Obstructed View  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2007

Obstructed View   

Extreme danger and sky-high security costs have diminished the press corps in Iraq and severely limited access to a deepening morass. The result is a clouded picture of perhaps today’s most important news story.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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Before Rick Jervis heads out into the streets of Baghdad, he makes an important telephone call. Not to his editor back in USA Today's newsroom, but to his security consultant, a pipeline to the murky world of kidnappers, militias and other indiscriminate killers. If there is a rise in car bombings or assaults on foreigners, the reporter wants to know which routes to avoid before he takes off with a driver and bodyguard. He doesn't wear a flak jacket because that would draw too much attention.

The relentless violence in Iraq has seriously compromised coverage of arguably the most important story in the world today. Certain facets of the conflict remain exasperatingly elusive or, at best, thinly reported. The media's vital role as eyewitness has been severely limited; the intimate narrative of victims, survivors and their persecutors is sorely lacking in places like Anbar Province, where the insurgency continues to inflict havoc.

Few journalists have penetrated the clandestine network of resistance fighters and jihadists. CNN's Michael Ware is one of the only correspondents to sit face-to-face with al-Qaeda operatives on their own turf and survive to tell about it. The New York Times' Dexter Filkins used an inside source to set up meetings with local insurgents caught in a power struggle with al-Qaeda outsiders. But such breakthroughs have been rare. When it comes to factions in the fighting, there are more questions than answers.

And the roster of correspondents seems far too small for the daunting task. Escalating threats to foreigners and astronomical security costs have led media companies to scale back their staffs.

Though journalists struggle mightily to cut through the fog and spin, Americans are left without a complete account of a prolonged, bloody war that is devouring billions of taxpayers' dollars. Correspondents are hamstrung when it comes to independently verifying information from military press briefings or rhetoric from the Pentagon. Without risking their lives, they can't go into the festering city of Fallujah or certain Baghdad neighborhoods to conduct their own investigations (see "Out of Reach," April/May 2006). Embedding is an alternative, but it offers a limited view under scrutiny of the military.

"The whole thing seems so confusing," says Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros a few hours before heading back to Baghdad. He described this scenario: "A bomb blows up an American convoy. Who did that? The Sunni insurgents or the Shia or some other player? We have no idea and no way to figure it out... This is a profoundly different war."

No one sees the situation improving. Many news organizations have escape plans should American and Iraqi forces completely lose control of Baghdad, a squalid city brimming with weapons and sectarian animosity. For the media, security concerns have become an obsession.

Before they go out on assignments, correspondents work through a litany of questions: Where is it? What time is it? How can I get there? How can I get back? Who can I talk to? Who controls the neighborhood? Who guards the checkpoints? Is there enough fuel in the car and plenty of air in the tires? Is this story worth the risk?

To blend in, female journalists often don an abaya, a long robe worn by Muslim women, and a head scarf. Some male reporters with dark features grow moustaches and beards and try to emulate the attire of Iraqi men. Some blondes dye their hair black. Many operate on the 15-minute rule: They never stay longer in any one place for fear that someone with a cell phone will alert killers that a soft target is in play. Sometimes the smallest things can expose them. Wearing a seatbelt in a car is a clear giveaway: Iraqis rarely use them.

The high-pitched paranoia is justified. During the past four years, members of the press corps have been beheaded, gunned down at close range, blown apart by car bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), targeted for assassination and kidnapped for ransom. Some have been wounded or died alongside coalition troops during combat missions. Sometimes they have shown up in grainy videos, flanked by masked executioners, tearfully begging for their lives.

On several occasions, suicide bombers have hit the heavily guarded hotels journalists live in, including the one where Jervis has set up USA Today's operation. Some media organizations like the New York Times and CNN have spent millions to build fortresses and maintain a private army of hired guns. Embedding with the U.S. military offers a modicum of protection; it also puts correspondents at risk for ambushes, IEDs and rocket attacks, common tactics used against the occupying forces.

The heavily protected Green Zone, the core of U.S. operations where journalists routinely go for briefings and to obtain press credentials, has become a favorite target. In his first-person account "Life in Hell: A Baghdad Diary," Time correspondent Aparisim Ghosh described an attack just 100 yards from the main entrance where twin blasts--one a car bomb, the other a suicide bomber--killed 16 people. It happened near small shops where journalists emerging from the Green Zone on hot afternoons stop to buy cold sodas.

For the fourth consecutive year, Iraq in 2006 ranked as the world's deadliest spot for the media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since the invasion, 133 journalists and media support workers have been killed; 83 percent were locals, many with ties to Western media outlets. The Associated Press lost two Iraqi staffers in December and January. CPJ reports that for the first time, murder has overtaken crossfire as the leading cause of deaths.

On March 6, CPJ announced two more murders: Mohan Hussein al-Dhahir, editor of the widely read al-Mashreq newspaper, was gunned down near his home in western Baghdad on March 4. Jamal al-Zubaidi, economics editor for two Baghdad-based dailies, disappeared after he left the office on February 24. His family found his body at the morgue a few days later.

Peter Osnos, who covered the war in Vietnam for the Washington Post, says Iraq is far riskier. "American journalists have never seen a war like this before--the extraordinary danger, the vast expense and the extraordinary set of circumstances. Every inch of terrain is a potential battlefield," says Osnos, now a senior fellow for media at the Century Foundation as well as founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. "People underestimate how dangerous it is."

To be killed or injured, "All you have to do is make a wrong decision," says Richard Engel, NBC's Middle East correspondent, who has survived attempts on his life and seen friends kidnapped and killed during his four years in Iraq. Testimony from other journalists bears him out.

"You cannot move; you cannot go anywhere on your own," says Detroit Free Press photojournalist David Gilkey, who returned from his eighth trip to Iraq in January. Deadly strikes, he says, can come from any direction--an IED planted underground, a sniper on the roof of an apartment building, a gunman hiding in the trunk of a car, a teenager strapped with explosives, a car bomb set off by remote control as the killers sip tea nearby.

"Every time you get out of the vehicle, you are almost paralyzed, with your eyes darting around looking for where the shot might come from. Every time you are riding around it's all you can do to keep from plugging your ears, waiting for the blast to happen," says Gilkey, who survived an IED explosion on his last trip.

Photographer Samantha Appleton has been to Iraq five times for Time and The New Yorker. In 2003, she roamed freely with minor concerns about security. A year later, when foreigners became favorite targets, she began wearing an abaya, hoping to deflect attention as she documented the lives of Iraqi civilians, mostly in the Baghdad slum Sadr City. She now finds it impossible to travel by road anywhere outside of Baghdad. "Iraq is a country that hears and sees everything. A foreigner cannot blend in," Appleton wrote in an e-mail. She says it is common to travel with a minimum of two cars and three to five gunmen. "Few wars have required that," she says.

Besides being the most dangerous war for journalists, this also has become the most costly. Foreign editors for good reason are reluctant to discuss the specifics of their security strategies or what they pay to protect their staffs. It is no secret that companies like AKE Group Ltd. or Backwater USA charge around $1,500 a day for each member of a personal security detail. Armored vehicles can cost $100,000 or more, depending on the level of protection.

All but a handful of media organizations have been driven out by the high cost and risks. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the AP, and the broadcast and cable news networks are among the stalwarts. Even for those willing to bleed dollars for top-line security, newsgathering remains a struggle. The networks, whose crews are highly visible when they are covering a story, participate in a weekly conference call to share the latest intelligence reports. Competition goes out the window when safety is involved, says John Stack, Fox News Channel's vice president for newsgathering.

"What makes this war different," Stack says, "is that at least in certain cycles, journalists themselves were the targets, and that hadn't been the case in previous conflicts."

The heady days of "shock and awe" gave little hint of the angst to come. Operation Iraqi Freedom began as the best-covered war in American history, with television news crews transmitting unprecedented real-time images of U.S. armored divisions thundering through the desert. (See "Close to the Action," May 2003.) During the invasion, nearly 700 embedded journalists traveled alongside the troops. Hundreds more entered the war zone independently from Kuwait and other bordering nations. Today, it is a much lonelier media scene.

In October, the AP reported that only 11 journalists were embedded and there had been no more than 25 embeds during the months before. When Tribune Media Services military columnist Joseph L. Galloway contacted the Combined Information Press Center in Baghdad in early January, he was told there were only nine embeds. (CPIC, located in the Green Zone, monitors embed requests.)

"That is absolutely nothing for a story this big," says Galloway, who prowled the jungles of Vietnam for United Press International and reported from Iraq as senior military correspondent for the now-defunct Knight Ridder. "There's no substitute for getting out and spending time with a unit in a combat situation."

No one knows for certain how many journalists are in Iraq at any given time. The best guess from those on the ground is 50 to 60 on a consistent basis. Predictably, the number rises when major news breaks, such as the execution of Saddam Hussein. In mid-February, the number of embeds jumped to 52 as the U.S. military implemented a plan to secure Baghdad.

New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins offers another measure. He recalls that in the early days, several hundred journalists packed into an auditorium in the Green Zone to attend press conferences. When he left in September, about a half dozen were showing up. "It was a big story then and now, just a lot fewer people are covering it, for all the obvious reasons," says Filkins, who spent three-and-a-half years in Iraq after covering the war in Afghanistan for a year.

Compared with Iraq, "Afghanistan was a tea party," says the correspondent, who is taking a break from combat as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. "The people there are working incredibly hard and are working heroically, taking increasing risks to stitch [the story] together and get as much as they can. But there's still an awful lot we don't know."

Over the past four years, three types of media operations have evolved in Iraq. The top tier, such as the New York Times and Fox News Channel, has invested millions in armed encampments. (The Times has the most correspondents--generally five or six are in the country--as well as dozens of Iraqis working as office support staff and filing information from dangerous places.) Other news organizations, like USA Today and U.S. News & World Report, maintain a slim presence, with one correspondent and a stable of Iraqi stringers, usually operating out of a hotel or a shared house. Regional newspapers such as the San Antonio Express-News and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette parachute reporters in for stories with strong local ties.

National Public Radio, which generally has four correspondents and a producer in the country as well as a dozen Iraqis on the payroll, has moved its headquarters four times since the war started, says Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins, who visits the Baghdad bureau two or three times a year to oversee security issues. Jenkins understands why many media companies stay out. "It's hair-raising to try and run an operation there. Every day you're saying, 'Oh, God, I hope nothing happens to our people,'" says the editor, who did stints in Vietnam for Newsweek. "It's a constant, gnawing fear."

NPR first set up shop in a flophouse, as Jenkins describes it, a risky venture since there was little security. The editor counted on operating under the radar with his low-profile staff. When conditions deteriorated in 2004, he rented a house and sought professional security advice. Then came a string of kidnappings. ABC News had a heavily fortified compound with extra room, so NPR moved in. "They had greater protection than we could ever have afforded," says Jenkins.

That neighborhood became more radicalized as Muqtada al-Sadr's militia began taking control of the streets. It was time to move again. In November, NPR rented a house with Fox and CNN for neighbors. ABC News has since moved in, and the Iraq Foreign Ministry, with its army of guards, is a few blocks down the street. Once again, Jenkins piggybacked on security provided by more affluent players. He calls the safety situation in Baghdad "a constantly changing crapshoot."

NPR has invested in a second armored vehicle, but correspondents do not travel with armed guards. "If the only way you can get to a place is with a bunch of mercenaries with guns sticking out of the car or surrounding you wherever you go, that is not the journalism I want to practice," says Jenkins. "I'd rather not cover the story than go there with an intimidating presence." The bottom line: "They're always going to have more guns than you do," he says.

The Los Angeles Times rents an entire floor of a hotel outside the Green Zone, which beefed up security after a suicide bomber attacked in November 2005. Bureau Chief Borzou Daragahi had the drab walls painted white, hung pictures by local artists, replaced wall-to-wall carpeting and had the harsh fluorescent lights softened in an effort to boost morale, especially for the large Iraqi staff of translators, office managers, drivers, a cook, bodyguards and stringers.

"It's really hard given that these folks are watching their country collapse," says Daragahi. The Times keeps three Western correspondents in Baghdad.

USA Today operates out of the same hotel in a two-room suite that doubles as office and sleeping space for Rick Jervis. He rents separate space for the four-person Iraqi staff, including a bodyguard. "We are operating, as you could call it, on the lower end of the spectrum," says Jervis, who became USA Today's full-time correspondent in April 2005. He pays $5,000 a month for hotel space and services, such as laundry and food, and another $5,000 to the Iraqis who work for him.

Jervis hired a security contractor who delivers operational briefings a couple times a week, sends e-mail alerts and does general consulting before Jervis goes out on assignments. The correspondent is on a six-week-in, three-week-out-rotation--USA Today sends in reporters with foreign experience to fill in for him. When Jervis returns from a break, the first thing he does is get a risk assessment.

Regional news organizations covering stories on a spot basis make do with far less protection than the regulars. Senior military reporter Sig Christenson and photographer Nicole Fruge of the San Antonio Express-News landed at Baghdad International Airport in August to do a story on a Texas legislator serving as a Marine reserve colonel in Ramadi. There was no high-priced security detail waiting to sweep them to safety in a bombproof car.

Instead, they hitched a ride in an armored vehicle with "burly mercenary types," as Fruge describes them, to get from the military side of the airport to the civilian side, a short but perilous drive. Once on the outside, they smoldered in 120-degree heat, waiting for a ride Christenson had arranged with a colleague in Baghdad. Fruge, on her second trip to Iraq, wondered if it was a bad idea to be so exposed.

Christenson, who rode across the desert with invading troops and has frequented the war zone, reassured her it was fine. "I was thinking to myself, 'You are the biggest bullshitter that ever lived.' I knew we were sitting ducks," says Christenson, a founder and former president of the group Military Reporters and Editors.

In early March, the two returned for a fourth anniversary story about how soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, feel about the war and how it is affecting them. As always, they embedded, but they know traveling with the military offers no guarantees.

Last May, CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier was doing a Memorial Day story on what life was like for American troops in Baghdad when a car laden with explosives ignited, spewing razor-sharp shrapnel in her direction. CBS cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan died at the scene. A U.S. Army captain and his Iraqi translator also were killed.

The network reported that Dozier, 39, arrived in Germany from Iraq on a ventilator and underwent surgery on her head and legs. In August, she left a Maryland hospital facing months of rehabilitation for her fractured limbs.

On December 4, Detroit Free Press reporter Joe Swickard, on his first trip to Iraq, was riding in a Humvee alongside Marines patrolling volatile Fallujah. His coworker, photographer David Gilkey, was in the lead vehicle. A commander was pointing out to Swickard that it would be the perfect spot for an ambush when, suddenly, the road in front of them exploded.

Swickard watched in horror as flames shot through a massive gray cloud of dust and the Humvee carrying Gilkey came crashing down out of the air. Swickard's first thought was, "Oh shit, they're dead. How will I cover this?"

When the Humvee came to rest, the two right-hand doors were sprung open. Suddenly, two sets of legs poked out of the wreckage. Gilkey and a Marine emerged, and "I just started breathing again," Swickard recalls. Then came the second shock. A hail of gunfire sent the survivors scrambling for cover.

Gilkey suffered only a temporary hearing loss. None of the Marines was seriously injured. During an earlier trip, the photographer had worked on a story about soldiers who had lost limbs. One them described how, after a blast, he looked down to find his severed leg lying in his lap. Gilkey remembers sighing with relief when he realized his own arms and legs were intact.

Many journalists who have covered the carnage describe their Iraq experience as life-altering. The L.A. Times' Daragahi noted that he was coming to the end of his stint as Baghdad bureau chief this spring. "Thank God! Quite frankly, I am burned out, and I see that I'm not having the ideas I used to have. I am a lot more tired of the rituals and rhythms of being in Baghdad. It's taken a toll on my personal life," says Daragahi, whose wife works for the French newspaper Le Figaro in Tehran.

They put off having children because "she did not want to be pregnant while I was in Iraq. Too much anxiety," he says. After Daragahi is relieved of bureau duties, he will be based in Beirut to cover the region, including Iraq and Iran.

Earlier this year, NBC's Engel sent a memo to his bosses telling them that as Iraq changed, he had changed. He had no semblance of a personal life, and the war had cost him his marriage. "Violence and cruelty now seem, to me, to come easily to mankind; a new belief that disturbs me," he wrote. Engel is based in Beirut but continues to cover Iraq.

As difficult as it is for American journalists, it often is worse for Iraqis. Bassam Sebti, who has reported for the Washington Post, wrote a personal account for CPJ in May 2006. He described how stress had become an unforgiving companion; body parts scattered in the street and children weeping over dead parents had become routine. Working for Americans could get him killed, so he convinced neighbors he ran an Internet café. Sleep is elusive, and nightmares have haunted him for months.

How does the human psyche cope with the magnitude of violence that journalists have experienced in Iraq? Dr. Frank Ochberg, a founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, points out a distinct difference between those who cope well and those who don't. Those who do best under extreme duress tend to maintain ties with significant others, don't allow themselves to become walled off and find ways to share their frustrations and worries.

Journalists in Iraq face the additional pressure of being limited by the danger and kept from working the story to the fullest. "Professionals can tolerate a hell of a lot when they're on the job and getting gratification from doing what they know they were put on earth to do," Ochberg says. "You don't really think twice; you don't feel all that courageous. You're doing what you've been trained to do. It's hard when on top of everything else you can't do your job. Then it becomes crushing."

His advice: Establish a daily rhythm, find sources of rest and relaxation, stay connected to other people, do physical exercise and lay off alcohol and other drugs.

Engel pounds a punching bag. Daragahi walks on a treadmill 30 minutes every day or two. Christenson carries an Army-issue Bible and finds respite reading the Old Testament "because so much of it happened around here." Unlike wartime Saigon's freewheeling party atmosphere, Baghdad mostly is a forbidden zone. Main sources of entertainment include satellite TV and DVDs. The press corps maintains a strong camaraderie via e-mail.

"This is a different war in a different time covered by journalists with different values from past conflicts," says Daragahi. "To relax, we're much more likely to be meditating using aroma therapy oils or working up a sweat on exercise equipment than smoking hashish and getting soused in the hotel bar. A number of Baghdad correspondents I know regularly do yoga."

There's also an emotional fallout when journalists take extraordinary risks and their material is not used or is underplayed. Lara Logan, CBS' chief foreign correspondent, caused a ruckus when she sent an e-mail appealing to friends and colleagues to intervene after a producer for the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" chose not to air her report "The Battle for Haifa Street." Instead, it was posted on the network's Web site.

Logan underscored the danger in her message, which quickly showed up on the Internet: "Our crew had to be pulled out because we got a call saying they were about to be killed, and on their way out, a civilian man was shot dead in front of them as they ran," she wrote. The story, she said, "is not too gruesome to air, but rather too important to ignore."

The network's foreign editor declined to comment, referring instead to a statement by CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius: "The executive director of the 'Evening News' thought some of the images in it were a bit strong plus on that day the program was already packed with other Iraq news."

Marcus Wilford, ABC's director of news coverage for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has lobbied for Iraq stories to be given better play. Is he satisfied with how the material is used? "It's OK, and I think it's gotten better, but it could be better still. Frankly, I have been frustrated at the number of times a reporter has clearly done something very risky and not gotten anything on... I feel there has been a tendency for broadcast to get weary of the story unless it's absolutely sensational. It's difficult, no doubt, after four years."

The future of the American journalistic presence in Iraq remains a large question mark. Not a single foreign editor or correspondent interviewed for this story felt conditions would get better. Most made bleak predictions of worse to come and talked about contingency plans for their staffs if conditions deteriorate even further. Some already have arranged for housing inside the heavily fortified Green Zone as a safety net.

One news operation plans to flee to safer areas inside Kurdistan, a way of staying in Iraq but farther from the killing zones. Those with bureaus in other parts of the Middle East will go there to retrench. On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, no one was talking about shutting down, at least not yet. "We agonize over this, and we have discussions about at what point we would not cover it," says NPR's Jenkins.

What would it take for NPR to pull out? There was a long pause and a deep sigh on the other end of the telephone. "No one believes there's a victory at the end of this tunnel; it's how long you hold on and pretend. At some point, [the government] is going to have to pull the plug. Until then, we are in for the long haul."

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