The Post and the Whole Picture in Iraq

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 26, 2006

The third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq provides an opportunity to look at The Post's war reporting, which has brought a steady trickle of complaints that the coverage focuses too much on violence.

It's understandable that military and civilian readers, especially those with family members in Iraq, hunger for positive stories. The Post has done many such stories, but they are overshadowed in readers' minds by the more spectacular articles and images of violence from the insurgency.

The Post's senior military reporter, Thomas E. Ricks, believes journalists in Iraq are providing a more accurate picture about what is happening than the military. He believes that any problems between the military and the media "grow out of the fundamentally political nature of the fight. The military wants to be judged in military terms -- 'look at all the bad guys we killed, and don't forget the school our soldiers painted.' But the media, which is trained to measure the politics of a situation, knows the answer isn't killing bad guys, and may not be painting schools. It probably is providing security to the people."

Post reporters scramble to keep up with daily events in an atmosphere so dangerous that it is impossible to move freely around Baghdad or the countryside. About 60 Post journalists, from the buildup to the invasion through today, have covered the war -- all of them volunteers. The hardest day-to-day work falls to three full-time U.S. employees stationed in Baghdad: Ellen Knickmeyer, the bureau chief; Jonathan Finer, a correspondent; and one reporter on rotation (now John Ward Anderson). The Post also has four Iraqi reporter-translators -- Naseer Nouri, Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim -- who frequently have bylined stories; most have been with The Post since shortly after the fall of Baghdad.

Recent reporting trips by Ricks, Pentagon reporter Ann Scott Tyson and op-ed columnist David Ignatius have added depth to the daily coverage. Last Sunday's coverage, tied to the anniversary of the 2003 invasion and including interviews with soldiers who are or had been there, provided a needed dimension, as did the excellent Outlook section articles, most of them written by Iraqis, whose thoughts and feelings are often the missing elements in daily journalism.

To look at balance, I re-read February's staff-written stories from Iraq, not including editorial page pieces. Seventeen stories were on the troops, their mission or democracy-building; five of those stories were on Page 1. Fifteen stories were on violence or corruption; five of those were on Page 1. Two inside stories were routine. I felt the coverage was balanced and authoritative.

Staff writer Steve Fainaru, who recently returned after 14 months in Iraq, said, "There aren't that many people who want to go to Iraq. Maybe that's why reporters are sensitive to criticism that they are in it with an agenda. The job of soldiering over there is incredibly difficult. I have tremendous respect for those guys. But sometimes I find the criticism bewildering. Should we really be focusing on a school opening when Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war?"

Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, almost echoed Fainaru: "I have a tremendous respect for the journalists over there. I don't want to minimize the danger of operating in Iraq. Journalists are a target of the insurgency. They have competing pressures with limited resources."

Yet Whitman is frustrated because, he says, soldiers, public officials and reconstruction workers return to the United States from Iraq and complain that what they see in the way of economic and military progress isn't represented in news coverage.

Some of the best Post reporting has come from "embedding," which puts reporters in the field with military units and gives them freedom to report in exchange for agreeing not to endanger the troops' security. Embedding is also dangerous. ABC-TV's Bob Woodruff was seriously injured while embedded.

Marine Col. David Lapan, a public affairs officer just back from Fallujah, and Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, who manages reporters' embeds at the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, strongly support embedding, but they cannot force it on commanders.

While the vast majority of requests are granted, a number of reporters, including the legendary military correspondent Joe Galloway of Knight Ridder, tell me that they have been turned down for embed assignments by commanders in the field. That's unfortunate.

Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, now president of Klein Steel Service in Rochester, N.Y., was in Iraq until February 2005 and never turned down a reporter seeking an embed. He had the right approach: "You have to take a risk. We owe to the citizens of our country to tell them what is going on. I share everything with embeds. I never regretted taking them into my confidence."

While Batiste and other commanders may have good relations with the press, the military and the media are generally going to be at loggerheads in wartime. The two institutions have vastly different missions.

Lapan gave what I think is an excellent description of the cultural difference between the military and the press: "Reporters are generally idealists, trained to be skeptical (some would say cynical), and we're generally optimists and realists. Reporters are taught to question authority; we're taught to follow it."

David Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, supervises coverage of Iraq. "Impaired mobility" is the biggest obstacle to reporting more stories, "especially about the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis," he said. "We do all we can in the time we have. Iraq is a country at war. We're stationed right in the middle of it. That's what we do, observe, describe, report. If we lived in a perfect world, we would see everything. You cover the war you got. The people who complain of the limitations ignore the reality of what courageous reporters do."

My research on Iraq coverage has gone on for months, with interviews with experts in journalism and the military. Readers are invited to see some of that research in a much longer article at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/24/AR2006032401327.html .

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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