come in integrating its fighting force by gender.

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