Reporters in Iraq under fire there, and from critics

By Mark Memmott, USA TODAY
As they begin a fourth year covering the war in Iraq, journalists there face increasing threats to their safety and increasing criticism of their work.
A sign remembering reporters who have died or are missing outside the Reuters headquarters building in New York.
Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

It started as arguably the best-covered war in history: Hundreds of reporters traveled with the military as it invaded Iraq, and then hundreds more moved freely around the country as troops secured Baghdad. Today, it has become for some journalists the least-covered war.

Newspapers and other media have cut the number of reporters in the war zone. The reporters who remain in Iraq find leaving their hotels or rental houses difficult for fear of being killed or kidnapped.

To get to the news, they generally must either "embed" with U.S. or Iraqi forces, work the phones from their hotels or houses, send Iraqi staff to events or make carefully planned reporting trips protected by hired guards.

Meanwhile, high-profile critics are stepping up their complaints about the media’s work. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, long critical of what he sees as overly negative reporting, told reporters this month: "From what I’ve seen thus far, much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation."

in Iraq that’s hard to capture on the evening news."

"Have we undercovered the good news?" asks John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. "We probably have. But there’s nothing willful about it. I would enter a plea of mitigation that we are overstretched."

That puts reporters in a difficult position in terms of choosing which events to cover.

"There is an awful lot of what might be construed as bad news here," CNN international correspondent Nic Robertson said from Baghdad this week on the network’s Reliable Sources program. "But it is the dominant information. It’s the prevailing information."

Rumsfeld and Bush must know that "it’s incredibly dangerous and that the media has a very difficult job," said Jerry Burke, executive producer of daytime programming at Fox News Channel. "We have to cover some aspect of the story so we cover what we can cover without getting our anchors and our reporters blown up."

Fox anchor Bill Hemmer is embedded with U.S. forces near Fallujah, "and I’m very concerned about him," Burke said. "He’s out sleeping in the desert right now and tomorrow will be doing a very tough job."

‘Significant’ cutbacks


No one knows for certain how many non-Iraqi journalists remain in the country, but "the cutbacks have been significant," Burns said.

When the war began, 800 foreign reporters were embedded with coalition forces as they crossed the border from Kuwait; hundreds more journalists poured into Iraq after Baghdad fell. Today, the numbers are stunningly small.

"News conferences that two years ago would have attracted 60, 80 or 100 Western journalists now get 10, 15 or less," Burns says.

Liz Sly, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who travels to Baghdad for weeks at a time from the newspaper’s Rome bureau, estimates "there might be 50 foreign journalists there."

USA TODAY keeps at least one reporter in Iraq, but it had as many as eight in the weeks after the war began. It also has contracted with a reporter to embed with U.S. forces and write the blog Dispatches from Iraq.

As of early last week, 31 journalists were embedded with U.S. forces, said Army Sgt. James Sherrill, a Combined Press Information Center media embed coordinator in Baghdad.

By Wathiq Khuzaie, Getty Images
Franco Pagetti, a magazine photographer, was injured while covering a Jan. 19 bombing in Baghdad.

Though their numbers are down, the reporters covering the war say they’re giving readers and viewers a fair picture of what’s happening in Iraq. "I think we’re getting 90% of the story," Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner said last week during a panel discussion at the University of California, Berkeley.

Not all of the problems stem from dwindling numbers or growing risks. The news media are blocked from covering at least one part of the story: Few photos, for instance, have been allowed of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, bearing the bodies of fallen U.S. troops.


A number of factors explain the shrinking press pool in Iraq. Among them: the high cost of keeping reporters in Iraq. Media companies spend hundreds of dollars a day per reporter, security being a major factor.

Dangerous territory

For those who remain, the dangers associated with their jobs have grown enormously.

On Monday, the multinational group Reporters Without Borders said 86 journalists and news assistants have been killed in Iraq since U.S. forces crossed the border from Kuwait three years ago. By contrast, the group said, 63 journalists were killed in Vietnam during the 22-year period of the war there. (Related: Read the report)

Thirty-eight journalists have been kidnapped, Reporters Without Borders said. Five of those kidnapped were killed.

Journalists know they may be the next targets of insurgents, terrorists or kidnappers looking to draw attention, make a political statement or obtain a lucrative ransom. Long gone are the days, such as in mid-2003, when reporters could walk the streets, visit shops and engage Iraqis in conversation over dinner at restaurants.

"It’s hard to imagine anywhere more difficult," said Alastair Macdonald, Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, which produces stories for both print and broadcast clients.

"I don’t wake up every morning sweating about the risks I’m taking, but I do know that if I walk 100 yards to the edge of our secure area and out on the streets I’d be taking a major, almost suicidal, risk."

The combination of thin staffs and grave dangers has forced media companies to hire and train more Iraqi journalists.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, a National Public Radio correspondent who has made repeated trips to Iraq for the network, said the Iraqi journalists working for Western media "have done a heroic job" for the most part.

However, some critics charge the media with overreliance on the locals they hire. "I believe some of the Iraqi journalists have cracked the code and figured out that the American media will pay them to report violent news," said Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer, author and commentator


Another common criticism is that not enough is written and broadcast about efforts to rebuild the country and clamp down on insurgents.

At a town hall meeting Wednesday in West Virginia, Bush was asked by a woman why the "major TV networks don’t portray the good" news from Iraq. Her question drew a standing ovation. Bush said the media are free to report what they choose and that any attempt by the government to impose its views would "make us look like the Taliban."

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