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The War Goes On, Unreported…

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  • Eric Alterman
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As the “coalition forces” lurch toward the third anniversary of the Bush administration’s ill-fated March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the members of the media stand poised to embark on yet another round of navel-gazing over their role in first helping to enable, and later make sense of, this senseless war – a war that has proven as dangerous to journalists as anyone else.

We began January with the Christian Science Monitor’s Jill Carroll being abducted – and her translator killed – on a Baghdad street, and ended the month with ABC’s Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt being seriously injured in a bombing near the capital. In all, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 61 journalists have been killed in Iraq since March 2003 – 42 of whom, lest we forget, were Iraqi. In addition, 23 “media workers” have also lost their lives, bringing the total up to 84. That’s a rate of more than two a month since the start of the war.

One reason this astounding casualty rate may have been left off the front pages here in the States (aside from the Woodruff/Carroll tragedies) is most likely reflected in the ethnic breakdown seen above: the majority of those killed have been Iraqis. And if you peruse the “media workers” list, which consists of translators, drivers, fixers, and other media support personnel, you’ll find that it is made up solely of Iraqis or Arabs. It brings to mind the National Review Online’s John Derbyshire, who recently wrote that after seeing a headline about the Egyptian ship that sank in the Red Sea, “A couple of sentences in, I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.”

But if we didn’t already know of the dangers reporters in Iraq face, the stream of editorials and first-hand accounts from reporters over the past month have driven the lesson home. Hidden beneath this public lament is another sobering fact: While the danger for reporters increases day-by-day, many western news organizations have been downsizing their staffs in Iraq due to the astronomical costs associated with keeping a full staff in country for such an extended period of time. With such a withdrawal, it stands to reason that the daily coverage of the nuts and bolts of the war on the ground would suffer – which is what the Columbia Journalism Review found when it sent a reporter to Baghdad last month to cover the coverage.

In late January, Paul McLeary (who used to co-author this column with me before being hired by CJR), wrote that “from the anecdotal evidence I collected [while in Baghdad] it’s clear that news organizations have scaled back so much that there are fewer and fewer reporters to go out on embeds with the military. As a result, everyday stories…are being lost.”

Obviously, stories are still coming out of Iraq, but as more reporters leave, as they did en masse after the November 2005 bombing of the al-Hamra Hotel in Baghdad (one of the most popular among western reporters), the quantity of the coverage has decreased. Paul wrote, “the fact is that the grinding, day-to-day reality of the war is essentially being forgotten…. With a dwindling number of people assigned to cover the war, there is only so much that can be done, resulting in coverage restricted to the ‘big’ stories, while many of the small, daily victories and defeats go unnoticed. And in that, the enormity of the story itself gets diminished.”

We’ve seen this pattern of waning concern and mounting indifference before, and as Nicholas Kristoff has been hammering home for months now in the New York Times, we’re seeing the unwillingness of news organizations to commit their people to dangerous situations showing up in the dearth of coverage of the genocide in Darfur.

So, while we dwell on the danger reporters face in Iraq, we run the risk of ignoring the fact that there are fewer and fewer reporters present to cover the story. As a result, it slips further from the headlines, and from our collective consciousness. As David Axe recently wrote in Salon, the reporters who remain in Iraq are increasingly constrained by both the danger and cost of extremely expensive security measures, which have “sharply limited their ability (and in some cases their willingness) to move around and provide accurate, comprehensive coverage of Iraq…. The remaining handful of non-embedded reporters in Baghdad are mostly holed up in a few besieged hotels, which, according to one source, are under constant surveillance by insurgent groups. Western reporters rarely venture out of the heavily fortified Green Zone, instead relying on local stringers to gather quotes and research stories.”

But as McLeary discovered, Axe is wrong to stoke the myth that reporters are all taking refuge in the Green Zone, when in reality only a few news organizations make their home there. Some of the biggest, like Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, CBS, the AP and Knight Ridder are all out in Baghdad itself, well removed from the protective embrace of the American military.

But it hardly matters where a reporter lives if confined, for reasons of security, to a hotel room. As for the dwindling number of journalists actually living in those hotels and compounds, try as they might, their corporate bosses aren’t giving them enough staff to cover all the dimensions of the story. “[I]f news organizations won’t invest the money and manpower to cover it from top to bottom,” McLeary wrote, “it will end up becoming a story told only through its major disasters and victories, without many of the small, personal narratives and struggles that give the story its humanity.” And without that, there really isn’t much of a story to tell, at all.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

 

 

 

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