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Media Coverage: A View from the Ground

Foreign correspondents in Iraq soon learn that the higher up you go in the journalistic feeding chain, the less free the reporting.
 
 
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Reporters become real friendly, real fast in Iraq. You have a lot of shared experiences -- from poor telecommunications to suspicious Iraqi officials to exasperating editors back home.

So Bert and I hit it off right away. Bert is the pseudonym I've chosen for a reporter with a major British media outlet. I'm not using his real name because I have no desire to get him into trouble. Reporters will tell things to each other they would never say publicly. So I'm inviting you into a metaphorical bar where, after a few beers, reporters let it all hang out. Bert and I had agreed to share a cab for a ride out of Baghdad. We passed over the city's modern freeways, reminders of the country's pre-sanctions wealth.

I mentioned that Saddam Hussein was rebuilding the ruling Baath party headquarters, which had been destroyed by a U.S. missile attack.

"He has lots of money for that," I noted casually.

"You'd get along fine with my editors," said Bert jovially, in an accent stuck partway between Oxford and south London. "They love to hear about Iraqi corruption and bad allocation of resources."

Bert is a political moderate highly critical of Hussein's government, but feels pressured by his much more conservative editors. "Whenever I propose stories showing the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis," he said, "the editors call it 'old news.'" But the editors never tire of reworking old stories about corruption and repression in Iraq. Bert has internalized his editors' preferences and generally files stories he knows they will like. The alternative is to write stories that will either never get published or come out buried in the back pages.

The problem goes beyond disputes between reporters and editors. Most journalists who get plum foreign assignments already accept the assumptions of empire. I didn't meet a single foreign reporter in Iraq who disagreed with the notion that the U.S. and Britain have the right to overthrow the Iraqi government by force. They disagreed only about timing, whether the action should be unilateral, and whether a long-term occupation is practical.

Most people in the world, and much of the media outside the U.S. and Britain, still believe in national sovereignty, the old-fashioned notion enshrined in the U.N. Charter. No country has the right to overthrow a foreign government or occupy a nation, even if that nation horribly represses its own citizens. If the U.S. can overthrow Hussein, what prevents Russia from occupying Georgia or other former Soviet republics and installing friendlier regimes? The permutations are endless.

Despite numerous speeches and briefing papers, the Bush administration never convincingly demonstrated that Iraq poses an immediate threat to its neighbors. Unlike 1991 when Iraq occupied Kuwait, not a single nearby country has said it fears invasion from Iraq. The U.S. would never take a resolution to attack Iraq before the U.N. General Assembly because it would lose overwhelmingly. It prefers backroom deals in the Security Council.

When I raise the issue of sovereignty in casual conversation with my fellow scribes, they look as if I've arrived from Mars. Of course the U.S. has the right to overthrow Saddam Hussein, they argue, because he has weapons of mass destruction and might be a future threat to other countries. The implicit assumption is that the U.S. -- as the world's sole superpower -- has the right to make this decision. The U.S. must take responsibility to remove unfriendly dictatorships and install friendly ones. The only question is whether sanctions or invasion are the most effective means to this end.

The Bush and Blair administrations are fighting a two-front war: one against Iraq, another for public opinion at home. The major media are as much a battleground as the fortifications in Baghdad. And, for the most part, Bush and Blair have stalwart media soldiers manning the barricades at home.

The U.S. is supposed to have the best and freest media in the world, but in my experience, having reported from dozens of countries, the higher up you go in the journalistic feeding chain, the less free the reporting.

The typical would-be foreign correspondent graduates from college and gets a job with a local newspaper or broadcast station. The pay is low and the hours long. (Small town newspaper reporters can still start out at less than $18,000 a year.) But after perhaps two years, they advance up the ladder to bigger media outlets. After five years or so, some of the more dedicated and talented reporters get jobs at big city dailies or in major market TV/radio stations. A few start out freelancing from abroad and then join a major media outlet, but they are in the minority.

That first few years of reporting are like boot camp. Even the best college journalism programs give you only the sketchiest ideas about real reporting. I know. I taught college journalism for ten years. The university never teaches you to find sources on fifteen-minutes notice, how to file a story from the field when cell phones don't work, or how to write an 800-word story in thirty minutes. The journalist's best education is on the job.

In addition to journalistic skills, young reporters also learn about acceptable parameters of reporting. There's little formal censorship in the U.S. media, but you learn who are acceptable or unacceptable sources. Most corporate officials and politicians are acceptable, the higher up the better. Prior to Enron's collapse, for example, CEO Ken Lay could be quoted as an expert on energy issues and the economy -- despite what we know now to be his rather biased view of those topics.

Many other sources are deemed to be beyond the pale, and are thus to be ignored or mocked. Black nationalists, progressive labor union advocates, or Marxists fall into this category. The same applies to conservatives outside mainstream Washington politics, such as conservative Muslims and certain rightwing intellectuals.

In Iraq I saw all this first hand. Let's look at Voices in the Wilderness, for example, a pacifist group based in Chicago. Some of their leaders had participated in a vigil in the Iraqi desert right up to the time America began bombing in the 1991 Gulf War. Voices in the Wilderness has brought hundreds of Americans to Iraq, including three congressmen in September 2002. It has community relief projects in Baghdad and has developed excellent contacts among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

One can agree or disagree with Voices in the Wilderness' views. I disagree with their pacifist approach, for example. But as journalists we should recognize them as a legitimate organization, part of a growing antiwar movement, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in Britain and the U.S. in September and October 2002.

But that's not the treatment they get from many major media. Ramzi Kysia, a Voices in the Wilderness organizer who lived in Baghdad, stopped by the press center one day to drop off a press release. He invited foreign reporters to cover a visit by American antiwar teachers to an Iraqi high school.

I was there when Kysia handed the press release to a TV crew. As soon as he left, the crew didn't even bother to read the entire press release before declaring that it was propaganda. They considered Voices to be outside the realm of legitimate sources, and therefore it could be safely ignored.

Indeed, a few weeks later when Voices held an antiwar march in Baghdad, John Burns of the New York Times reported the event in a mocking tone. He noted snidely that Saddam Hussein bans all demonstrations except those against America (New York Times 10/27/02). While Hussein certainly crushes dissenting opinion, the protests conducted by Americans in Baghdad who oppose U.S. policies are worthy of straight reporting. I cannot conceive of such a mocking tone permeating a New York Times story if Iraqi dissidents marched in Washington in support of U.S. policy.

The Wall Street Journal (11/4/02) treated Voices more straightforwardly but in the context of a humorous article about wacko westerners who visit Iraq as tourists.

In 1990 I took a group of my students to visit the San Francisco Chronicle. I have been contributing freelance stories to the Chronicle since 1989. I posed the following hypothetical story idea to then Chronicle Foreign Service editor David Hipschman. "What if I wanted to submit a story about Saddam Hussein's secret mistress?" I asked.

"I would want to see two sources backing up the claim," he said calmly. "And what if I had the same story saying President Bush [Sr.] had a mistress?" I asked. He laughed. "I'd want to see photos of the two of them in bed."

Every experienced reporter knows editors can set a standard of proof very low or impossibly high. If a reporter misquotes someone or gets some information wrong while writing an article critical of Saddam Hussein, editors back home are not likely to raise significant objections, but if an article critical of U.S. policy contains the same errors, all hell breaks loose. At a minimum, someone from the State Department or Pentagon calls to complain. Conservative media groups and radio talk show hosts may bring additional pressure. Raymond Bonner, a New York Times reporter who wrote accurate articles critical of U.S. policy in El Salvador, was reassigned from that country in the 1980s during just that sort of conservative campaign.

By the time reporters are ready to become foreign correspondents -- a process that can take ten years or more -- they understand how the game is played. Becoming a foreign correspondent is a plum job. It's interesting and challenging. You travel frequently and meet international leaders. You may see your byline on the front page. The job has gravitas.

And then there's the money. I've conducted an informal survey of foreign correspondent salaries in countries I've visited. (Remember, reporters say things to each other they wouldn't tell the public.) Salaries of full-time radio and print reporters at the major media that I've met range from $90-$125,000 per year. That doesn't count TV correspondents, who can make twice that much or more.

One New York Times reporter based in Africa told me over a beer one night that being a foreign correspondent is a great step in the career ladder at the Times. After a few years in Africa, he planned to move onto a more prestigious foreign assignment before working his way up the various editors' desks in New York. Times reporters are acutely aware of international trends, and if they are to win a Pulitzer Prize, they must report from a place of major importance. Right now Iraq and the Middle East fill the bill.

Money, prestige, career options, ideological predilections -- combined with the down sides of filing stories unpopular with the government -- all cast their influence on foreign correspondents. You don't win a Pulitzer for challenging the basic assumptions of empire.

Iraqi officials understood they wouldn't get fair coverage from many foreign correspondents. So what did they do? They responded with some of the most unsophisticated, ham-handed behavior I've ever experienced.

The process begins with getting an Iraqi journalism visa. A phone call to the Iraqi Interest Section at the end of 2002 revealed that the acquisition of a journalist visa might take two months or more. So I tried contacting various high level officials in Baghdad, who were friends of journalist friends. Strike out. The Iraqis are very suspicious of reporters they don't know, and even more suspicious of journalists whose stories they don't like.

Forget about sneaking into the country on a tourist visa as correspondents do in some repressive countries. (Hypothetical conversation with a border guard: I've always wanted to visit Babylon. And, by the way, are those anti-aircraft emplacements over there?)

Luckily, I learned about my coauthor's delegation to Iraq and got my name submitted on the list of reporters accompanying the congressman. We received our visas within ten days. Technically, the visas were only good for covering the delegation, but I correctly figured we could arrange to stay longer once in Baghdad.

All reporters had government guides, popularly called "minders." They helped set up interviews and served as interpreters. They also made sure you didn't go to certain places or interview certain people. To show the level of paranoia in Iraq, even NGOs such as Voices in the Wilderness had minders.

I developed a good rapport with my minder, and he was excellent at navigating the frustrating Iraqi bureaucracy to make interviews happen. I wasn't trying to visit a lot of controversial places. We were refused permission, however, to visit Saddam City, the most impoverished part of Baghdad.

In late October, after spontaneous demonstrations broke out demanding to know the whereabouts of Iraqi political prisoners, the government got very nervous about media coverage. It kicked out CNN's foreign correspondents and told other reporters they would be limited to ten-day journalist visas. Later in the year, the government allowed journalists to stay longer to cover the weapons inspectors' activities.

Such actions obviously intimidated reporters. They think: Will the content of my story result in expulsion from the country, or not being allowed to return? The Iraqi government uses various forms of intimidation, and it has led to self-censorship by some reporters.

It's a classic method used by those in power to intimidate reporters. If a U.S. president doesn't like certain coverage, the administration can make it impossible for the offending reporters to get insider interviews or it can refuse to return phone calls. Foreign reporters may be forced to leave the country. Reporters quickly learn to self-censor, or they're taken off the beat.

U.S. and Iraqi media policies have more in common than the leaders of either country would care to admit.

Excerpted from "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You" by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich, introduction by Howard Zinn, afterword by Sean Penn. For more information about the book, please visit Context Books.