Getting the Story in Iraq---At What Cost?

Anthony Shadid, 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner, Islamic correspondent for The Washington Post; current public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center

Jul 22, 2004

I haven't spent all that much time in Washington, but I've picked up a few things from the spokespeople for our government. The main lesson is that if faced with a question to which you don't know the answer, give another answer. My talk today is Iraq after June 30. I don't know the answer.

So, what I want to talk about today is a variation on that. It's journalism in Iraq, some of the lessons I've learned in covering Iraq over the past year and what it may be like covering it after June 30. In a way, I think they're related -- the country's future and our ability to cover it. And while I don't have the answers, I think the questions about the future are worth asking, discussing. To me, there never seem to be enough questions.

My profession has taken a beating over the past year or so -- scandals at The New York Times, USA Today and elsewhere, a failure of aggressiveness and skepticism on our part in the lead-up to the war against Iraq, an occasional inability to remain sober in times of crisis. But I fear an even bigger threat to journalism and the people who practice it is a tendency of our profession to make seismic decisions about how we conduct our work, often by simply backing into those decisions. I think it's a trend that's worsening. And I guess what I want to talk about today is how I see some of those decisions shaping up. And I want to focus that talk on my own experiences.

Since March of last year, I was covering Iraq for The Washington Post, a paper I joined just two months before that. I was trying to understand Iraq, admittedly with varying degrees of success. And to start the talk I want to recount to you three stories that I did last year that I think drive to the heart of some of the issues I mentioned.

I wrote the first story in July, and I want to read a few paragraphs from it. It was datelined Thuluyah, a beautiful town about 90 minutes north of Baghdad.

It went like this:

Two hours before the dawn call to prayer, in a village still shrouded in silence, Sabah Kerbul's executioners arrived. His father carried an AK-47 rifle, as did his brother. And with barely a word spoken, they led the man accused by the village of working as an American informer behind a house girded with fig trees, vineyards and orange groves.

His hands trembling, his father raised his rifle and aimed it at his oldest son. One shot tore through Kerbul's leg, another his torso. He fell to the ground still breathing, his blood soaking the parched dust near the banks of the Tigris. His father could go no further, and some accounts say he collapsed. His other son then fired three times, villagers said, at least once at his brother's head. Kerbul, a tall, husky 28-year-old, died.
"It wasn't an easy thing to kill him," his brother Salah said.

In his simple home of cement and cinder blocks, his father, Salem, nervously thumbed black prayer beads this week as he recalled the warning from village residents earlier this month. He insisted Kerbul was not an informer, but he said his words meant little to a village seething with anger. Their threat was clear: Either he killed his son, he said, or villagers resorted to tribal justice and killed the rest of his family, in retaliation for Kerbul's role in a U.S. operation in the village in June, in which four people died.

"I have the heart of a father, and he's my son," Salem said. "Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son." He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. "There was no other choice," he whispered.


The second story was datelined Baghdad, a piece I wrote in June. It focused on the ordeals of a U.S. military police unit, in particular the sentiments of its commander. One quote I'm going to read was slightly edited, and I think you'll see why.

Here's how it began.

To Staff Sgt. Charles Pollard, the working-class suburb of Mashtal is a "very, very, very, very bad neighborhood." His frustration in training Iraqi police is matched only by his suspicion, and he has one desire.

"U.S. officials need to get our asses out of here," said the 43-year-old reservist from Pittsburgh, Pa. "I say that seriously. We have no business being here. We will not change the culture they have in Iraq, in Baghdad. Baghdad is so corrupted. All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks."

To Sgt. Sami Jalil, a 14-year veteran of the force, the Americans are responsible. He and his colleagues have no badges, no uniforms. The soldiers don't trust them with weapons. In his eyes, his U.S. counterparts have already lost the people's trust.

"We're facing the danger. We're in the front lines. We're taking all the risks, only us," said the 33-year-old officer and father of an 8-month-old daughter. "They're arrogant. They treat all the people as if they're criminals."

The last story I wanted to mention is a brief passage from a story I did in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, in August after weekend riots over collapsing infrastructure. In it, I quoted Iain Pickard, the British civilian spokesman in the city.

Here's what he had to say.

Pickard acknowledged there was "an understandable degree of frustration" and complained that the priorities of British officials in Basra -- power, water and fuel -- are not shared to the same degree by U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad.

"It seems so bureaucratic. It's so difficult to get things going," he said from a building looted of everything but its windows before they moved in. "We have not had a great deal of say. We don't feel we've been able to influence the reconstruction program."

He pointed to a U.S.-funded project to renovate 200 schools in the region. While admirable, Pickard said, "Painting schools isn't going to stop people from rioting."

Why do I bring up these three stories?

To me, they all had something in common. Looking back, they were some of the toughest stories I had to report. Gaining access was difficult. Even more difficult was gaining a small degree of trust that led those people to talk, to give voice to their sentiments. But it wasn't necessarily what went into reporting them. Not really the content itself. Rather it was what followed their publication. What the stories prompted. And the landscape that made that response possible.

Within weeks of the story about the father killing his son, the U.S. military started looking for the father along the irrigated farms that border the Tigris. To this day, he remains in hiding, the same village that forced him to kill his son now trying to protect him. Sgt Pollard? His story was a little more colorful. He never recanted his quotes and was disciplined. He was removed from his command -- I think something he appreciated -- and sent back to base. He became a folk hero of sorts there -- people hung up the article, asked him to sign their shirts. His family sent out emails to protest his circumstances. But in the end, he was still punished for speaking out, by a military that doesn't tolerate dissent. Finally, the spokesman in Basra. He was fired the next day. That kind of criticism -- it was made clear to him -- was unacceptable. It probably goes without saying that getting a quote out of his replacement is next to impossible.

My first reaction in learning of the repercussions of these stories was deep unease. At what cost? I asked myself. Were the stories worth the pain they caused? Did they illustrate something that readers would have suffered if they had not known about them? Can we be too reckless in pursuit of a story that somehow defines events?

It was easy to rationalize. All the men spoke on the record, all knew they were talking to a journalist. But then I realized something that has grown in importance in the months since last summer. While every story is unique, Iraq is far, far different than any other, and the judgment that went into writing and reporting those stories -- rules I've adhered to for perhaps a decade or so -- don't hold up in the environment we're in now in Baghdad. While Iraq is unlike any other story in the world -- no question -- I fear there are elements of it that we may see elsewhere, in other assignments, in the very near future.

What do I mean by that?

For the first time perhaps since Vietnam, we're dealing with a foreign story in which the U.S. government -- a government very aware of the power of image -- remains the central, dominant player. Before June 30 and after.

Across the country, we're dealing with a level of violence that has grimly escalated at every turn -- to the point that reporters and those who work for them are operating at great risk. Risk I'm increasingly believing may be too great. And we're dealing with a locale in which the independence of journalists, in particular Arab reporters, is questioned -- by both the U.S. military and by those opposed to it.

Let me briefly take a look at each of those points.

I've reported in the Middle East for 10 years and in Washington for two years. In many ways, what I learned in Washington helps me better understand what's happening in Iraq. There is an unending struggle between reporters and U.S. officials both here and there to set the priorities of coverage. Reporters see it as news-gathering, the U.S. administration sees it as over-emphasis on gloomy news. Their response has been wide-ranging. From an almost overwhelming flow of news releases to the Pentagon's own news-gathering efforts, there's been an insistence on getting out its version of events. There's nothing wrong with all that. In fact, in a lot of ways, it's their job to best market their message. But I think it's a new pressure for foreign correspondents to deal with. The U.S. military and their civilian equivalent -- the CPA before June 30, the U.S. embassy after -- is an integral part of the story. To a degree unmatched anywhere else abroad. And it plays favorites. Leaks occur as they do in Washington. Briefings and news conferences take on greater importance. Those who talk, meanwhile, are fearful for their jobs -- rightfully so, as I saw in the story in Basra.

If I understood what I understand now, would I have quoted the spokesman in Basra, knowing that he might get fired the next day? Would I have asked the U.S. military about Sabah Kerbul's father, giving it a lead on a manhunt that, according to villagers, is still going on? Would I have hesitated to quote Sgt. Pollard by name? I don't know the answers. But I do keep asking the question.

The second point I mentioned was violence. On this point, I hesitate to single anyone out other than Iraqis, who are of course bearing the brunt of relentless carnage. Journalists -- on the whole, I think -- have been lucky. But there have been exceptions, and for much of last year, many reporters felt the greatest danger came from being in the wrong place with U.S. troops in the area. It was a tragic irony that, given all the talk about what the Iraqi government might do to journalists during the war -- human shields, hostage-taking, etc -- it was the U.S. military blamed for the deaths of two journalists in the Palestine Hotel during the war's final days. No less tragic was the death of Mazen Dana, a 43-year-old father of four and an award-winning Reuters cameraman, who was killed by U.S. soldiers in August outside Abu Ghreib prison. They apparently mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade, even though a U.S. soldier at the prison had granted them permission to film. In more recent months, though, I think we've seen a very alarming increase in violence from insurgents directed against journalists. My newspaper was one of the first to experience it. In February, the house of one of our fixers was bombed, and he -- along with his family -- was forced to flee into exile. The same day, we noticed men in a car taking pictures of our house in Baghdad. A couple months later, a translator for the Voice of America was killed, along with his mother and sister. While no one knows the motive for sure, both are thought to have been targeted after helping work on stories that tried to get inside the strategy and tactics of insurgents battling U.S. troops. Other journalists have been kidnapped -- usually for brief periods, thankfully. But I think most journalists feel that any kind of resistance reporting is off limits -- if not for own's one safety, for the safety of those who help them.

Finally, there was the point of journalists' losing their status of independence, and I think this is perhaps the most far-reaching if least-noticed aspect of what's happening in Iraq. Arab journalists with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have been routinely harassed, both by the U.S. military and by Iraqi authorities. The word in Baghdad is that it would take very little for either to be closed permanently, and the military suspects them of actually cooperating in some attacks. Both networks have already suffered varying levels of sanctions that, if imposed on a U.S. network, would have raised vociferous protests. Their treatment has given rise to fears that what may emerge in the future is a more permanent distinction between embedded and non-embedded journalists -- reporters who are somehow sanctioned and unsanctioned, with the ensuing risks different. On the other hand, insurgents -- or however we want to describe them -- have begun drawing fewer and fewer lines. A journalist is a foreigner and a foreigner is a target. Those working with foreigners are targets. Often it's that simple. In just a few months, we've seen that image of non-combatants erode to a point where the simple act of news-gathering has become as hazardous as anywhere in the world.

What's been the response?

TV networks have hired armed guards -- guards very willing to shoot. Newspaper journalists, many of whom prided themselves on working low to the ground, have begun openly debating whether or not they should adopt television's tactic of riding with armed security or providing weapons to their drivers. Houses have become fortified. Hotels where journalists work are often behind two-story concrete barricades, their entrances manned by checkpoints with U.S. soldiers and guard dogs or contracted security. In many ways, we're cut off from the very city we cover.

To a great extent, those psychological barriers are my greatest fear, since they affect the very nature of reporting. Sentiments have been the great unknown. Is it occupation or liberation? Freedom or something short of it? I don't think we've seen the long-term implications of our growing isolation. But what happens when we start losing touch with voices, with how a city feels, responds, reacts, its very energy? Can we afford to ignore such a central component of the story when that component may very well determine the future of Iraq? As the story grows ever more complicated after June 30 -- more actors, higher stakes -- how do we even attempt to provide good journalism?

Again, I'm struck by the question, at what cost?

Is this the future of reporting in war zones -- a scenario in which we require the blessing of the dominant military, where we fortify ourselves against the country we're supposed to cover, where we travel in the same fashion as armed combatants would. That's quickly describing reporting in Iraq. Perhaps that's all that it describes. But I fear the momentum of some of the changes taking place will carry over into other locales that require our work. And that's where the questions arise.

In a landscape like Iraq, how do we protect sources in our story -- protection that may have been a secondary concern in a less-hostile environment? With a changing U.S. role abroad -- in places like Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq -- how do we keep our distance, an independent role that is ever-more important as foreign conflicts become domestic stories?

How do we protect against violence while protecting our image as non-combatants? How do we guard against danger without sealing ourselves off? No less important, how do we guard our profession in a changing world?

I've posed a lot of questions here. And in conclusion, I guess I'll say that the questions are so numerous because the answers are so few. I'll return to Iraq later this year, and I've spent a lot of my time trying to figure out how to cover the story. I'm in awe of the perseverance and courage of my colleagues who are still there. I worry about them, and I worry about how we do our job. The best journalism to me is the journalism of nuance. We make voices heard. We bring voice to sentiments that might be ignored, neglected, overlooked or deemed unimportant. We tell stories, the stories of those we cover. A glimpse, a snapshot, a moment in time -- we give a window, however opaque, on a landscape that's always out of focus. It's the best we can do as journalists.

But in a chaotic, precarious landscape, can we still do that?

I worry about what I see. I worry that we're arming ourselves and fortifying against danger without understanding the implications of that process. We're making concessions to authorities and those who defy authority without recourse. Perhaps there is no recourse. We're losing our status as non-combatants, while not recognizing the danger of the alternative. None in themselves are decisive, but they have a tendency to set precedents and precedents -- in the free-wheeling work we do -- have a way of gaining momentum. I think it remains a question whether that momentum can be stopped.

While at the Wilson Center, Anthony Shadid, Islamic Affairs correspondent for The Washington Post is working on a book titled Night Draws Near: An Odyssey Through Baghdad in War and Its Aftermath--an exploration of the city, its changes and its future after occupation.

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