60 Months in the Red Zone

Sharon sent this along: it's from the New York Observer, and I have put Michael's quotes in bold print:

60 Months in the Red Zone
Five Years Later, the American Press Corps in Iraq Is War-Weary and Depleted—Also Committed, Engaged and Desperately Seeking a Narrative to Wake Up Readers; ‘The Press Redeemed in Baghdad,’ Says George Packer, ‘What It Missed in Washington’

“It’s the oft-stated phrase that truth is the first casualty of war,” said Michael Ware, CNN’s Baghdad correspondent, on the telephone from Iraq. “In this war, as in every other conflict, everybody lies to you. Your government is lying to you. The Iraqi government is lying. The insurgents are lying. The militias are lying. The U.S. military is lying. Even the civilians lie. Or in the best case, there’s confusion and exaggeration. The truth is the most elusive thing in war, particularly in an insurgency.”

Sixty-two months into the war, this is the language of the American journalist in Iraq. It’s not the only language; there are others: Cyclical, monotonous, brutal, strategic, hopeful. But slowly, as Iraq slips from the front pages and Web pages, today’s news starts to sound like yesterday’s; violence explodes; a spectacular military success, or failure. Casualty lists grow until they become incomprehensible, and then unreadable, unquantifiable. Against that metronomic numbness, 90 American journalists (according to a November 2007 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism) continue to work a dangerous war that becomes a harder and harder story to sell to Americans. As the American press corps gets older, wearier—and simultaneously younger and more untested as the veterans leave—there are truths that some of the reporters of Baghdad have learned about the war in Iraq.

Chief among them is that even if you grab hold of a part of the truth, it has a way of becoming false. Second: If you manage to find a true story, don’t depend on anyone back home wanting to hear it.

Bob Reid, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Associated Press, filed this June 1: “U.S. military deaths plunged in May to the lowest monthly level in more than four years and civilian casualties were down sharply, too, as Iraqi forces assumed the lead in offensives in three cities and a truce with Shiite extremists took hold.

“But many Iraqis as well as U.S. officials and private security analysts are uncertain whether the current lull signals a long-term trend or is simply a breathing spell like so many others before.”

Mr. Reid has been covering conflicts for over 30 years, in Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, the Sudan, the southern Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bosnia. But this, he says, is different.

“Someone the other day told me that they thought Iraq had gone through a sea change,” he said by phone from Baghdad a little before midnight, June 9. “All of us who have been longer know that there is a cyclical quality to the violence here.”

Mr. Reid was sitting in the small house his wire service keeps in the Red Zone of the city, finishing work and planning to go to bed after a workday that started around 8 a.m.

He calls his life “Groundhog Day.” He goes to bed in the same building he worked in—with a book or, if he’s lucky, an English-language movie on Arabic satellite television—falls asleep, wakes up and starts all over again. Like the war, it has its predictable, grinding rhythm, and yet, like the war, every day is completely different.

“Iraq has receded,” said John Burns, from a ferry off the Isle of Man, England, where he’s covering a motorcycle tournament. Mr. Burns was perhaps the Iraq war’s best-known correspondent, who from 2003 to July 2007 was the chief of The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau. “War is surprisingly easy to cover,” Mr. Burns said. “I always said this. The story dictates itself. There’s never one morning when you get up and wonder what you’re going to do today.”

But it’s not a war anymore; it’s an occupation. And for many reporters, one thing that is missing is a narrative, a frame of reference to describe the events they report but can’t quite explain.

“The Best and Brightest was written 5 or 10 years after the events it described,” said George Packer, who has covered the war for The New Yorker. “Books will come out 5 or 10 years from now telling us things we don’t know now. Right now we’ve probably pushed it about as far as it can go from the limited point of view of a Western journalist in the middle of the events he’s describing.”

“For a long time, there was a single thrust of narrative,” said Damien Cave, who went from The New York Times’ Newark bureau to Iraq in July 2006 and returned in December 2007. “Now I think it’s harder to figure out what the narrative is. You’re trying to figure out: What features speak to the news? And because Iraq has become more fragmented, the narratives are more fragmented. A story in Basra is different from a story in Mosul and that’s definitely different from a story a few years ago.”

“I think there are a lot of people who really want information and that’s why we’re there,” said New York Times Baghdad bureau chief James Glanz. “But when somebody asks if it’s getting better? It’s a fine place to start a conversation. But the thing about Iraq, it’s about double exposures and overlays and things like that. It’s a complicated place. It’s a place where if you really want to boil it all down, then the complexities of the systems have defeated all these solutions. And you really can’t think about it any other way. There’s no simple story line.”

Richard Engel of NBC News acknowledged the recent drop in violence, and said it gave reporters more room to report.

“How much you can move is impacted by the level of danger. … I recently went down to Najaf, which is south of Baghdad. I was walking around the city doing interviews, without any kind of security protection or back up at all. That felt great. I hadn’t done that in years. A Chinese restaurant, takeout, just opened up down the street from our bureau. There were no businesses opening in ’06 and ’07. People are getting out more. You see more people on the streets going to markets. When I go to do interviews, I can stay longer.”

The conventional wisdom has always been that a reporter can’t stay in one place for more than 20 minutes—the amount of time security experts think it takes for eyewitnesses to report their whereabouts to potential kidnappers, and for the kidnappers to lay their trap. Journalists are routinely increasing their stays to 45 minutes or more.

The BBC’s John Muir visited the National Archive, which is currently being patched back together after the war, for an hour and a half. But his security people were not happy about it.

“In general terms, it has made life a bit easier,” he said. “Six months ago, I was able to go to one of the worst Sunni neighborhoods, a place called Ameriya, which had been a really, really rough neighborhood. But you could go there because one of the developments, which has fed into the security improvement, is that a lot of the young Sunni guys have turned away from Al Qaeda and have signed up to fight them alongside the Americans. In that sense it’s expanded the range of stories you can do, and the places you can go with relative security. … Violence is down, but it’s down to like more than 500 Iraqis being killed violently every month rather than 2,000. Those levels are still not very nice.”

“There’s no question it’s not the same front-page story it was last year,” said Tina Sussman, the Baghdad bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. “It just needs to be approached differently. It’s human-interest-oriented. … That’s the way wars work. They go in ebbs and flows. In March and in the first half of April, we were on the front page frequently. It’s inevitable. It doesn’t mean the story is over, but, O.K., if the daily news isn’t grabbing attention, then what is? What’s another way to tell the story?”

“There’s a marked drop-off in the appetite for stories from Iraq,” said ABC News correspondent Terry McCarthy. “That’s partly due to the election, partly because of fatigue, and partly because things have started to go right here. The spectacular car bombs, the massive attacks, you just don’t see them anymore. A drip, drip story that’s getting a little bit better day by day doesn’t make a headline. We have to struggle to get more stories on the air. We have to do more feature-type stuff. The news of the day is not really here anymore.”

“It’s not difficult to judge what’s going to be on page one,” John Burns said. “We had a rhythm of stories like that for three or four years. It was a journalistic high.

“It’s a lot more difficult now. The reporter in Iraq finds himself similar to the problem of the reporter in Paris and London and Hong Kong. You’ve got to show enterprise. You’ve got to dig for the story, and very often it’s a feature. And then you’ve got to compete on an equal basis to get that story on the front page.”

“We will be more likely to go ahead and file a story on military activity around the country that doesn’t rise to the level of top of the foreign news page,” said Mr. Reid of the AP. But, “our editors are showing increasing interest in features and a decreasing interest in ‘Iraqi troops capture x amount of people and five bombs went off,’ unless it really does rise to the level of a huge explosion or something like that.”

The question is, what level of risk makes a story like that worth reporting?

“We could almost sit on a downtown bus, the entire Western press corps these days,” said Mr. Ware of CNN. “Other organizations will keep the bare bones of a bureau in place, but often it won’t be fully staffed. We only see visiting correspondents.”

According to Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News, CBS keeps a bureau in Baghdad, including one full-time producer/bureau chief there, six months on, six months off, but no full-time correspondent. There is a pool of correspondents for CBS, including Lara Logan, who show up to do stories over there. “We cover the story when it changes in some significant way,” said Mr. Friedman, who confirmed reports that CBS News had had talks with CNN about using its resources and reporters. The deal fell through because of “rights issues.”

“It’s very hard to send people into dangerous places,” said Mr. Friedman, “knowing that the likelihood of what they report getting on the air is low.”

There are three large compounds that house many of the American journalists still working in Baghdad.

“It’s almost like little castles,” said NBC’s Richard Engel, who has reported in Baghdad since the beginning of the war.

All three are in what’s called the Red Zone, outside of the protective checkpoints that define the city’s Green Zone.

NBC is in one of the three “castles,” along with some other American media outlets.

“We happen to live right next to The Washington Post, USA Today, L.A. Times and Time magazine,” said Mr. Engel. “We are all in one compound. It’s a hotel surrounded by some houses. We’ve put around some perimeter security. Iraqis live within that compound as well.

“We’re quite close. It’s a media center. We live together. They’ll come over to our place for a barbecue. Or I’ll go over to The Washington Post for a drink or a barbecue. It’s very easy. We can walk. There are no security restrictions.”

But he doesn’t socialize much with journalists outside of his “castle.”

“You have to move through the badlands from one to another,” Mr. Engel said. (To avoid targeting by suicide bombers and kidnappers, the locations of all three are generally not made public; but each is at least a mile from the next.) “I go out every day reporting. But it’s not really worth it to go and organize security and take risks to go on a social call to visit people at CNN or Fox.”

Jamie Tarabay, formerly chief of the NPR bureau, lived “across the badlands” from Mr. Engel. “We have a garden where we live,” she said. “We have barbecues every now and then. CNN. ABC. Fox. CBS. Every now and then there’s a block get-together, especially in the summer. It’s nice. Because you’re all alone. But you’re alone together. It’s nice to be able to share your frustrations and chill out and relax.”

“We’re in an undisclosed location,” said Fox News’ Courtney Kealy of Castle Number Two. “We refer to it as the concrete media village. I refer to my place as an armed fortress, which it is. We have nice brief respites where we can visit each other, and have barbecues, within somebody’s compound.”

“We’re not in the Green Zone. We never have been. The vast majority of the press has not been. If we are accused of hotel journalism, fair enough. But when we lived in the hotel, we were under siege just like the rest of the city was. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, yawn, I want to order room service because I don’t want to go outside.’ We have a really great gym. We have a massive amount of DVDs and books. And there is a local Iraqi guy that made us a pool table, which is great. But … a card game, or watching TV, or sitting outside and having a barbecue is pretty much the relaxation you get—with hopefully a couple times at the gym, because you literally aren’t going anywhere else. The irony of this war is that you gain weight.”

“In a limited way, yes, if you’re in one of these enclaves, you can hang out with the people there a little bit,” said The Times’ Mr. Glanz. He was sitting at an outdoor table at the bistro Le Monde in Morningside Heights. He’d been in New York for two weeks and would be here for a few more. Fifty-one years old, his hair is graying; he drank two café au laits and fielded a phone call from a neck specialist.

“But you can’t move from place to place. … I used to go shopping in Baghdad, and I used to go to restaurants. Then at a certain point we started asking ourselves, O.K., if I’m out with my friend Dexter Filkins and a bomb goes off—as it did one night with The Washington Post a few years ago—and let’s say Dexter gets killed. So I’m going to go back to Dexter’s parents, let’s say, and say, ‘In the line of duty, Dexter was killed.’ And they’ll say, ‘What was he doing?’ And I’ll say we were out having kebab at a restaurant. And they’ll say, ‘My son died while you’re bureau chief because you were at a restaurant?’

“You can’t do that anymore. You can’t do that. I can’t say that he was out there carrying out the mission of reporting, and we didn’t realize there was this presence, there was an unfortunate incident where there was this person there and he came from around the corner, and blah blah. I’m the one who has to call the wife, the brother, the sister, the father, the mother, and say, you know, ‘Your son or daughter is dead.’ I’m the one who will have to explain what was going on at the time. … If I let someone go into harm’s way for no journalistic reason, I’ll never be able to justify it.”

“I flew out on like the 16th of December,” said Jamie Tarabay of her exit as the NPR’s Baghdad bureau chief near the end of 2007. “And on the 18th, I was in New York trying on my wedding dress. In January, we got married. Then we went to Paris for a bit.

“It is a head trip leaving,” she said. “In any case, wherever you go, being able to walk along a footpath by yourself without an escort is great. Having electricity 24 hours. Being able to pick what you want to eat.”

But Ms. Sussman, the L.A. Times reporter, does not feel she comes home a hero for her reporting.

“The level of ignorance is distressing,” she said. “It shows people aren’t paying any attention to the stories. They’re asking me about details like, ‘Do you go out, do you go to the Green Zone?’ And I tell them, ‘Just read the stories!’ If you just read the stories, they wouldn’t have to ask. They say they’re paying attention, but they don’t. If they ask you what the situation is like, they’re not reading. The New York Times, Reuters, the AP, the Los Angeles Times, they produce a lot of copy! It’s so easy to criticize the mainstream media for not covering the story, but there’s a lot of coverage.”

And if you do try to retell the story, it’s not always so warmly received.

“It’s a conversation stopper,” said Phillip Robertson, a freelance reporter who covered Iraq for Salon. “It’s not dinner-table conversation. Digging up bodies in mass graves. Even the people who didn’t see a lot saw way too much. That has a real effect.”

“Because the press put out all that stuff in the early days in 2003, the press is now blamed,” said Courtney Kealy of Fox News. “People say to me, what’s the real story in Iraq? I say, read the books that have come out and won Pulitzers. Look at my friends’ articles. Look at the stories I’ve done. They’re not looking, and they’re not reading; they don’t want to. And now the press corps gets a whole heck of a lot of, ‘Well, you’re just hotel journalists.’ I come home, people say to me, ‘What’s it like, have you been brainwashed?’ People who like Fox have said, ‘Well, I like your stuff, but I won’t read that paper.’ I say to them, anybody who has covered Iraq for a serious time frame, they’re a solid reporter. You can pretty much trust and read their stuff and forget about thinking there’s some great media conspiracy that we’ve all been co-opted by some right-wing or left-wing agenda. But no one can get their heads around that anymore.”

“There is a chance for this place to remain quiet. There is a chance for the Iraqi army to get better. There is a chance for a timetable for withdrawal that could work. The only issue I have is when I talk to people in the States … they really just ask me, what should we do, have we won or lost, how long are we staying? I think that winning and losing should be struck from the lexicon right now.

“I just try and stay away from, ‘What’s a good news story, or what’s a bad news story, or why did we come here?’ It’s like people who are 35 and can’t stop talking about their childhood. No matter how bad your childhood was, at some point you have to take responsibility for it and deal. Whether we were supposed to come here or not, we’ve been here for five years. History books have already been written.”

But the networks and, in many cases, the print media are keenly aware of the questions their readers and viewers want answers to. They are not always that complicated, and they don’t always require live reporting from Iraq.

“I have to say that’s an appalling indictment of the media,” said CNN’s Mr. Ware. “This is the Vietnam War of our generation. This conflict is going to have repercussions that far exceed that of an Indo-Chinese, essentially, civil war. Yet for a litany of reasons, which may or may not be legitimate, from cost to security to audience fatigue, the media has dropped the ball on this conflict. It is a tragic indictment on the Fourth Estate.

“Obviously, the media is a business at the end of the day,” said Mr. Ware. “There are advertisers to attract. We’re also about much more than that. We don’t always have to follow the market. Sometimes we have to lead it. And illuminate it. That’s where the media is failing the longer this drags on. How many people cut their teeth in conflicts in Vietnam? This is the war of this generation. Where is the graduating class of this conflict? That is something that has long saddened me. Not enough of our breed has picked up the cudgel of this war.”

“The press has not gotten the credit it deserves from the broad public,” said Mr. Packer of The New Yorker. “The idea that there was a group of people in Vietnam who were really changing the nature of journalism and its relation to the government. … I guess the mythologizing of those guys was more successful than this group. And I think it’s partly the sense that the press no longer has the clout and credibility it did. You don’t look to three or four people for the truth the way you once have done. There just is too many ‘truths’ out there.

“And second, I think it’s because the press is just part of the war, whether it wants to be or not.

“The press did discredit itself in the lead-up to the war. But I think the press redeemed in Baghdad what it missed in Washington. I’m not sure the public even knows that.”

“I think this is the story for my generation, the way that Vietnam was the story of the generation before us,” said Mr. Burns of The New York Times. “It’s the defining moment. I think, if I ask myself, what was the most challenging? At which story did I need to draw upon all the lessons I learned along the way? Iraq was it. I was not just a reporter, but I also had the good fortune of being a bureau chief. I don’t want to sound too pious here, but to see young people come into that bureau with little experience and no experience at all with the world at war and see how they prospered—and I think I helped them—was really extremely rewarding. It was the toughest and hardest assignment.

“It’s always hard to come into war when the trajectory has changed—and it isn’t so dramatic. For a reporter now, it is tougher. It was a lot easier. But this war is a long way away from over. We may be taking the temperature of this a little too soon. The numbers will come down and the surge will end and the Iraqis themselves will become less assured of an American presence, and there will once again be a great risk of the politics of ethnic schism in Iraq. We may not have seen the worst of it yet.”