Western Journalists in Iraq Stage Pullback of Their Own

By Ernesto Londoño and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 11, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The number of foreign journalists in Baghdad is declining sharply, a media withdrawal that reflects Iraq's growing stability and the financial strains faced by some news organizations.

In a stark indication of the changing media focus here, the number of journalists traveling with American forces in Iraq has plummeted in the past year. U.S. military officials say they "embedded" journalists 219 times in September 2007. Last month, the number shrank to 39. Of the dozen U.S. newspapers and newspaper chains that maintained full-time bureaus in Baghdad in the early years of the war, only four are still permanently staffed by foreign correspondents. CBS and NBC no longer keep a correspondent in Baghdad year-round.

"It remains important and it remains interesting," said Alissa J. Rubin, the New York Times' acting bureau chief in Baghdad. "But what's in front of us now is almost a static situation. There's not a clear narrative line. The stories are more complex."

Veteran journalists say stories about Iraq, where roughly 155,000 U.S. troops are deployed and where the United States spends approximately $10 billion a month, have become tougher to get on the air and into print. News coverage that once centered largely on the U.S. military experience is shifting, like the country itself, to a story of Iraqis taking the halting, often mundane steps toward building their own government.

More than five years after the U.S.-led invasion, many of the most important stories in Iraq, such as debate over election laws and negotiations over the legal framework that will govern the presence of U.S. troops here after the United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year, are playing out incrementally and often behind closed doors.

Gen. David G. Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said stories about violence get top billing. Less-sensational events, such as a recent voter-registration drive for the highly anticipated provincial elections expected early next year, go largely uncovered in the Western news media, he said.

"There are a lot of things going on, a lot of very complicated things going on. And to cover that, you really have to understand the details and the sophistication of it," Perkins said. "When you have a big explosion where 20 people die, it doesn't take much understanding of the intricacies of what's going on in the country to run out there with a camera and report that 20 people have been killed."

The press corps began shrinking as the security situation deteriorated in the fall of 2004 and several news organizations deemed it too costly and dangerous to keep journalists in Iraq. An American journalist was fatally shot in Basra in 2005 and others came under fire in Fallujah.

During some periods of the war, particularly the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, embedding with the U.S. military became the only way of reaching much of the country. News organizations that remained in the country saw their security costs soar. Most purchased armored vehicles, which often cost more than $100,000, and hired Western and local security guards at rates exceeding $1,500 a day.

As security has improved, though, journalists have begun to travel with relative ease and to secure interviews with people who just months ago were too afraid to talk. But the increasingly political nature of the story, and the deteriorating situation on America's other battlefields, poses new challenges for journalists here and in newsrooms back home.

"The evolving story in Iraq does present editing and conceptualization challenges right now," New York Times foreign editor Susan Chira said in an e-mail. "It's more amorphous. There's less overt conflict. And government and public attention is to some degree shifting to Afghanistan and Pakistan."

U.S. military officials say they remain eager to embed journalists with U.S. troops, but many journalists in Baghdad say the military has grown reluctant to take journalists to the front lines. Coverage of recent military operations in Basra, Sadr City, Mosul and Diyala province, for example, relied heavily on phone reporting and information from Iraqis working as stringers for Western news organizations.

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