A Reporter's View From The War Zone

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Three years into the Iraq war, Richard Engel was holding down the fort as NBC's Baghdad bureau chief when a top producer in New York, M.L. Flynn, told him there was "tremendous pressure" in the newsroom to lighten up his coverage.

"It was all about getting good-news stories out there," Engel says. "There was a collective impression that all the journalists were getting it wrong. It quickly spread to the blogosphere and the world of punditry. It seemed orchestrated."

Despite the feedback, Engel says NBC executives never directly pressed him to change his approach to the violence in Iraq. But in recent weeks he has found himself under assault by the White House over the editing of an interview with President Bush -- the same president who had once invited him to the Oval Office to seek his advice about the interminable conflict.

The violence in Iraq may be subsiding, for now, but the debate over how we got there and what to do next, fueled by the presidential campaign, is as polarizing as ever. And journalists, some of whom are starting to speak more candidly about the duress they have faced, are front and center in that argument.

In his new book, "War Journal," Engel recounts the toll of his five years in Iraq. NBC's bureau was bombed by terrorists, moved to a new location and bombed again. And he hasn't left the conflict behind: Two weeks ago, he found himself in the midst of an extended gun battle in Sadr City.

Beyond the physical risks, he also had to defend himself in the media echo chamber. Engel says he and other correspondents once again came under attack in 2006 and 2007 from bloggers and radio hosts who wanted a more positive portrait of the war.

This round of criticism, he says, "seemed even more disconnected from reality because, as we were seeing in Baghdad, the situation had deteriorated so much that many people were calling it a civil war, including NBC. It was more and more ludicrous." There was even a widespread "myth," he says, that most journalists lived in the heavily fortified Green Zone, which was untrue.

Even with armed bodyguards, correspondents are constantly concerned about security. After Engel told his editors in an e-mail that he had nearly been kidnapped by gun-wielding carjackers, a network executive scolded him, saying that security issues should be brought up only with a small group of the top brass. Engel was furious.

Nervous supervisors, he says, would sometimes send a mixed message: "Don't do anything that would put you in danger. So, what have you got for me today? What's your next story?"

Last year the White House summoned Engel, now based in Beirut, for what turned out to be a 90-minute chat with Bush. The president asked whether Engel is Jewish, which he is. (Engel was taken aback but realized that might be a relevant factor for a Middle East correspondent.) During the conversation, Engel wasn't shy about offering solutions to the conflict, such as dividing Iraq into three states with a weak central government. At one point -- based on notes he took afterward -- Engel said, referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "Mr. President, you need to get involved. It's your vision. You're the president. Condi doesn't have the juice."

Should a reporter really be offering geopolitical advice in the Oval Office?

"I didn't say anything I wouldn't have said on the air," Engel responds. "He was asking, and I was telling him. I couldn't wait to get it off my chest."

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