Journalists reporting from war zones face the daunting challenge of finding words to describe the inhumanity and effect it inevitably has on one’s own character. The task of boiling down the daily diet of death, destruction, devastation, and depression into managable-size soundbites for people who are likely to never experience any of it, all the while attempting to protect one’s endangered posterior, can indeed be overwhelming.
Even so, this is what allows reporters to do their jobs; making sure the job itself comes first. Yet for many of the increasingly small and hearty bunch of reporters who have remained in Iraq, this duty has become all but impossible to carry out. A Pew poll released last week reports that journalists in Iraq are finding it nearly impossible to report on the situation in Iraq because it’s simply too dangerous for them. They describe the war zone as the most perilous situation they have ever encountered.
Just to get the basic five Ws of a story—the “who, what, where, when, and why”—can be remarkably difficult. Journalists must rely on local Iraqi staff to do reporting in most of the country, as Western-looking reporters have a dramatically shortened life expectancy were they were to try to pound the proverbial pavement of Nasiriyah or Fallujah looking for a scoop.
But even the local Iraqi staffers employed by Western news outfits aren’t safe. Pew reports that nine out of 10 journalists in Iraq say their local staff cannot carry anything that identifies them as cooperating with Western news organizations, including even notebooks. Fifty-seven percent of journalists say a local staff member has been murdered or kidnapped in the past year. And only 1 percent of journalists in Iraq say their staff has not received physical or verbal threats in the past year.
“Welcome to the new world of journalism, boys and girls. This is where we lost our innocence. Security teams, body armor and armored cars will forever now be pushed in between journalism and stories,” one bureau chief declared. Journalists become almost like prisoners in their bureau office, as Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi passionately wrote back in a 2004 e-mail to friends*.
“I am house bound,” Fassihi wrote. “I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t … In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.”
Some news organizations have simply decided to walk away from the story entirely, driven, no doubt, by the difficulty of the reporting it as well as the disheartening competition of more highly rated tabloid fare. As Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert pointed out, “In a four-month span this year between July and November, ABC’s Nightline produced more than 230 separate news segments covering a kaleidoscope of topics, and not one was about events on the ground in Iraq. For 18 straight weeks—one-third of the calendar year—Nightline effectively walked away from Iraq, no doubt bringing joy to the hearts of the Bush administration who have more than had their fill of reports of their myriad failures in that benighted nation.
And yet for those who remain, as Michael Massing notes in the latest New York Review of Books, there are additional filters placed on the coverage, such as “family viewing” standards that censor what the media can show and say about the horrors they do end up seeing. (Katie Couric won’t be voicing-over a video of blood-soaked Iraqi bombing sites while her viewers are sitting down to dinner, or before Applebee’s runs a commercial for barbeque ribs at the next break.) Instead, we get extremely detached accounts of firefights that were successful or not, villages or areas that simply “were cleared.”
Reporters’ inability to get the full story in Iraq naturally affects what Americans hear and know about the war. The reporters polled by Pew acknowledged that, despite the hysterical claims one frequently hears on Fox News and talk radio, the coverage has not been too negative; in reality, it has failed to bring home much of the horror of everyday Iraqi life.
As Massing points out, there is one area of reporting where first-hand accounts begin to paint an accurate portrait of the reality of war—accounts written by troops who naturally saw and participated in operations in Iraq and who saw its toll up close.
In book-length reports such as One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Office by Iraq veteran Nathaniel Fick, and Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective by Paul Rieckhoff, we find intense accounts of what war really is—what a nation is agreeing to when it goes to war. Fick, for instance, describes his anguish at the shooting of some Iraqi boys by members of his platoon, and his anger at his superiors for failing to offer quick medical help to the boys:
“I wanted to tell the major that we were Americans, that Americans don’t shoot kids and let them die, that the men in my platoon had to be able to look themselves in the mirror for the rest of their lives.”
First-hand accounts like this obviously paint a picture that even the most aggressive reporters are simply unable to depict since they can’t get this close to the perilous daily action in Iraq. It’s a problem without a solution as reporters can hardly be expected to be trained and armed. But the more we hear from the soldiers covering the war, the better. Through accounts like this, Americans can begin to take a real accounting of what’s happening in Iraq—what the cost is for the benefit we are supposedly reaping.
*This column has been amended to correct an error regarding the circumstances of Farnaz Fassihi’s departure from Baghdad at the reporter’s request.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.