Media Troop Withdrawal  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2004

Media Troop Withdrawal   

Since the official war in Iraq ended, most organizations have pulled way back on the number of staffers they have in the area.

By Steve Ritea
Ritea is a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune     


With the official war over but the situation in Iraq still quite dangerous and complex, most news organizations have dramatically cut back on the number of journalists stationed in the country.

Major news organizations have significantly trimmed their Iraq staffing in the past six months, saying that's because covering the combat operations earlier this year required more bodies.

To put it more bluntly, "the reason there were so many producers and reporters over there then was because there was a war," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS. "The administration declared an end to hostility so we started to bring people home."

CBS News went from having a crew of more than 50 in Iraq during the height of the conflict to about 20 today, McGinnis said in October.

News managers back home say keeping their people safe without the embedding makes covering Iraq all the more challenging, although that's not preventing them from doing their job. "If we felt we needed more people to cover the story, we'd send them," says John Walcott, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief, who once had about 50 people in Iraq but had five this fall.

Walcott and others say cost has not been a factor in their decisions to pull back on their staffing.

Mary Braswell, deputy foreign editor for the Los Angeles Times, which went from nearly 20 to four staffers in Iraq, says the chaos of war simply requires more people to cover it well. Plus, she says, during the height of the war, readers had a bigger appetite for Iraq news.

Logistically, she says, because her staff couldn't move about the country during the major combat operations, she needed more people in different places. "There were a thousand things going on all at once," she says. News organizations "needed more people, because we didn't know where [the big news] would happen," Walcott adds.

Embedding made it easier to get more reporters into Iraq and protect them, Walcott and Braswell agree. Embedding still exists, but in a different and much smaller fashion.

Today there are about 35 journalists embedded with the military, compared with 700 at the height of the conflict. Unlike before, reporters can jump between groups of soldiers and they are generally embedded for shorter periods of time.

Jim Michaels, USA Today's deputy world editor, fears the media might be falling a little short on its post-war coverage of Iraq. "We all kind of splashed in with the war, when the public was galvanized, and now we're finding out, 'Whoa, this story's really big and there's 130,000 troops over there and casualties most every day,' " he says. "And we, the press in general, were maybe not as prepared for the aftermath as for the major combat operations."

USA Today dropped from 12 people in the region to one or two. Michaels suggests it wouldn't hurt to have more there. Despite other big stories at home, "I think a lot of people are still interested" in Iraq, he says.

In September, former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke said all it seems like anyone hears about Iraq anymore is the bombings.

"We went from hundreds of journalists all over Iraq covering every aspect of the war. I don't know what the number is now, but I think it's a fraction of that now, and I think that is too bad," Clarke told USA Today. "There are some really important things going on in that country. Many are good, some are bad, but if there was more coverage and more comprehensive coverage, people would get a clearer picture."

Most news organizations contend they're not just focusing on the rash of bombings and the deaths of U.S. troops that were occurring almost daily in the fall. They say they're also devoting a good amount of time and space to covering the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure and government.

Then again, no one should be surprised when stories of killings get better play than others.

"It's both fair and reasonable to direct a certain amount of energy to insecurity" and a dangerous lack of stability in the region, says Roger Cohen, the New York Times' foreign editor, whose staff in the region has gone from about 20 to five. "The place is not safe. Americans are dying."

Covering Iraq certainly has grown more complicated, Walcott says, noting that "the issue during the major combat operations was relatively simple: Saddam's forces versus the U.S. military." Today, he says, the story is about everything from economics to the military to infrastructure in Iraq--all issues his reporters are covering well, he adds.

"There's a lot of bases that still needed to be covered in Iraq," Braswell agrees, but others say more people there won't necessarily do it better. Walcott in fact suggests the opposite for certain stories. "I think it's better to have the same reporters travel and look at the same issue from different viewpoints," he says.

However you look at it, Walcott adds, the story has changed. "The real question is not some numbers game. The real question is how is that job being done."

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