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:

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