Ultimate ‘kill the messenger’ constrains war coverage

Published 6:24 am Monday, April 17, 2006

By Staff
Even my sister-in-law e-mailed a portfolio of photos of soldiers with smiling Iraqi children, insinuating that the media turn a blind eye to plentiful positive developments.
That's a skewed perspective considering how extremely dangerous it is to be a Western journalist.
When reporters can't move freely, the first casualty is coverage of the lives of ordinary Iraqis. The pressure to lay low has given rise to such terms as “hotel journalism” or “rooftop reporting.”
A story in the April/May American Journalism Review reviews the ritual National Public Radio reporter Deborah Amos adheres to every time she ventures outside, from removing her “foreign-looking” glasses to concealing her Western-style shoes, disguising her hair beneath a scarf and donning a black robe.
She must remember to stare straight ahead like a conservative Muslim woman and avoid eye contact with either the driver or passersby as she slips into the back seat of the car.
Talk about paranoia. Her eyes dart back and forth for trailing vehicles. “Spotters” can be anywhere, from a beggar in an alley to young boys hawking newspapers beside the road.
It only takes one cell phone call to alert assailants a “soft target” approaches. Even a traffic jam can be unnerving despite a “chase car” with back-up security in case of ambush.
Amos, who arrived in May 2003, lives by such rules as never staying at an interview longer than 30 minutes and not taking the same route twice.
These are the conditions any journalist in Iraq must endure on a daily basis to pursue stories.
Self-imposed house arrest is their reality. Some work the phones and depend on Iraqi stringers to be Seeing Eye dogs for their dispatches.
To leave a heavily guarded hotel or walled compound could end like Jill Carroll, 28, in the hands of masked gunmen, pleading for their lives in a grainy video.
Carroll's translator was murdered during her abduction.
Being an ABC anchor didn't save Bob Woodruff, 44, and cameraman Doug Vogt, 46, from serious injury in January from a roadside bomb explosion. Embedded with the military, they were wearing body armor that spared their lives.
As the occupation drags on, the 700 embedded with coalition forces has dwindled to around 70 foreign correspondents CNN counted earlier this year.
Things turned tense in 2004, when one of 22 kidnapped media employees, Italian freelancer Enzo Baldoni, was beheaded.
Since the war started in March 2003, 67 journalists have been killed on duty in Iraq - 48 of them Iraqis.
As correspondents struggle valiantly to cover the biggest story of our time, consider that during Vietnam the press corps was relatively free to roam, producing a daily diet of human drama that influenced the American public's view. That kind of coverage of the insurgency has simply not been possible, with the result of limited national debate.
Many important stories remain out of reach, such as the Sunnis leading the insurgency, how they recruit villagers and who hides them when American troops show up.
The violence keeps reporters from fully documenting how ordinary Iraqis fare under occupation and reconstruction.
Photographers make especially good targets because they are highly visible on scenes with their equipment.
A camera positioned for a picture can be mistaken for a weapon.
I can especially relate to the experiences of David Gilkey because he also covered trials in Cassopolis for the Detroit Free Press.
Marcus Stern: No leaks needed. No unnamed sources, either. The Washington-based Copley News Service editor, 52, relied on curiosity to search through records and break the story of a suspicious real estate deal between eight-term Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., a decorated Vietnam veteran, and defense contractor Mitchell Wade.
The alert regional reporter's discovery, published in the San Diego Union-Tribune last June, triggered a federal investigation. Cunningham eventually pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes.
Cunningham resigned and pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion in a November plea deal. He was sentenced March 3 to eight years and four months in prison. “With a regional focus you don't have to sit back waiting for tips or leaks,” Stern told AJR. “You are more in a hunter-gatherer mode than a spoon-fed mode.”
Trained in psychology, he credits working in psychiatric hospitals for learning to focus on “what people do rather than what they say … We are so busy …watching the Kabuki, contrived theater, that we don't pay attention to the stuff that we need to be paying attention to. We listen to the rhetoric but we never listen to the quiet activities (the government isn't) holding press conferences on.”
The fewer the correspondents, the less we know: The Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette closed their Washington bureau, which occupied the National Press Building for 79 years, and laid off four of five employees.
Quips, quotes and qulunkers: “The president believes Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a very fine job during a challenging period in our nation's history.”
Members of Boy Scout Troop 987, made up of 15 Hispanic boys ages 12 to 15 in Salt Lake City, were warned that participating in an immigration demonstration violated an organization policy against involvement in political events. The boys were trying to earn “Citizenship in the Community” merit badges.