Since Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll was briefly kidnapped in Baghdad and the paper recalled its reporters while it reviewed the situation, there has a lively debate in the English press about the nature and limits of Western reporting in Iraq. Carroll himself, since being freed, has insisted that Iraq remains a story more capable of being covered than most people realize; that even “Green Zone” journalism has a positive side; and that “hotel journalism” is not the essence of what’s happening if you’re a press journalist:
“When asked about the suggestion that British journalists in Iraq just report from their hotel rooms, Carroll said: ‘I get quite annoyed when that perception is reinforced. For TV crews it is mostly hotel journalism, because they are bulkier and more visible than print people — they have to travel in big convoys, and their insurance and bureaucratic rules are such that it’s a huge deal for them to leave the hotel. The print guys, and this applies to all the other British papers, we get out of the hotel pretty much every day. Our security is contingent entirely on invisibility, which is why we try to blend in.’”
Peter Beaumont, his colleague at the Observer, also believes that reporting on Iraq, while unbearably dangerous, remains “still just possible”:
“You learn in large measure to deal with it, adapting your behavior to the different kinds of threat. Many of the men grow beards, the women reporters wear abayas. Traveling around Baghdad, you move ‘low profile’ in tatty but well-serviced cars. I take off my glasses as they look too ‘Euro’ and wear stripy shirts that look ‘Mansour’ — the fashionable middle-class district of Baghdad.”
On the other hand, veteran correspondent Robert Fisk, a man never lacking in reportorial bravery, recently announced that, given the outsized dangers now inherent in the situation, he wasn’t sure he could still report from Iraq. He refers to what he now does on his visits to Iraq as “mouse journalism.”
“If I go to see someone in any particular location, I give myself 12 minutes, because that is how long I reckon it takes a man with a mobile phone to summon gunmen to the scene in a car. So, after 10 minutes I am out. Don’t be greedy. That’s what reporting is like in Iraq… One of the delights of the occupying powers is that the journalists cannot move. When I travel outside Baghdad by road it takes me two weeks to plan it, because the roads are infested with insurgents, checkpoints, hooded men and throat-cutters. That’s what it’s like.”
Just the other day, I heard an American freelance correspondent on a panel at Columbia University second Fisk on the sanity of his “12-minute rule.” Similarly, the exceedingly brave former war correspondent, Maggie O’Kane recently leveled a blast in the Guardian at Iraqi coverage. Claiming she “lost nerve” in Afghanistan in 2002 after three of her colleagues were pulled from a car and, “in roughly the same amount of time as it takes to boil a kettle,” executed by the Taliban, she then commented on present-day Iraq:
“The hacks are corralled in a single hotel where huge egos bang off the wall and each other. After a week or two, the atmosphere becomes suffocating… Since Al-Zarqawi’s people started cutting off heads it is too dangerous for foreigners to go out. So, instead, his poor Iraqi fixer is off to some hell hole to count the bodies and get the pictures… And that is the great tragedy for war reporting now. We no longer know what is going on but we are pretending we do. Any decent reporter knows that reporting from Baghdad now does a disservice to the truth.”
Increasingly, the fixers and translators have morphed into journalists — and brave ones at that — while services like Knight Ridder (whose coverage of Iraq has been outstanding) and Reuters have been hiring Iraqi reporters. Some of these reporters have then found themselves in American jails for covering the Iraqi insurgents; and almost 40 of them have died (without much note in our press) reporting the occupation and the insurgency — as well as one, Yasser Salihee, evidently killed by an American sniper while driving to get gas on his day off in the low-level war zone that is much of Iraq. Some of them, like photographer and reporter Ghaith Abdul Ahad, given a chance to write under their own names in major papers, have done extraordinary and daring work.
With rare exceptions — including the Washington Post’s remarkable Anthony Shadid (now in Syria), whose dramatic book on his time in Iraq, Night Draws Near, reflects his superb reporting — American reporters may be almost as crippled by not being Arabic-speakers as by the dangers of Iraq. It remains an amazing fact that an American occupation which began largely without Arabic-speakers — it was going to be too easy to stock up on people who actually spoke the language — has since been covered in our press mainly by reporters who can’t communicate directly with the people they’re covering (unless, of course, they happen to speak English).
Still, there can be little question that in Iraq (and possibly elsewhere) the nature of war reporting is undergoing some kind of sea change. Iraq is a war in which correspondents disappear into detention or die not because they are covering dangerous events and happen to be caught in a crossfire, but because they are often prime targets themselves — of guerrillas and terrorists, of gangs of for-profit kidnappers, or of the American military. As a result, the war (and the Iraq) we see in our newspapers, and especially on our television sets, is a distinctly constricted one, often hardly wider than the nearest giant American military base or Baghdad’s well-fortified Green Zone. Perhaps reporters, bearded or not, slipping by as anonymously as possible or in heavily armed security convoys, embedded with American or even Iraqi troops, can make it to spots around Baghdad, or, on rare occasions, elsewhere in the country (as part of military operations), but even for the bravest Western journalists, this has to be a desperately limiting situation.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]