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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why you don't get out much

Safe as a stroll in the park

This is from the Petrelis files

NY Review: Baghdad's Beseiged Press (Why Good News Doesn't Get Out)

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has a must-read report from Baghdad by UC Berkeley journalism dean Orville Schell on the state of the press in the Iraqi city. Schell gives a fascinating analysis of the wretched conditions under which U.S. and other reporters are working right now and how the hostilities keep journalists in their hotels or villas and out of the war zones, cut off from sources and insurgents.

This week, what with Bush hitting the airwaves to again declare we're making progress in Iraq and expressing his wish that reporters in Baghdad would cover and show the advances happening, it is good to have Schell's piece to wave at the president and his war defenders when they say good news from Iraq simply is not getting out.

Well hello, Bushies? The remaining (and probably dwindling) number of reporters in Iraq face incredible survival issues every day and are severely limited in just getting around Baghdad never mind the rest of country, and you all believe reporters over there are purposefully keeping good news hidden?

Do the Bushies really think that if the journalists could refrain from not covering the daily bombings, suicide attacks and other fatal mayhem, and they could leave their hotels and the Green Zone, that what they'd find are groups of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds joining together to sing Kumbaya?

If you're at all concerned about the war, our troops, the dedicated journalists attempting to report on the conflict and people in Iraq, and what Dean Schell saw on his recent trip there, you have to read the entire article. Here are big chunks of it:

As America approached the third anniversary of its involvement in Iraq, I had gone to Baghdad to observe not the war itself, but how it is being covered by the press. But of course, the war is inescapable. It has no battle lines, no fronts, not even the rural– urban divide that has usually characterized guerrilla wars. Instead, the conflict is everywhere and nowhere [...]

Foreign news bureaus are either in or near the few operating hotels such as the Al Hamra, the Rashid, or the Palestine. Like battleships that have been badly damaged but are still at sea, these hotels have survived repeated bomb attacks and yet have managed to stay open. A few hotels like the Rashid, where once there was a mosaic depicting George Bush Sr. on the floor of the lobby, are sheltered within the Green Zone. A few other bureaus have their own houses, usually somewhat shabby villas that have the advantage of being included inside some collective defense perimeter that makes the resulting neighborhood feel like a walled medieval town [...]

Security is a very costly business, which has meant that most stringers and freelance journalists who could never afford such protection have been driven out of Baghdad. Bureaus like that of The New York Times which can afford it and are still in Iraq now carry costly insurance policies and require that all coming and going —indeed, all aspects of life outside the compound, including trips to the airport—be under the control of a full-time security chief, who acts as an earthbound air-traffic controller for the bureau. His job is to carefully set times and routes for reporters' trips, and then maintain almost constant contact with their cars until they are safely back. If you want to have an interview outside the bureau, there is always a chance that it will be canceled or delayed for security reasons. Security chiefs are also in charge of the armed guard details that protect the bureau around the clock. No one goes anywhere without a plan worked out in advance, and then preferably in a "hardened," or reinforced, vehicle followed by a "chase" car with several trusted Iraqi guards ready to shoot if necessary [...]

"In the summer of 2003, you could walk out of the Al Hamra and get a cab or even drive to Falluja for dinner, chill out, or go to a CD shop," I was told by the Los Angeles Times's Borzou Daragahi, whose bureau is in the Al Hamra. "Now, the AP won't even let its people leave the city."

"It's amazing now to think back to November 2003 when the insurgency was starting to gain momentum, and all we had were a few sandbags in front of our house and a few guards," Ed Wong, who is on his seventh rotation at the New York Times Baghdad bureau, later recalls. "Back then, you might have met a few angry people, but you didn't fear for your life. Then, things started to change. At first, a few civilians became targets, but not journalists. Then, in the spring of 2004, we started changing our security protocols, using two-car convoys and guards. It felt very weird. For the first time I confronted that barrier between me and the people I was supposed to be reporting on." [...]

One evening while I was in Baghdad, a British security guard mentioned that Fox News was giving a "party" in the nearby Palestine Hotel, once the almost elegant, five-star Le Meridien Palestine on the banks of the Tigris River. I was curious both to see what had happened to this legendary hotel and also what now passed for a social gathering among foreign reporters here. So at dusk, accompanied by two armed guards, I walked over to the Palestine through the maze of blast walls [...]

When we finally arrive on the fifth floor, we have to leave our guards at a checkpoint fortified with a steel door. Inside, we are greeted by the stink of disinfectant and stale air filled with the smell of curry and cigarette smoke. Down a hallway with a greasy carpet I find a small sitting room with shabby furniture and a soccer game playing on a TV. The Fox News staffers who are smoking and drinking seem glad to see almost anyone. The scene makes me think of a group of elderly retired people clinging to a residential hotel slated for demolition.

"Where are all the other guests?" I ask, as one of them thrusts a bottle of beer into my hand. Zoran Kusovac, Fox's bulky, unshaven bureau chief, takes a long drag on his cigarette and explains in his Croatian accent, "Everybody's gone home." He laughs. "It's Saturday. We wanted to have some fun. We used to be able to have parties until late at night. But now our security people told us that if we wanted to have a party, it would have to end no later than 6:00 PM, so that everyone could get home before dark. We started at 3:00!" [...]

Farnaz Fassihi has written how at The Wall Street Journal she "began relying heavily on our staff for setting up interviews, conducting street reporting and being my eyes and ears in Baghdad."

Occasionally The Washington Post's local staff "managed to persuade Iraqis to come to our hotel for interviews, giving me a chance to interact personally with sources and subjects," Jackie Spinner, a former Post Baghdad bureau chief, acknowledges in her soon-to-be-published book, Tell Them I Didn't Cry. She recounts how she "spent the nights writing stories pasted together from reports gathered by our Iraqi staff, my only access to the war outside my window...." [...]

Few reporters I talked to, whether Western or Iraqi, have any direct contact with the insurgents or with the sectarian militias: it is too difficult and dangerous, they say, to talk with Iraqis who do the fighting and set off the explosives. And thus, the various attacks, suicide bombings, and the pervasive anti-Western sentiment, as well as the sectarian hatred that has erupted during the occupation, continue to be largely unexplored and unexplained from the viewpoint of the Iraqis, whether they are Sunni insurgents, members of the Shia militias, or from the American-supplied Iraqi forces that are attacking them [...]

It is here also that the Combined Press Information Center, known as CPIC, is located and where it holds its Thursday press briefings, which remind some veterans of the surreal "Five o'clock Follies" held each day at 5:00 PM in the windowless JUSPAO (Joint US Public Affairs Office) theater in Saigon. There, an earlier generation of "press information officers" gave journalists briefings, complete with four-color overlay charts tabulating "body counts" "targets hit," "structures destroyed," and "villages pacified" in a war that seemed to be getting statistically won, even as it was actually being lost [...]

It may well be that the besieged American press in Iraq will find that the main story is not about Americans fighting Iraqi insurgents, but Americans standing powerlessly aside in their armed compounds, Green Zone, and military bases, watching as Iraqis kill other Iraqis and the country disintegrates. It would be all too ironic if this were the result of the invasion of March 2003, which was promoted as a critical step in bringing peace to the Middle East.

After reading these excerpts, I hope you want to read the full story in the NY Review. Don't you also wish the Bushies would read it?

posted by Steve @ 1:19:00 AM

1:19:00 AM

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