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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.

But privately, U.S. military officials acknowledge that they are not eager to showcase American military-led combat operations at a time when the Iraqi government is calling for a more limited role for U.S. troops and pushing for firm withdrawal timelines.

"It's very clear that they are trying to push us away from active areas of combat and trying to push us to places" where reconstruction and training are underway, said Associated Press bureau chief Robert H. Reid. "It's very difficult to pick an embed unit and be relatively assured you will see active combat."

American newspapers, which have contracted sharply in recent years as readership and advertising revenue have declined, have published fewer Iraq stories this year, and placed a smaller percentage of them on their front pages, than during any other period of the war in Iraq.

The number of front-page stories with Iraq datelines published by the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which continue to maintain large Baghdad bureaus, has dropped each year since the war began. The three dailies published 858 front-page stories with Iraq datelines in 2003, 379 last year and just 138 during the first nine months of 2008.

"When you have other things going on in the world -- a financial crisis, elections and Afghanistan, which is now becoming a more serious conflict -- it's harder to get on the air," said National Public Radio's Baghdad bureau chief, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who has been covering Iraq on and off since 2002. "The bar is higher."

The Los Angeles Times' Baghdad bureau chief, Tina Susman, took on that role in early 2007 as the increase in U.S. troops was getting underway amid endemic violence. The paper recently downsized its bureau from three to two foreign correspondents.

"During my first 12 months here, it was unusual to get to bed before 4 and even 5 a.m. because the story was so huge and because of the likelihood that it was headed for A1," she said. "That really has changed in the past few months. . . . That's dispiriting. How do media bosses, especially the American ones, justify not maintaining a presence in a country where there are 145,000 U.S. forces and where 4,100 have died?"

The Washington Post has sent more than 70 reporters, photographers and columnists to Iraq since the start of the war. The invasion was covered by more than a dozen journalists from the newspaper. In recent years, the size of the bureau has fluctuated, but the paper has assigned two or three journalists to the war on a permanent basis and brought in many more for temporary assignments. The newspaper's expenses for war coverage exceed $1 million a year.

Last year, Iraq was by far the dominant story on the evening television news, according to Andrew Tyndall, a network news analyst who tracks coverage on his Web site. But in recent months, Baghdad-based network reporters have gone weeks at a time without getting Iraq pieces on the evening news.

The three networks aired 130 stories with Iraq datelines on the evening news between September 2007 and September 2008, compared with 242 during the previous 12 months, according to a search on Tyndall's online database.

"Everyone realizes it's an important story," said ABC correspondent Miguel Marquez, who has covered Iraq since 2005. "But it's been six years of this. . . . The situation has become more nuanced. The U.S. doesn't seem to have its hand in everything anymore."

CNN and Fox News have kept large staffs in Baghdad. But they're being asked to do fewer live reports, broadcast journalists say. CNN now routinely keeps just one crew in the bureau, when just a few months ago two or three was the norm.

Western news organizations will soon grapple with an additional challenge. Many of their Iraqi employees -- who are often better suited for certain reporting assignments than Western journalists -- will soon be eligible to move to the United States under a new refugee program. Since the program was announced this summer, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has received several dozen applications.

"I don't know what's going on in America this year," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker who said he receives far fewer interview requests from Western journalists. "Maybe it's because of the election. I think they are less interested."

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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