A View from the Embassy  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

A View from the Embassy    

A former press attaché at the American embassy in Baghdad hands out generally high marks to reporters covering embattled Iraq and explains why the situation is so difficult to penetrate for journalists and diplomats alike.

By Robert J. Callahan
     


American reporters have faced criticism for their coverage of Iraq, but rarely from those of us who have been there and have seen these journalists at work. In my time as the press attaché at the American Embassy in Baghdad from June 2004 until May 2005, I recall some grumbling among the diplomats at our mission about the press, but nothing that would have impugned the reporters' motives or competence. We tended to think that, under the circumstances, they did a good job.

This is not to say that we would argue – or for that matter, that they would – that their reporting was comprehensive or always accurate. But neither was ours. Many journalists have said that Iraq was the most difficult story they have ever attempted to cover. For diplomats, who also report on events, it held much the same degree of difficulty, and for the same reasons.

It started with danger. Everyone in Iraq, but especially those in Baghdad and Anbar province, grew accustomed to mortar and rocket attacks. Yet these were often more nuisance than threat. They seldom kept us from our daily routines and rarely altered the way we went about living. Of much greater concern, and clearly more lethal, were roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and their mobile analogues, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), what the rest of the world would call car bombs. Any time we were on the road, and both journalists and diplomats spent a lot of time on city streets and highways, we knew we were susceptible to these bombs. Diplomats especially were obvious targets since we traveled in conspicuous SUVs, usually three or more vehicles to a convoy. Journalists tended to be less visible in their cars, preferring models and makes that would not seem out of place in Iraq.

But if the SUV convoys, which were often accompanied by Humvees and helicopters flying loudly overhead, attracted attention and were vulnerable to IEDs and car bombs, they at least protected us from kidnapping. Journalists, who normally traveled with only an interpreter and driver (and occasionally a "chase car"), were far easier prey. Everyone from criminal gangs seeking profit to insurgent groups wanting to make a statement welcomed a chance to grab a Westerner. Reporters were targets, and they knew it. In many conversations with them, I learned that their greatest fear was to be abducted, tortured, humiliated on camera and then beheaded. They could rationalize the other dangers, run the risk of being hit by a mortar or IED, but being kidnapped was the sum of all their nightmares.

As we – journalists, diplomats and others – took measures to reduce our exposure to danger, we also limited our ability to speak to average Iraqis. We just could not spend much time on the street or in the coffee houses. We did meet often with government officials, editors, clerics and politicians, but at their houses or offices. If these meetings took place outside the fortified Green Zone, we usually kept our encounters to an hour or less. To stay longer would invite unacceptable risks. Word would spread that a stranger was around, and crowds, often hostile, would gather. Terrorists or criminals might also learn of a Westerner's presence and act on it. Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist, was abducted from her car in front of a mosque and spent a month in captivity. More recently, an Iraqi group known as the Revenge Brigade snatched Jill Carroll, a stringer for several American papers (and AJR), from her car on a busy street and killed her interpreter.

Danger is one impediment to getting the story in Iraq, but there are many others. Take statistics. Facts and figures help to frame a story, chart progress or failure, place statements in context. But Iraq lacks any kind of reliable numbers. Reporters and diplomats have had to guess at such things as unemployment, economic growth, oil production, income, mortality and population. Every Iraqi group – and in addition to the oft-cited Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds there are Christians, Turkmen, Yezidis, Baha'is and a host of others – claims numbers in the population that, if true, would make the country almost as populous as India.

Then there is the Arabic language, or more to the point, our lack of it. I knew only two journalists who spoke fluent Arabic and none who spoke Kurdish, Turkmen or Syriac, the language of many Christians, although all educated adult Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity, spoke Arabic. Among American diplomats, fewer than a dozen had sufficient Arabic to use in an extended conversation and, like the reporters, none spoke Iraq's other languages. That meant that either our contacts spoke English or we relied on interpreters. In the case of the most senior Americans – the ambassador and a few other civilians, generals with three or four stars – the interpreters were superb. But the rest of us, diplomats and journalists, had to rely on bilingual Iraqis who often weren't professional interpreters. Some were capable, most just adequate and a few deficient. When we spoke with Iraqis, using interpreters or making do in English, our discussions were halting and lacking in nuance. Add to this the inability of most of us to read Arabic newspapers and understand television news programs, and we worked in a communication twilight. Nothing ever appeared in sharp focus.

To overcome, or at least ameliorate, the problems that security and communication posed, journalists hired Iraqi stringers, and the embassy used foreign service national employees. They lived among the people and could go where we couldn't. They were able to talk easily to other Iraqis and assess shifts in mood and attitude. Of course, these Iraqis looked at events through their cultural prisms. Were they Sunnis or Shiites, Kurds or Arabs, Christians or Turkmen? Almost all of them had endured more than two decades of Saddam's repression and, like Iraqis in every field, had developed stratagems to cope. We had to assess if what they told us was what they actually thought or what they thought we wanted to hear. We didn't know if it was news or opinion, fact or rumor.

The omnipresent danger, the difficulty in finding reliable statistics and sources to establish the truth, and the limitations in speaking and understanding Arabic vexed equally journalists and diplomats. It also brought us together in a kind of shared frustration and mutual dependence. We relied on one another more in Iraq than anywhere else I had served.

In London and Rome, we in the embassy saw American reporters only occasionally. They had their own sources and came to us for comments when a story had an exclusively local dimension. If the issue were broader, Washington would address it. I probably saw American reporters as often for social as professional reasons in both places. In Athens and La Paz, with the exception of a couple of Americans who worked for the wire services, I hardly saw an American correspondent. A few journalists might pass through for several days once or twice a year, do a story or two, and then depart. In Honduras in the early 1980s, we did deal extensively with the American media, but reporters had easier access to local officials, tended to know the language and could avoid most dangers. Iraq was in a class of its own.

Once the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved on June 28, 2004, and sovereignty returned to an interim Iraqi government, America ceased to be a governing power and became an accredited embassy, one of several in Baghdad. To be sure, it was like no other embassy in the world, but it was still a diplomatic mission. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, who arrived the day of the transfer of sovereignty, had decided our approach to public affairs ought to change with our status. We would encourage the Iraqis to speak for themselves, let them explain their policies and defend their positions. No longer would the Americans speak daily on the record. We would make ourselves available to international reporters, but it would be, with rare exceptions, on background or off the record. We needed to show the world, as well as tell it, that the Iraqis now had to accept responsibility for their own affairs.

Some of our strategy succeeded. Parts of it failed. The Iraqis, at least in the first few months, proved unwilling or incapable of engaging the press. Despite extensive training in public affairs that we and the British provided, Iraqi spokesmen couldn't manage the most basic public affairs work. They couldn't write a press release or organize a press conference. They often didn't return phone calls and, when they did, they frequently gave the caller erroneous information. They contradicted one another and seemed to have a casual regard for the verifiable truth.

In August 2004, for example, when Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, seized a mosque in the holy city of Najaf, his rebellion became a front-page story throughout the world. Not only did it have a military dimension, but also profound political implications. If enough Shiites rose against the interim government, and by extension the coalition, it would certainly lead to greater bloodshed and likely derail the political process. The international press descended on the holy city. The entire embassy was engaged. Everyone was tense and waiting for news.

In the midst of the crisis I got a call from a public affairs officer in the prime minister's office. He was ecstatic. He told me that the confrontation had ended peacefully and that Muqtada and his followers had left the mosque. He said that he planned to tell the press. I asked him insistently if he was sure of his information. Annoyed, he said he had just received a call from the minister of the Interior, who was standing in the empty mosque where a few hours before Muqtada and his Mahdi Army had held sway. I again cautioned him to be certain and advised him to wait for additional confirmation. But the news was too good to hold, and he told the press.

The calls started immediately. The journalists wanted us to confirm what the Iraqis had said. I counseled them to be patient, to wait a few minutes before they ran with the news. Sure enough, within the hour the Iraqis had to admit that Muqtada remained in control of the mosque. It would be another three weeks before he would give it up.

A while later we had a similar episode. Iraqi police arrested a thin, elderly redhead and let it be known that they suspected he was Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam's deputy and the King of Clubs in the deck of the most-wanted. One of the government's spokesmen, Ibrahim Janabi, announced that he was "sure" that police had captured al-Douri because he was, after all, a redhead, a rarity in Iraq. He went on to explain that the government was conducting DNA tests and that preliminary results supported its contention. When reporters called us, we recommended restraint, reminding them of the earlier case involving Muqtada al-Sadr. Most listened. They qualified their stories with "claims" and "alleges," and fortunately so. Shortly afterward, the Iraqis had to admit it was not al-Douri, but rather a distant relative, hence the early confusion with the DNA test. Or so they said.

Of course, it was not entirely the fault of the Iraqi spokesmen and government ministers. They endured plenty of petty political meddling, lacked modern communication equipment and had no experience with public affairs. Saddam handled those chores, and many others, for his regime for many years. And the Iraqis did improve with time. Still, it did not make work easier for journalists, who filed under deadlines and against competition. When Iraqis ignored the reporters' requests for comments or gave out dubious information, the journalists turned to us. We would attempt to put them off, arguing that the Iraqis had to learn to do it themselves, that we would urge them to be more responsive, but that we were a diplomatic mission and not the government. These exchanges became predictable, almost comical. Go to the government, we would tell the reporters, and they would reply, "We've been trying for three days. No one will talk."

We would answer the questions if we could, but we normally preferred to engage the press in regular background sessions. These gave us the opportunity to provide context for the pressing political, security and economic issues that concerned both journalists and diplomats. Although Negroponte did meet periodically with reporters, either for small dinners or for lunches with the international or Arabic press corps, he decided to delegate most of the background briefing responsibilities to others. His deputy, the heads of the political and political-military sections, the chief of the Treasury Department in Baghdad, the regime crimes liaison and others proved to be reliable resources for the press, in providing both textured information on breaking events and in explaining American policy. In a typical week we would arrange a half-dozen or more backgrounders. They were popular and useful for several reasons.

First, my colleagues quickly came to trust the press. They knew that reporters needed the access they offered and would not risk losing it by betraying a confidence or revealing a source. For their part, the reporters trusted us. They had confidence that our analyses were based on good information and honest intentions. In almost a year in Iraq, I recall only a couple of instances when newspapers misrepresented our position, and in one case it was more the headline than the article.

Next, we understood that resident reporters talked to many of the same people we spoke to, heard the same explosions, went to the same places, studied the same issues. Even if we wanted to mislead the journalists for policy purposes, and we never did, we realized that they would quickly discover our deceit, and we would forfeit our credibility. If we had erred on some issue, if our plans went awry, and they called us on it, we admitted our shortcomings. And it worked both ways. If we disagreed with their sources or conclusions, and we could show our case was stronger, we could talk to them and they would listen.

Third, the journalists would often tell us through their questions as much as we told them in our answers. It was mutually beneficial. Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, a fluent Arabic speaker and courageous journalist, regularly attended Friday services at mosques, where he would analyze the sermons for their political content. His observations, and those of other reporters, often led us to reexamine our assumptions and contributed to our understanding of the situation.

Finally, we were able to provide basic information that the reporters, because of restrictions on their movements, small staffs and lack of time in country, could not find. Even the largest bureaus, such as the New York Times', would have no more than four or five reporters, and they had to cover political, economic and military issues. We had hundreds of people in our mission, many with one specific responsibility. When it came time to describe the electoral process, the re-creation of the Central Bank or the Iraqi legal system, we could call on experts who devoted all their time to these matters to share their knowledge with the press.

All this led to easy and frequent discussions between reporters and diplomats. Because of the eight-hour time difference between Baghdad and America's East Coast, which grew to 11 hours for the West Coast media, journalists would begin to write late at night. If they needed clarification or information, they would call us. When my cell phone would awaken me after midnight, it was almost always a reporter, and I would snap, "This better be important." It usually was. The reporters were apologetic for the late hour but needed detail and context for their articles. If I couldn't provide it then, or find someone in the mission who could, they would either write the story around that or hold it until we could get what they wanted. But they were determined to be accurate and fair.

A good example of cooperation between the embassy and the press corps occurred in the run-up to the elections in January 2005. Kidnappings and car bombings were rampant and getting worse, and journalists would not dare venture beyond Baghdad in their cars. We in the embassy were confident that the elections would take place on time and with significant popular participation. We wanted to get the press out to write about politics in the provinces. Reporters wanted to escape from Baghdad and broaden their coverage.

Coordinating with the British embassy, we arranged for the American military to make available to us two helicopters a day for the 10 days leading to the elections. The British would supply a C-130 for a trip to Basra. Allowing for security guards and escorts, we could take 10 to 12 reporters on each chopper trip. If the destination was relatively safe, say Basra in the south or Suleimaniya in Kurdistan, the journalists were free to roam and talk to whomever they wanted. If danger was a concern, such as in Hilla or Kirkuk, we organized programs with local officials.

It wasn't perfect, from either our perspective or the correspondents'. At times, reporters had access only to people the local embassy office had selected. At other times, they saw or heard things that reflected poorly on our efforts and goals. I was with a group in Erbil, a large Kurdish city, and in a meeting with university students we heard that these young men and women had no desire to be Iraqis and that most of them spoke little or no Arabic. We also learned that despite this, the Kurds would vote and remain citizens of a federal Iraq until such time as they could afford full independence.

The travel, briefings and regular exchange of views and opinions helped to establish a relationship that encouraged frankness. Much has been made of reporters refraining from identifying Jill Carroll for a day or so after her abduction, with some critics accusing the media of treating one of their own preferentially. But reporters did exactly the same thing when others had been kidnapped. If they had information on an abduction and called me, I would confirm that someone had been taken and ask them if they could hold that until we notified the next of kin or took quick measures to find and free the victim. Without exception, the reporters did. They would also delay announcing the names of those who had been killed until we could contact relatives, in the case of someone who worked for the American government, or if it involved a contractor, his company.

The most persistent critics of the media in Iraq have argued that reporters ignore the good news. Of course, it is axiomatic in the profession that good news is no news. But in Iraq, I would argue, good news was news and, to be fair, the media did cover much of it. When Iraqis went to the polls in January of 2005, their ink-stained fingers became an international symbol of courage and defiance. The story led newscasts and dominated front pages. The election was an astounding success, and the media reported it as such. But what of the smaller, daily triumphs, the reopening of schools and clinics, the rehabilitation of water plants and the training of Iraqi security forces, the billions spent on reconstruction, reform and civic education? Where were these stories, the critics would ask, why only blood, mayhem and failure?

Well, the media did run positive stories, perhaps not as many as we would have liked, but again the situation in Iraq often made it difficult, impractical or counterproductive to get coverage for the good news. For example, we stopped taking reporters to the inaugurations of many reconstruction projects because, as we quickly learned to our dismay, publicity might invite a terrorist attack. On several occasions, one involving a school, terrorists struck the site and killed innocent people the day after an article or television story appeared. We concluded that good publicity simply wasn't worth the cost in lives and damage, and we stopped advertising them. It was frustrating, to be sure, but prudent.

In addition, as we have learned from Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, in his congressional testimony on February 8, our efforts have produced mixed results. The fact is, we didn't have many conspicuous successes, especially in areas most important to Iraqis. The insurgents proved adept at destroying much of the infrastructure we built, crippling the power grid and interfering with the water supply. And our good work – training the Iraqi army and police force, helping to build a civil society, tightening border security, getting the ports up and running – would reveal itself only slowly or was invisible to most observers.

There were times, though, when we led with our chin. In late September 2004, after being assured by officials responsible for many of the large reconstruction efforts that a hospital in Najaf would be functioning within a week, we arranged for a large group of Iraqi and American reporters to visit the project. We flew down in two military helicopters. Upon arrival, we got in the back of an open truck, a startling contrast to our security precautions in Baghdad, and drove to the hospital.

There we found American contractors feuding with the Iraqi administrators, each accusing the other of bad faith. In the basement, a defective pipe was leaking raw sewage into what would become the operating theater. The exterior walls were pocked and pitted by gunfire. It was clear that the hospital was still months away from completion. We had exposed our own problems, had touted our own failure. Yet most of the articles that resulted from the trip, although describing the sad state of the hospital, went on to place reconstruction in a larger context, noting the difficulties and dangers of working in Iraq.

On that trip, as on many others, we took along a television crew. But in truth most of our contact was with newspaper, wire service and newsmagazine reporters, usually American and British. Although television correspondents and producers, such as the well-informed and long-resident Richard Engel of NBC, Kevin Flower of CNN and Ray Homer of ABC, would attend background briefings, they needed pictures for their reports. For that reason, television journalists gravitated to the military embed program; interviewed visiting senators, congressmen and senior State Department officials, all of whom would speak on camera; and captured images of the regular havoc on Baghdad's streets.

If a somewhat unbalanced snapshot of conditions in Iraq took hold in the popular imagination, it was largely due to the relentless video of charred cars, burning buildings, keening women and bloodied men served up daily on television screens throughout the world. When I left Baghdad for a week's respite in Rome in September 2004, I was appalled by what I saw on the Italian network RAI and CNN International. I'm sure that the networks reported every event exactly as it took place. But the Baghdad I knew and traveled through two or three times a week also bustled with open-air markets, kids playing soccer, women shopping and streets choked with traffic. These scenes were mostly missing on television. Instead, we saw violence.

There was one type of journalist in Baghdad who caused us genuine concern: those who wrote for certain magazines. They came for a single, extended stay, wanted to cover "lifestyle" issues and would publish their pieces long after they departed. By "lifestyle" many of them meant sex, drugs and alcohol, and the fact that they would come and go, never to return, removed one of our most effective restraints on biased or narrowly focused reporting. In the summer of 2004, to cite one example, a reporter from Rolling Stone called. She asked for unrestricted access to the Green Zone. She explained that she wanted to describe how Americans lived and worked in Baghdad, their dedication to high principles and their willingness to sacrifice. Noting that we couldn't establish the precedent of "unrestricted access" to the Green Zone, we rejected her request.

When then-Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Baghdad a couple of weeks later, he met with hundreds of Americans on the grounds of the Republican Palace, which served as the embassy annex. As I looked out at the diplomats, soldiers and contractors, I saw the Rolling Stone reporter standing between two young Marines. If nothing else, I had to bow to her resourcefulness.

It took resourcefulness and much else – courage, persistence, discretion, skepticism, energy – to find anything resembling the full truth amid the dangers, confusion and chaos of Iraq. But most journalists, despite the obstacles, tried to find the truth. All things considered, they have done a pretty good job of it.

Robert J. Callahan (rjcal@gwu.edu) is a foreign service officer currently serving as public diplomacy fellow at George Washington University. This article reflects his views and not those of the State Department.

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