The journalistic body count is rising, and some news organizations are starting to withdraw selected reporters from Iraq.
Three more journalists were killed yesterday, following the deaths of NBC's David Bloom and Atlantic Monthly editor and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. With the media death toll at 12, the networks are reassessing their situations, based both on safety concerns and on a sense that the once-dramatic story is running out of steam with viewers.
"I'm very nervous," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of CBS News. Worrying about the correspondents "makes you a wreck. There's no point in keeping them there any longer than necessary. The risk is not worth the result." CBS may pull Jim Axelrod from the Baghdad airport.
"There's the danger, there's the personal exhaustion, and there's the question of are we getting enough out of it," said Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight." "Every day we go over the level of safety."
Some embedded correspondents are no longer producing much news because their military units have stopped moving forward, Slavin said. ABC has withdrawn Ron Claiborne from the USS Abraham Lincoln and Tamala Edwards from an Air Force base in Kuwait. Reporter Bob Woodruff left a Marine unit because he was close friends with Bloom.
Tareq Ayyoub, a Jordanian journalist for the Arab network al-Jazeera, was killed yesterday when his Baghdad office was hit in a U.S. air raid. An American tank also fired rounds at the Palestine Hotel yesterday, killing Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian national, and cameraman Jose Couso of the Spanish network Telecinco.
Asked about the tank attack on a hotel known to house numerous journalists, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke said yesterday that the military tries to avoid civilian casualties but that she had repeatedly told reporters that "war is a dangerous, dangerous business and you're not safe when you're in a war zone."
On Monday, Julio Anguita Parrado of Spain's El Mundo newspaper and Christian Liebig of the German newsweekly Focus were killed by an Iraqi missile. Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed, a Kurdish translator for the BBC, died Sunday in an accidental U.S. bombing strike on a Kurdish convoy.
Bloom, who spent long hours in a cramped vehicle, died Sunday from a pulmonary embolism caused by a blood clot in his leg. Business Week reported that Bloom had consulted military doctors days earlier about cramps behind his knee, but he ignored their advice to seek medical attention and kept working. Kelly died Thursday when he and a soldier tried to escape Iraqi fire and their Humvee crashed into a canal.
There have been numerous near-misses as well.
Ron Martz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was flanked by soldiers who were both wounded by bullets that could have hit him. "Had they not been there," he reported, "I most likely would not be now typing this."
Scott Nelson of the Boston Globe came under fire in an armored Humvee near Baghdad and pointed out the sniper to a soldier in the turret, who apparently killed the assailant with machine gun fire. David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times was in a military vehicle that plunged into a canal but managed to escape.
"Over the last week," National Public Radio's Ivan Watson wrote on the network's Web site, "I've had to dive on the ground three times to escape incoming Iraqi machine gun fire and artillery." He said he took a weekend break from the fighting in northern Iraq at a resort "after I realized that too many of the people I eat dinner with have recently been killed or injured covering this conflict."
The level of journalist casualties is not unusually high, said Bill Hammond, a historian with the Army's Center of Military History. During the decade-long Vietnam War, by one account, 54 journalists were killed in Southeast Asia out of roughly 6,000 who spent time in the war zone.
"Anybody at the front lines is in danger," Hammond said. "When Saddam was lobbing Scuds at Kuwait, being in the rear was dangerous. War is just basically a dangerous thing. Soldiers and journalists, to the extent they walk the same ground, are in equal danger. Perhaps journalists are in more danger because in many cases they're driving these roads in Humvees as opposed to being in armored personnel carriers."
Decisions on whether to withdraw some of the 600 correspondents embedded with U.S. and British forces are difficult because, under Pentagon rules, news outlets cannot immediately replace those who come home.
Television executives are also looking to trim their budgets in the face of declining ratings as the war drama fades. The combined audience for Fox, CNN and MSNBC surged to 10.1 million on the first night of the war, March 19, but had dropped to 7.2 million by Sunday.
The audience for the NBC, CBS and ABC nightly newscasts dropped from 32.2 million the week the war began to 27.9 million last week.
After dozens of hours of special programming in March, the broadcast networks have essentially returned to their usual entertainment fare. Since April 1, ABC has broken into regular programming for 75 minutes, CBS for 45 minutes, NBC for 43 minutes.
NBC News, which also provides coverage for MSNBC and CNBC, has not yet pulled any of its staffers from Iraq. After Bloom's death, said NBC spokeswoman Barbara Levin, "we talked to all of our people and reminded them to take extra precautions."
But CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said that "we are definitely looking at pulling people out as soon as we can, based upon the story." The network has already withdrawn reporter Cynthia Bowers from the Lincoln.
Fox News withdrew Christian Jacks from a Navy Seabees unit because "it just wasn't a productive embed," said spokesman Robert Zimmerman. CNN has recalled Kyra Phillips, Frank Buckley and Gary Strieker from aircraft carriers because "the story moved to Baghdad," said spokeswoman Ali Zelenko.
NPR Vice President Bruce Drake said he is concerned about his correspondents, particularly Anne Garrels, who has been reporting from Baghdad and was staying at the Palestine Hotel when it was hit yesterday. "I'm not sure if it's any safer for her to try to get out of Baghdad because of the uncertainty of the roads and chaos in a time of war," Drake said.
Major newspapers seem to be staying the course, even as editors agonize over the safety of their troops.
"We've been nervous since Day One," said Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron. "Are we getting more nervous? Yes, given the number of deaths and the number of close calls. We've made clear to the folks there that if at any point they want to leave, it's okay with us."
John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, agreed that "this is a tough situation to cover, whether you're embedded or roaming free. Those traveling with the military are in danger at all times." But, he said, "we really haven't talked about bringing them home, and I think they'd be very unhappy if we told them to come home."
Indeed, the depressing news about fallen colleagues doesn't seem to have deterred many newshounds.
"Despite the danger, we have so many more people who want to go than we can put in," said ABC's Slavin. "It's an incredible story. For people who grew up watching war, it's time to live out the fantasy."