Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
Marines of the 1st Division walk to a briefing prior to a mission outside Fallujah in 2004. (AP photo)

A reporter speaks out about the Iraq war and news coverage

COMMENTARY | August 06, 2007

Sig Christenson of the San Antonio Express-News ridicules comments by politicians, laments the lack of reporters covering the war, and cites ground rules that are crippling for photojournalists. He says the media aren’t pressing for answers to vital and obvious questions, such as what plans the Pentagon has for an exit strategy.

By Sig Christenson

Call it a Katrina Moment, the hour where unbelievable lies passed off as official truth and slander against journalists sparks spontaneous outrage in the ranks.

Think of it as PETA member watching a certain NFL quarterback electrocuting a bloody dog and you get an idea of how mad some of us scribes in harm’s way get.

That’s pretty much what happened when Sen. John McCain, fresh from touring a Baghdad market, suggested that we war correspondents haven’t reported the good news in Iraq.

“The new political-military strategy is beginning to show results," McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in the April 8 edition of the Washington Post. “But most Americans are not aware because much of the media are not reporting it or devote far more attention to car bombs and mortar attacks that reveal little about the strategic direction of the war.

“I am not saying that bad news should not be reported or that horrific terrorist attacks are not newsworthy. But news coverage should also include evidence of progress.”

I was in Baghdad the day he toured the market and knew better. Of course, it wasn’t anything new in the propaganda war for right-wing hearts and minds but it was so laughable.

As Iraq correspondents know from hard experience, the simple act of entering a relatively pacified area of the city – say the once-notoriously violent Haifa Street – last spring required a long line of Army gun trucks and heavily armed soldiers.

So, too, did McCain’s Shorja market dog-and-pony show.

Republican Rep. Mike Pence likened the place to “a normal outdoor market in Indiana,” his home state.

No Iraqi could be any further from Indiana. And nothing in Iraq is normal, except death. I blew a gasket in my Green Zone compound. It wasn’t just that these politicians were trying to turn the media into Swiss cheese again. It wasn’t that they were shamelessly trying to score points with their base. Nope, it was their galling dishonesty.

Everybody knows there’s a war on in Iraq. What they don’t realize is there are actually four wars – the one to defeat insurgents and terrorists, another to win support for America’s occupation among a majority of Iraqis and yet a third for hearts and minds among the president’s supporters in the United States.

The fourth is a war for reporters and editors: It is to find and report the truth while staying alive to file another day in Iraq. If we lose this war, you lose, too. Instead of seeing Iraq as it is, you’ll see it the way someone with an agenda wants.

This is an old battle, hardly a Democratic or Republican one, by the way. It is recounted neatly in Phillip Knightley’s book, “The First Casualty.” An aborted Katrina Moment in that history of war correspondents comes in World War I. British Prime Minister Lloyd George tells Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott of a dinner he had with reporter Peter Gibbs, who had just returned from the front.

“If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth.”

The days of that kind of control over journalists in the field are over, but the struggle to get at the truth is as tough as ever. Call it our long, hard slog as war correspondents. We fight through bureaucracy, politicized generals, paranoid lower-level commanders and troops afraid to speak freely because to do so would damage their careers.

Twice during my fifth tour of Iraq last spring soldiers ripped off their Velcro nametags before talking with me. Then they unloaded.

We require an honest accounting of where we are in Iraq. For the purposes of this report, it is necessary to address the comments of McCain and Pence. Outside of the name the White House coined for the latest offensive, the “surge” is not new. Commanders have increased force strength and mounted counter-insurgent operations on several occasions since the occupation began in late April 2003. They have ordered our troops to take insurgent territory and prematurely handed it back to Iraqi control, only to later return once more and spill American blood on the same ground.

This occurred most notably in Fallujah, scene of two major U.S. battles that cost hundreds of lives. At lunch last February, a Marine officer told me the city was once more becoming a nest of terrorists after Iraqi army and police hit the streets. On August 4th, however – just days ago – an authority in Baghdad told me conditions inside the city are improving and that Iraqi police have stood up five of 11 precincts. The goal is to hand all responsibility for security in the city from the Iraqi army and U.S. training teams to the police. The official said he has not seen a timeline for completion of that process.

He said, “It’s still a gated community,” meaning access is tightly controlled.

Our commanders have consistently talked of progress like that, often citing numbers as proof, and I’ve heard about it in more than a few meetings in Baghdad and other parts of the country. But progress as measured by Iraqis’ ability to live without fear of being kidnapped, shot or blown up is virtually impossible to find. That kind of progress is critical, as are basic services. There’s another long, hot summer on in Baghdad, and once more there’s no electrical power, and of late no water. And Iraq’s Council of Representatives is off on vacation. These problems are bigger than the insurgency. Surge or no surge, they will continue until Iraqi security forces can hold the ground U.S. troops have taken.

That is the truth. You can’t put lipstick on this little pig and pass it off as life in Indiana.

Critics of journalists, most of them from the right, like to say we haven’t told the “good news” of Iraq. You often see Internet missives depicting photos of U.S. soldiers helping Iraqis with a caption somewhere saying, “You won’t see this in the mainstream media.” The left, of course, blasts us as well for being an administration lapdog.

There are legitimate issues about media coverage in Iraq. Military commanders in Baghdad would like to see more coverage of nation-building efforts and less on the “kinetic” war – the one involving guns, mortars, missiles, bombs, blood and bodies. They know media in Iraq simply don’t have enough people to cover both. “What the media are missing is that is how we will get out of Iraq and leave a stable Iraq behind,” said Col. Steve Boylan, spokesman for Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces.

No one I know has a clear notion of our exit strategy, and the media have not pressed the administration or the Pentagon for an answer. But Boylan contends the business of bolstering Iraq’s security, economy, emerging political institutions and critical infrastructure like water, power and sewer systems isn’t getting its due. He’s right. And if it isn’t flashy or doesn’t lend itself to TV, it’s still a huge story.

The biggest problem isn’t that reporters aren’t telling all those good stories that make you feel warm and happy about the war, but that the corps of journalists is too small. If there were more reporters in Iraq, you might well see more happy news amid the bombings, massacres and offensives. You also would see more misery – broken homes, refugees, widows, orphans, crime and poverty so crushing it takes your breath away. As it stands, reporting in Iraq is simply too dangerous and expensive for most news organizations.

Washington Post military writer Thomas E. Ricks would like to see more of those Iraqis in the news, but he wisely measures the value of a story against its dangers.

“I used to take the risks I need to get the story,” said Ricks, author of “Fiasco,” a chronicling of the war. “Now, after many conversations with my wife, I let some stories go if I can see the risks beforehand. I no longer go on combat patrols, for example.”

Starting at the tail end of the invasion, and continuing through today, I pick and choose my destinations and missions. I do what is necessary to facilitate the reporting for my stories, including going out on combat patrols, but that’s where it ends.

Veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway told me there is no glory dying on a battlefield and I’ve lived this war long enough to believe him. But he also has said it’s imperative that journalists tell the story of this war. Last summer there were but a dozen or so journalists there, including San Antonio Express-News photographer Nicole Fruge and me. The numbers jumped with the onset of the surge in the first few months of this year. Nicole and I were back in the ranks again.

Editor Robert Rivard, Managing Editor Brett Thacker, Assistant Managing Editor/News Craig Thomason, City Editor Veronica Flores and my immediate bosses were responsible for that. This was the paper’s sixth trip to Iraq since the invasion. They saw the value of the work we wanted to do and supported it. There aren’t many bosses like them.

The number of embeds is down for the summer surge, but some big names in print journalism have spent time there, including Ricks and the New York Times’s Michael Gordon, co-author of “Cobra II.”

There are others who’ve taken the risks and they deserve our thanks. So much of what we read and even see on television is the product of their work. If there is a problem, it is that few regional newspapers like mine send teams to the war zone. The obvious reasons for not going are the cost and danger, but shrinking newsroom staffs and an increasing focus on local news factor into the equation.

Petraeus’s aide Boylan said the Express-News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Atlanta Journal Constitution are the only regional papers that have consistently sent reporting teams to cover the war in Iraq.

Television is a waste. Production values have nosedived in network news’ entertainment era. Frankly, it’s hard to call a CNN story about fighting in Diyala province “news” when it uses background footage from another part of Iraq.

TV news crews typically have more money than newspapers but seem rudderless when it comes to ethically reporting a story. That’s the way it is in 2007.

On the ground, reporters I know say their overall experiences with the troops have been good. Petraeus prides himself on providing media access to all levels of the military and he has made good on pledges to do so, at least in my case.

I know one reporter, however, who was pushed out of a unit sooner than planned. He believes he was ordered out because the unit had been stymied in its clearing operation. He went to another unit that was having better luck. “But I filed on the original unit and did not file on the new one I was sent to. I had my story and this did not interfere. I never got to the bottom of this. It may have been that they were concerned about my safety,” the reporter said, adding that commander didn’t talk with him about the decision. “But again, I already had what I needed.”

To be fair, this incident has been the exception in his embedding experience. Both he and I agree that we’ve been free to do what we wished in Iraq. The military public affairs folks we interacted with not only have facilitated our visits, but also helped us meet specific soldiers in particular areas of operations.

We did not feel hampered and, on the whole, think the climate is similar to the period prior to and during the invasion. I believe the exception here is the fact that after more than four years of war and repeated deployments with little success to show for it, our troops are on edge. We have always had to earn their trust upon coming into a unit, but have done that by showing them we respect operational security and are accurate. Photographers, on the other hand, have been marginalized since being denied access years ago to Dover AFB, Del., where the dead are flown home in flag-draped caskets.

Petraeus has refused to rescind a 2006 ground rule requiring photographers to receive the permission of wounded soldiers before running their photos. It is a difficult and often impossible requirement, if only because wounded troops are whisked to hospitals far from the photographers and the battlefields they were on.

This policy is officially based on the premise that a wounded soldier’s privacy ought not to be compromised by embedded media. But the problem here is the assumption that soldiers have privacy rights in a firefight. Battlefields, like the street, are public places.

Or they have been until now. The new regulation deviates from a less restrictive rule used during the invasion. That rule guaranteed families wouldn’t see the faces of their wounded relatives before getting word from the government.

What the new rule does is prevent Americans from seeing the reality of war. I believe that is what it is designed to do, although I am sure Petraeus would beg to differ. But couple it with the new Iraqi effort to suppress negative images by forbidding photography for the first hour after a bombing, and the picture we get from Iraq is underexposed and out of focus.

Blurred images of the Iraq war, like fuzzy math, suit both governments just fine. It’s harder to find a Katrina Moment in this development, for the rule hampering the work of embedded photographers is so obscure that even most journalists aren’t aware of it. But it will have a substantial, if subtle, impact. Seeing fewer graphic images makes it harder for photojournalists to accurately convey the war that is being fought in our name. The danger of that ought to be fresh in mind.

The last time we saw anyone pass off fantasy for reality and think they wouldn’t get caught was in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Then, as now, politicians acted as if the rest of us were idiots, as if we would believe their words over the very stunning images that filled our television screens.

Brownie was doing a heck of a job. President Bush, his sleeves rolled up as if he were about to fill sandbags in the Lower 9th Ward, might as well have told us to tap our slippers three times and we’d be back at that Indiana market again.

At Ground Zero, the New Orleans Convention Center, I watched a man barbecue while another one lay dead on the street 80 yards away, his sticky blood drying in the sun. Women, many of them old, overweight, sickly and without a bath for days, sat on lawns, parking lots and streets feeding their children with looted convenience store food.

Imagine if the government restricted the efforts of journalists to gather the news there. The entire country might have applauded as Bush gave Brownie a medal. This is what is at stake in Iraq. America is at a crossroads there and it’s up to journalists and their bosses to roll the dice, spend the money and tell the story.

Think of Iraq as Katrina squared and it makes sense for the media to launch a surge of its own, if only because our credibility is at stake. Let us have no one say of the media in this era, as Senator Hiram Johnson did in 1917, “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.”

Also by Sig Christenson:

Deluding Ourselves
Posted by R C - Ra Conteur
08/15/2007, 06:03 PM

The idea that there is anything truthful available to an "embedded" reporter is naive. "Embedded" means literally "in bed" with the operations managers of an event. What embedded reporters see and where they go is as carefully managed as a tour guide manages your vacation.

Thankfully readers are becoming aware that professional "news management" is reeling out of control, with little supervision or oversight. And of the extreme ease that any photograph or video image can be seamlessly altered. The new challenge for consumers of news is not whether it is adequate coverage or not - but if the report bears any semblance to the truth at all?

All of which attests to the voracious demand for text and video "blogs." These spontaneous reports come so fast and furious that even the big iron of government cannot censor them. Like the tell-tale Zapruder film - if you want to get a clear look at an event - tune in to the "amateur" reporters all around you. There is truth in numbers.

http://www.astropix.com/HTML/J_DIGIT/ETHICS.HTM ...

Restrictions on photos
A New York Times article on the military’s embedding rules that require reporters to get signed consent forms from wounded soldiers before photos can be published.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.