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May 21, 2004

"The View From Iraq is Getting Narrower Just as Things Are Getting Worse..."

The press is more and more confined to the green zone in Iraq. Accepting certain dangers as part of the assignment, correspondents now face dangers that may destroy the assignment. A good time to look back at what John F. Burns said in his "there is corruption in our business" speech. This was moral literature for journalists in an age of terror. And new arrivals should read it.

“The view from Iraq is getting narrower just as things are getting worse.” That’s what Howard Kurtz reported Monday. “Growing violence is forcing Western correspondents to change their approach to reporting, restrict their travel and pass up stories that are now deemed too risky.” Two New York Times reporters have already been kidnapped, but then released. Now there’s the example of Nick Berg to think about. The results are discouraging:

Many journalists now spend much of their time inside the capital’s “green zone,” which is protected by the U.S. military.

“We’ve been largely confined to Baghdad,” says Bill Spindle, the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East editor, who recently returned from Iraq. “With the checkpoints and the kidnappings and the shootings that seem deliberately aimed at people working for Western organizations, moving around has been a dicey proposition.”

And so a press that is there to report on events in all of Iraq is now confined to the American military’s green zone in Iraq. Having accepted certain dangers as part of the assignment, the correspondents face dangers that may destroy the assignment. Without freedom of movement, is there really a free press operating in Iraq?

Reporters in war zones and lawless situations call it “going out,” as in, “has anyone been going out?” To go out is to leave the green zone or its equivalent (the press hotel) and that often means leaving the capital, the fortified center, for travel in more dangerous country, usually with a driver who knows the roads, a translator who knows the language, perhaps a photographer and in television news a “fixer,” a local who knows a lot and can solve problems. This is relevant because a correspondent can endanger others by choosing the wrong time to go out. It’s never a one person show.

If they’re not going out in Baghdad, but sticking to quarters, then reporters cannot really cover what they are there to cover— the ongoing war, the re-building of Iraq, the emergence of a new Iraqi state and its politics, and the changing situation on the ground.

A confined press can rely on stringers. Or it could, as Jeff Jarvis recommended, sign up Iraqi bloggers to help. There are other improvisations, no doubt. But the reality Kurtz describes—journalists pushed back and pinned down, dependent for protection upon the government they are trying to hold accountable—not only tells us something about dangers in Iraq. It forces us to understand the American military effort, and the American press effort as one thing. “More journalists have resumed traveling with military units through the Pentagon’s embedding program, which proved so popular during the war against Saddam Hussein,” Kurtz reported.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon, in response to Kurtz’s account, wrote: “Salon’s coverage from Iraq was not ‘embedded’ during the invasion and is not embedded in the Green Zone today.” And this archive of pieces says that Rosenberg is not just scoring points. A good example is Phillip Robertson’s harrowing account of being seized by militia: “In the clutches of the Al-Mahdi Army.” He was released when the right person recognized him. How real are the dangers that cause journalists to retreat and embed? Robertson said it well: “On the way to Najaf, I fell into the wrong hands.”

John Burns on the New York Times recently fell into the wrong hands, too. Here’s Kurtz on it:

John Burns, the New York Times’s Baghdad bureau chief, and several colleagues were blindfolded and driven to a makeshift prison last month before being released after eight hours. The next day, Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and his driver were abducted by gun-toting men with scarves tied over their faces, but released when their captors were convinced they were not spies.

I had not heard of Burns being taken prisoner until I read it in the Washington Post. It made me ask myself again: what are these people—journalists on assignment in Iraq—actually there to do, and why do they do it at such high personal risk?

In the case of Burns, we have a lot of information. In the case of Burns, we have personal testimony: what it was like to report truthfully on a regime so corrupt, and murderous— the republic of fear. Burns was there when the Batthists were in control. He was there when they lost it, “covering the last chapter of Mr. Hussein’s rule and the first weeks of the American occupation,” to use his words. One day an author sat him down for an interview, part of an oral history project. (Burns is a two-time Pulitizer Prize winner for reporting from Afghanistan and Sarajevo):

Terror, totalitarian states, and their ways are nothing new to me, but I felt from the start that this was in a category by itself, with the possible exception in the present world of North Korea. I felt that that was the central truth that has to be told about this place. It was also the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here.

Who knows why he spoke the way he did to the interviewer. (“There is corruption in our business… In the run up to this war, to my mind, there was a gross abdication of responsibility.”) The Burns portion became a statement in its own right, widely published, broadly discussed— and criticized too. Some wanted him to name the corrupt ones in the news business, but he did not. Even without the names, his testimony is a work of moral literature, and thus a starting point for the press in an age of terror. (Originally published in Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson.)

Burns describes circumstances most unusual for a journalist. In the last week of the regime, he had advanced warning from Times people in New York and Washington that the Information Ministry was to be bombed by the United States. He called an official in charge, General UdayAl-Tayyib, and said he had vital information:

He arrived at 5:00 am and I said to him, “Listen to me and listen carefully. I’m not going to cause a panic among journalists. I remember what you did to CNN the last time. I don’t want to be accused of spreading alarm and despondency, but you’ve got to close that ministry down, because anybody who’s in that building tomorrow night will be killed. We have friends in Washington. People who are concerned about my welfare and that of other American correspondents. That’s how we know it.”

For twenty-four hours he said he’d see what he could do. They did nothing. That night at 8:00 pm, I went to every floor of the ministry. I told everybody. “Get off! Get off this building. It’s going to be attacked this night.”

You either believe the account or you don’t believe it. I do. And when I read in November of 2003 that John Burns had returned to Baghdad, to report on events after Saddam’s fall, I thought of him running from floor to floor in that doomed building, hoping to get Iraqis out, spreading the news as best he could because he knew that it was possible for him, the person in possession of this news, to save lives.

He had tried to hand the responsibility off to an Iraqi General, but he also knew from his reporting that the man was completely corrupt, and so the thing fell completely on Burns. “They did nothing.” There was no responsible government; Iraqis had no one with any human decency looking out for them. Burns knew that; he was a journalist.

I did a piece on Uday Hussein and his use of the National Olympic Committee headquarters as a torture site. It’s not just journalists who turned a blind eye. Juan Antonio Samaranch of the International Olympic Committee could not have been unaware that Western human rights reports for years had been reporting the National Olympic Committee building had been used as a torture center. I went through its file cabinets and got letter after letter from Juan Antonio Samaranch to Uday Saddam Hussein: “The universal spirit of sport,” “My esteemed colleague.” The world chose in the main to ignore this.

For some reason or another, Mr. Bush chose to make his principal case on weapons of mass destruction, which is still an open case. This war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone.

Which is not the normal voice of a news reporter. Reading the Burns statement so many times has led me to ask: in what voice is this man speaking? Is it human rights?

I travel in a suit of armor. I work for The New York Times. That means that I have the renown of the paper, plus the power of the United States government. Let’s be honest. Should anything untoward come to me, I have a flak jacket. I have a wallet full with dollars. I’m here by choice. I have the incentive of being on the front page of The New York Times, and being nominated for major newspaper prizes.

The people who we write about have none of these advantages. They are stuck here with no food and no money. I don’t want to be pious about this, but for a journalist to present himself as a hero in this situation is completely and totally bogus.

And we might add to that the observation that while journalists face big dangers, their situation is nothing like the risks of violent death or maiming for a United States soldier. Proportion-keeping: an essential skill in journalism, which Burns demonstrates. Other strengths in his oral history:

It may sound simple, but it’s not. “You have to be ready to listen to whispers,” Burns said.

But none of this explains why he returns to Iraq, at the very real risk of being taken off at gunpoint, to continue to report on events there for the Times. In November of 2003 he was flying back in, and spotted on the ground a site of some importance. This section from his Times account I quote at greater-than-normal length, for reasons clear. It may be an example of… “ready to listen to whispers.”

Even the path of descent into the airport seemed a metaphor for a reporter who spent months before, during and after the American-led invasion in Baghdad, covering the last chapter of Mr. Hussein’s rule and the first weeks of the American occupation.

Nothing was so grim in that compelling and often frightening passage as the events at the Abu Ghraib prison on Oct. 20, 2002. Mr. Hussein, seeking to counter President Bush’s characterizations of him as a murdering tyrant, ordered 100,000 prisoners released from his prisons then, many of them from the vast, forbidding complex at Abu Ghraib.

The day turned into a parable of his terror, and, because of what some criminals released that day have done to support the violence now directed at the American occupation, a harbinger of much that followed. At the prison, emaciated men emerged into the sunlight after long years incarcerated, often for nothing more than whispering against Mr. Hussein; women in black cloaks fell to the ground in despair, appealing to Allah, when husbands, brothers and sons they hoped had survived proved to be gone forever.

Just over a year later, I glimpsed the prison again, far below, now metamorphosed into a detention center for many of the 5,000 loyalists of the old regime who are held as detainees by the American command.

Somewhere north and west, in the “Sunni triangle” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and further north around the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, some criminals who left Abu Ghraib have enlisted in the anti-American underground, American officials say. These former prisoners now help carry out roadside explosions, suicide truck bombings and assassinations that have some of the occupation’s critics worrying about a new Vietnam. (From, “The New Iraq Is Grim, Hopeful and Still Scary,” by John F. Burns, New York Times, Nov. 16, 2003)

That passage takes on far more meaning today. If a journalist can speak in a prophetic voice—by which I do not mean predictive, necessarily—then Burns did that in his oral history and perhaps in his reporting too. “”Nothing was so grim in that compelling and often frightening passage as the events at the Abu Ghraib prison…” His title is chief foreign correspondent, but I think of him as a human rights journalist. That’s who’s talking in the testimony I have quoted.

A few days ago, my own personal war correspondent touched down in Iraq and joined all these conditions. “My” correspondent’s name is Chris Allbritton. He’s a journalist, formerly of the AP, who has been teaching part time at NYU, widely known for Back to Iraq, his weblog about the war zone. I’m a reader of his, and in a way an employer. He’s there now, filing reports.

With over $15,000 in small contributions, Allbritton’s readers and supporters launched him on an earlier reporting trip, so that he could cover the Iraq war. He sent back his reports to about 20,000 readers following his blog. He wasn’t there on official assignment to anyone but them, a condition most unusual for a professional reporter: doing journalism, but without the media. I wrote about Allbritton’s first trip because in going around the system, he showed that a very different system was at least possible. Quoting myself from CJR:

“I was fully aware of why I was there,” said Allbritton in an interview. “Journalists are the agents of their readers, their proxies in environments the average Joe can’t or won’t go. As such, I felt a great responsibility to them.” This included getting assignments (or at least suggested assignments) directly from the site’s users and sponsors. In a form letter sent to anyone who gave him money, Allbritton wrote: “If you’d like me to check out a story and it’s physically possible, let me know and I’ll do what I can.” In a social contract like this, the idea of the public is being worked out again — online.

This time Allbritton has a few assignments and he’s officially registered with the authorities, so he won’t be there solely on his citizen supporters’ dime. (Still, they have given him $11,000 and counting.) He’s my correspondent in Baghdad because I know I can reach him via comments at his blog, because I’m sure to be reading him and following his progress, and also because I somehow feel as though I “sent” him— even though I did not. At Back to Iraq, I noticed this expressed by others. From a comment thread (by Jim Ebright on September 5, 2003):

A lot of the feedback Chris got while he was in Northern Iraq was personal — watch out and be careful kinda stuff. I never cared if someone took potshots at Dan Rather but this style of journalism tended to make all of us personally attached… I thought the Times reporter in downtown Baghdad gave some of the most compelling descriptions of the final days of the active fighting, but he had no blog so I didn’t integrate him into my life and don’t even remember his name. (Too bad, it was Pulitzer class coverage.)

Almost certainly the “reporter in downtown Baghdad” is John Burns. I want my correspondent, Chris, to hook up with Burns and learn what he can. I want him to watch out and be careful, but also leave the green zone— and “go out.” I don’t want him to wind up in the clutches of the Al-Mahdi Army because if he does, and I sent him, what exactly do I do then? Journalism without the media—and the Web makes it possible—is going to present us with questions like that.

I do want Allbritton to know when the human thing to do falls completely on him. And god, if you’re there and you read weblogs, grant him that sense of proportion, which the news so regularly lacks. Finally, I want Chris to write me some literature, disguised as reportage. “The view from Iraq is getting narrower,” said Kurtz. I know Allbritton understands that his task is right there, and this is another reason I consider him my guy in Iraq. Here he is at the airport Wednesday (May 19):

There are no working phones and the cellular network doesn’t extend out to the airport. I met a nice woman who said she works for the Defense Department at the Palace. When I asked her about Baghdad and the situation there, she shrugged and said, “I’ve not been out of the Green Zone, so I don’t know.”

Dear Chris: Find Burns. Or just re-read this. I know you’ll be going out. Just realize, there are a lot of ways to do that, just as there are many different forms of confinement to a green zone in journalism. “Every lie tells you a truth. If you just leave your eyes and ears open, it’s extremely revealing.” You’re my eyes and ears now, Chris. Tell me a truth a day and I will be satisfied. To wrap this up, a line for you from London Calling by the Clash.

You know what they said?
Well, some of it was true.

And that’s one reason we have journalists. Good luck. Take care.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

See Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine, in an important post incorporating this one into a bigger picture. Iraq: Everybody’s pawn…. “Iraq is a mined chessboard with outsiders — American left and right, Europeans, Saudis, Palestinians, and on and on — all playing the big pieces while Iraqis are everybody’s pawns. Iraq is at the center of political fights all over the globe but we hardly hear from the Iraqis.” He has four cases in point. Check into it.

John F. Burns: “There Is Corruption in Our Business.” (Editor and Publisher, Sep. 15, 2003.) And a brief bio.

John Burns, in an audio interview with Leonard Lopate of WNYC (Nov. 25, 2003): “Iraq and the terror in Iraq was a new dimension to me. I mean I had been to North Korea. In North Korea there’s no doubt there is terror, but it’s hidden. It’s very difficult to see. We don’t really know the extent of it. Saddam advertised his terror. It was on every street corner. It was on the face of every Iraqi. And I felt that’s what we should write about.”

Howard Kurtz, Scrambling for Cover — and Coverage (Washington Post, May 17, 2004)

Jack Shafer in Slate: “The Rat of Baghdad: Who tattled on New York Times reporter John F. Burns to the Iraqi ministry of information?”

Burns quoted in American Journalism Review:

“Journalists want to know; we are incessantly curious people. The higher-minded among us believe there is a compulsion to bear witness, to tell the story of the afflicted…. But we can’t tell that story if we don’t go down that road.”

Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, in comments here:

In the Cold War, people used to ask why we bother to send reporters to Moscow, from where they could hardly move, rarely speak openly with the locals and write only through a volatile censorship.

The answer is that reporters are not charged, as Walter Lippmann had it, with producing the truth; they exist to hurriedly gather discernible truths, i.e. facts. The analytical search for truth occurs an hour, a day, a year, a decade later, far from the scene of the action…

Tim Porter at First Draft on changing patterns in journalism:

The deflation of high technology into everyday tools usable by anyone redefines journalism’s core function (reporting what happened) from the practice of an elite few to a possibility for many.

The linear nature of news - flowing from source to journalist to public - is disrupted. Journalists must adapt. Explanation and context and depth become more important as the basic “what happened” becomes more commoditized. Official sources - government and corporate authorities - become devalued as they grow warier of and less honest toward the news media; unofficial sources (prison guards, cargo loaders) increase in value. Assertion loses out to proof and the standard of fact is raised.

Related PressThink: Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent.

Also… please check out The Revealer: A Daily Review of Religion and the Press, published by the Center for Religion and the Media at NYU, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. In DEADLINE THEOLOGY, Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet examine Frontline’s “The Jesus Factor.” On the uses and abuses of neutrality by the religious right, the liberal media, and the journalists caught in between. You won’t find a more substantive discussion of the program and its many tensions. Here’s Sharlet:

That’s what the new narrative is all about—the internal coherence of belief rather than its worldly ramifications. The courage of convictions trumps concerns about consequences. Faced with what they must have thought were only two options—to present Bush’s religion as fanatical or “normal,” Frontline rejected the former as simplistic and embraced the latter as fair. Why is his religion normal? Because it’s sincere.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 21, 2004 8:57 AM