Reporting Iraq: Journalists' Coverage of a Censored War

The late British journalist James Cameron, known for his coverage of the Vietnam War, said of his journalism, "I may not have always been satisfactorily balanced; I always tended to argue that objectivity was of less importance than truth." Perhaps in times of peace, objectivity naturally hews closer to truth. But when leadership misleads (or, euphemisms be damned, lies to) the public, journalists bear a greater responsibility. "Reporting" can all too easily translate into providing a megaphone for intentionally misleading information.

It is these issues that are at the forefront of Reporting Iraq: An Oral History of the War by the Journalists Who Covered It. Comprised mainly of interviews with over 40 journalists who covered the war, Reporting Iraq offers a candid view of the difficulties and complexities of working in an environment so hostile to reporters.

In one episode Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post recalls the difficulty of getting any relevant information from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA): "Well, off the record," CPA advisor Dan Senor told him, "Paris is burning, but on the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq." Such double-speak motivated reporters to take great risks to find the facts -- and spurred a wartime environment where journalists have now come to rely heavily on Iraqi stringers who, unlike western reporters, are able move more freely around the country. Reporting Iraq takes a close look at the triumphs, challenges and regrets of reporters working to cover the first three years of the occupation of Iraq.

Mike Hoyt, co-editor of Reporting Iraq and executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review recently sat down with AlterNet to discuss some of the major themes raised by these war-time journalists. He also explains why he thinks we may have to push beyond the conventions of journalism to ensure that we're getting at the truth of war.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: What was the impetus for the project?

Mike Hoyt: We had assigned Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal a first-person piece on the war. We were really impressed with the work she did for us. It just told you more than the formal basic journalistic prose we were getting out of Iraq. It really filled in the blanks. These people have been there for a long time, and they had a lot to say that wasn't coming through in the standard journalism. We wanted a whole lot more of that, so we got ourselves a grant and hired experienced war reporters to do the interviews.

OR: Was it surprising for you to see how drastically reporters' optimism immediately declined following the invasion?

MH: It was. There's something about hearing it in the first-person voice. It's almost as if you're at a bar in a private conversation. The pace of change and the way that everybody experienced [the decline] in a different way was really surprising. They all talked about the "golden age" right after the invasion, when they could go anywhere and talk to anybody. And Iraqis wanted to talk. A couple journalists said they couldn't shut them up -- stories were just pouring out of them. They'd been through so much and were just released from under Saddam. But I was really struck by the depth of the chaos shortly after the invasion. I knew it on some level, but to hear these reporters talking about it really brought new light to it.

OR: For many of the journalists interviewed, there is a distinct turn toward chaos in early to mid-2004. Can you talk about this time period?

MH: That's around the time they hung the guys in Fallujah. But people began to realize that Iraq was going toxic in advance and behind that event, depending on their own experience. Dexter Filkins, from the New York Times, has this story where he and his driver happen upon a site where a car bomb went off and the crowd suddenly turns on him and blames him, and they're nearly killed. They get in the car, but the crowd almost physically holds the car back. They get stoned as they drive away, and later Filkins finds 17 bricks in the car.

There are so many stories like that. Alissa Rubin from the L.A. Times was at a morgue -- in an abayah and a hijab, but a relative of one of the people killed hears her talk and puts a gun to her head. I think Farnaz Fassihi was chased twice. Her stories are riveting -- getting chased and lying on the floor of the car and she ended up getting away simply because she happened to have a car that was a little faster than the car full of gunmen. One by one they realized that reporters were no longer neutral and that Iraq was truly toxic.

OR: Deborah Amos of NPR says, "... in the early days we were up against an incredibly powerful spin machine that accused us of only telling the bad news, and so it was very hard to get that information out." A lot of journalists interviewed talk about this pressure to report "good news."

MH: When you're at war, there's this tremendous patriotic force that wants the journalist to sort of enlist in the army and tell stories favorable to the war effort. People want to hear that it's succeeding and that things are going well. As a matter of fact, they were not going well; they were going really south. There was a real tension between the reporters and the government spokesmen -- especially in the period when the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was in charge. This is universal. Everybody we talked to said this.

The officials from the CPA were talking for propaganda purposes; it had nothing to do with reality, and the reporters would go out and see things, hear things and then they'd go to these press conferences and hear the spokesmen talking about how great everything was. Some, frankly, didn't understand it at first and then they came to realize that [the spokesmen] were speaking to New Jersey and Nevada, for political purposes. These guys were political hacks. Elizabeth Palmer from CBS talks about how funny it was when a new reporter would come and earnestly ask questions about the difference between what they were seeing out on the streets and what they were being told. Those who had been in Iraq longer would all laugh and say, "Ah, it's the fresh eye." They universally rebelled against this pressure.

Many journalists asserted that they weren't there to tell good news or bad news, but to tell what's going on. There's some discussion in the book about how the pressure did affect them. Anthony Shadid from the Washington Post talks about how he began to doubt his own instincts and reporting. He thought, well maybe I am negative, and he wrote a "positive" story that he came to regret. He said he really succumbed to that pressure for that story.

OR: Rajiv Chandrasekaran made a tactical point about the difficulty in getting the so-called "good stories." He said the military wanted more stories about the rebuilding being done, but that, while the military would take them to these sites, they were forbidden from taking any pictures or even referring to the location because it would then become a target for the insurgency.

MH: Yeah. That's not exactly good news.

OR: Were there any significant regrets that the journalists mentioned?

MH: Three or four of them talked about the torture story. Several Iraqis had made accusations that they had been abused, including at Abu Ghraib. The journalists who didn't report this story at first admit that there were two factors: One was the assumption that Americans don't do this. Some just kind of rejected it. Secondly, they also pointed out that it was a very difficult story to report even if you were inclined to do so. You know, somebody comes with bruises and marks and says, "American soldiers did this." Proving that is a pretty tough assignment. But they do admit that they wish they had been more open to reports about torture that they heard.

OR: Do you recall any other instances where journalists felt pressure to report or not report on a certain aspect of the war?

MH: In panels with the journalists, some questions were asked about Blackwater and the other private military contractors who were accused of shooting civilians. People were wondering why that story wasn't discovered earlier than it was. Elizabeth Palmer and other journalists said that, for one thing it's very hard, because Blackwater will not talk to you, and they will shoot you. They were afraid of them, frankly, is what she was saying. Some of them did wonder aloud at why they hadn't spent more time trying to get those stories.

OR: Talk about the embed system and how the journalists viewed it in Iraq.

MH: With a couple of exceptions, most of them thought embedding was a great thing. You can see things that you just can't see otherwise. One of the journalists said that they would no sooner try to cover Iraq without embedding than they would cover Iraq without going to a mosque. It's just part of the story. Alissa Ruben who was with the L.A. Times, talks about balancing out what you learn from embedding with other kinds of reporting. It's a tool that I think you just have to use.

OR: Anthony Shadid mentioned a kind of rating system he ran into -- whereby the military was ranking journalists by how favorable a tone towards the U.S. military the articles were perceived to be.

MH: Yeah. The impression I get is that it really depends on which officer is responsible for you. There's all kinds of attitudes, from "they hate the press" to "they really respect the press and will facilitate your work." I think it's really case by case. You do hear people getting kicked out for silly reasons. We had a piece in the magazine recently -- a guy who said he reported something that his responsible officer thought was off limits but others had reported it all over the place.

OR: There were a number of anecdotes from journalists depicting the cultural gap between Iraqis and the U.S. military. None were more poignant than the experiences of journalists who could pass as Iraqi. Nir Rosen tells a story about walking towards a checkpoint and the soldiers have this exchange:

That's the biggest fucking Iraqi I ever saw.
I don't care how big he is, if he don't stop moving, I'm gonna shoot him.
MH: Yeah. That's right. The language gap was the biggest problem in Iraq for the military. Col. William Darley talks about how the officer corps has been asked to rank the problems and challenges facing them in Iraq, and they all rank language as the foremost issue. People like Anthony Shadid and Richard Engel clearly had a great advantage and really probably a better understanding than the people who didn't speak Arabic. That said, some of these translators are obviously courageous and a lot of great work is done with them. Shadid was able to just listen in, able to absorb and do that kind of reporting where you get what people actually think.

OR: Rajiv Chandrasekaran recalls an incident when Shadid was accompanying a military patrol going from house to house. The military leader was pleased because he shook some hands and thought everyone was receiving them well, but then Shadid talks to these Iraqis a few minutes later to follow up, and they're telling him how they're afraid the Americans are going to rape their daughters. Similarly, Ghaith Abdul Ahad from the Guardian was saying that he would be joking around with U.S. soldiers, but the moment that they saw he spoke Arabic, they distrusted him. That really tells you how the shortage of people speaking the language evolved into a divide between friend and enemy.

MH: I think it's Ghaith who was up in the tower with two soldiers, and they struck up a friendship. They were getting along famously, and then the call to prayer happens and the soldiers -- young kids -- go crazy. They think it's some kind of signal to attack, and they think that Ghaith, because he speaks Arabic, knows this. It's quite an image of the cultural disconnect.

OR: Are there any other instances of this cultural disconnect that stand out in your mind?

MH: It's just a cultural fact that a lot of Iraqis apparently don't trust banks and keep their money basically under the mattress or hidden in the house. As a result of that, they are far more likely to keep guns. It's just part of the culture, and if someone knocks at 3 in the morning, they very well may answer the door with a gun. If it's an American soldier who doesn't understand this and he sees a guy with a gun, he shoots him. Apparently this happened many times.

OR: Another issue repeatedly mentioned by the journalists was the frustration of being in one area for a long time and having to re-establish relationships every time a new military official rotated through.

MH: Richard Engel from NBC mentions that. He has been there since before the war. He said that he'd meet a new officer and over time establish a rapport, and the officer would come to realize that he was trustworthy, they'd trade information and that kind of thing. Then a new guy would come with the attitude that he represented the anti-American press, and that these journalists don't know anything. In fact, Richard Engel has been there for longer and knows more than most officers. So he laughed about it, but he was frustrated to have to re-establish a relationship and re-educate the officers that their attitudes about the press were not correct.

OR: Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe says something similar, but she's talking on the other hand about the journalists. She was referring to how peoples' benchmarks are relative. How well an area appeared to be would all depend on when the journalist had last seen it.

MH: There's a similar quote in there about interviewing soldiers. A lot of journalists would interview them fresh on an assignment, and they were all encouraged and talking about all the good they thought they would be able to do, and then, when they were interviewed further down the road, they were more realistic and sometimes cynical.

OR: A lot of veteran reporters seem to think that reporting in Iraq is a new specie, a totally different kind of journalism that has developed. Dexter Filkins says that it takes five times as long to get a story in Iraq than it does anywhere else. It's interesting that how people are getting the story in Iraq is not being talked about. For instance, a lot of journalists rely on local Iraqi stringers to report for them.

MH: There was stage where the journalists could go anywhere and then there was stage where they realized they couldn't. Some still did to some extent and sometimes wore disguises and did all kinds of courageous things to get the story. Where we are basically now is really relying on Iraqi staff who often do a kind of undercover reporting for journalists. And by now they've become skilled reporters, they've been vetted and trained. Ali Fadhil, who was a doctor turned translator now turned documentary maker, argued that the reporting on Iraq is now truer to reality than it was before.

Now that Iraqis are doing so much reporting, he thinks it's a clearer picture than it used to be. I thought that was very interesting. Journalists are still able to report. People do go out somewhat, but to a much greater extent they rely on those stringers and embedding. Those are the tools. I think that process that Filkins describes is right. It does take forever to do a story. It takes forever to reach people. The reporters work all the time. A lot of people talked about that. They worked constantly.

OR: Patrick Graham mentions the impossibility of fact-checking stories and the impact that has on getting published in the major news outlets.

MH: He actually hung out with insurgents and learned things, and when it comes time to fact-check a story like that, who are you going to call? I mean, you're not going to call the insurgents. He did feel that magazine fact-checking standards were kind of ridiculous in some of these situations. I don't know if I agree with that. There are certainly things that you just can't check and, as a magazine editor, if I trust a writer I would go with them. He was probably talking about early reporting when this "good news" force was very strong. He's probably right about that. I think people didn't want to believe some of this reporting. Graham did some reporting about the shooting of civilians, which obviously is sensitive, and people were leery of printing without proof. But how are you going to prove it? Graham satisfied himself that this was true. I think what he's describing is reluctance by editors to step outside of their comfort zone.

OR: Can you explain Farnaz Fassihi's widely publicized email?

MH: She had a habit of writing a chain letter to relatives and some friends every so often about how she was doing. But in September 2004, she was quite discouraged and frustrated because she couldn't get out and report and because Iraq was growing increasingly toxic. She also was very discouraged with the way that American policy was going; she didn't think it was working. She more or less said so in a fairly eloquent email that she sent to her chain.

Somebody in the chain posted it on the web, and it was a big deal because reporters are expected to keep their cards close to the vest. They're not supposed to be emotional or all that politically analytical. It was a controversy. There were reporters who thought she was 100 percent right, and there were reporters who thought she was intimating, that they couldn't do their jobs, which they felt wasn't true. I don't think the email did that. There were editors who hew closely to objectivity who thought she'd stepped over the line.

OR: In the book, she addressed the email. She seems kind of outraged that people were having this reaction, that they had no idea about how bad it was until they read her email. She says, "What do you mean you had no idea ... I don't know why people respond to first-person pieces with, 'Is it really that bad?'" I found it strange that she was surprised -- her email clearly touched a nerve and was able to convince people of things that they weren't getting from reported pieces.

MH: I think it hits on something big. That's part of why we did the book. I think what it says is that the conventions of journalism tend to muffle and filter out things. It's not that we want all reporters publishing their diaries or their political thoughts, but when you have covered something like this for a long time and you've got authority just by nature of your record of fairness and the depth of your knowledge, then you should be allowed to speak in some way that goes beyond the conventions of journalism. I don't know what the solution is other than I would allow more first-person reporting, and analytical or even more emotional writing, to break through this barrier. I think we learn a lot by hearing people talk more straightforwardly. I don't know if it's more columns or what, but these people have been there a long time. They really know a lot, and we should let them tell it.

OR: A lot of journalism I see -- particularly online -- focuses heavily on commentary. I recall John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker explaining that he felt more freedom because he was able to put more of himself in his articles -- and yet, it's still hard-hitting investigative journalism. I don't know that I'd want to read more commentary, but I'd certainly like to read more in-depth analysis of the reporting.

MH: I totally agree. It's not like these guys are just in their pajamas and going on about their personal pains. This is based on deep reporting, and it's got a lot of authority. They should have more freedom.

OR: You say that you're definitely interested in publishing more of this, but do you feel that other outlets are as open about publishing this kind of material?

MH: I think they should. When you've got somebody like Rajiv Chandrasekaran or Anne Barnard or any of these people, you should let them be analytical, give them more freedom. I think we'd learn more about the situation, and we'd understand things better. I think we're moving to a more opinionated journalistic world. I personally wouldn't want to move to an ideological world where one newspaper is from the left and one from the right. I don't find that model valuable. I don't find the European model of journalism as valuable as the American model when it's done right. But I would loosen up the American model. Where the line is, I'm not sure, but I would definitely loosen it up beyond where it is right now.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.