Politics & Policy

Iraqi Information Deficit

As Katie Couric makes plan to report from Iraq, frontlines war journalism is hard to find.

Baghdad, Iraq – The recent headline-grabbing announcement that CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric will be coming to Iraq for 12 days in September has caused, as it should, new attention to be cast on combat-zone journalism.

Amidst all of the hubbub and hoopla about the “danger” of her trip to Iraq, it is important to draw a distinction between what Couric and the majority of her colleagues in the mainstream media are doing, and what others in Iraq are contributing, information-wise, to the debate.

Hundreds of journalists come to Baghdad to cover the war and the reconstruction. Outlets like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, and many others have Baghdad bureaus, from which their reporters can access the Green Zone (now known as the “International Zone,” or “IZ”) for press conferences and meetings, correspond and work with stringers, fixers, and other individuals who can provide them with information, set up meetings with high-ranking officials, as well as, occasionally, those whom CBS executive producer Rick Kaplan called “alleged terror leaders.”

Movement around Baghdad is relatively simple for these Big News individuals. They usually have drivers and vehicles, and rarely go anywhere — the IZ included — without bodyguards, many of whom are former British or American Special Forces. When traveling outside the heavily fortified IZ on their own, as CBS has said it plans to do with Couric’s contingent, efforts are taken to keep their profile as low as possible.

This is not to say that these journalists do not face danger. Iraq is, after all, a combat zone, and all people here are subject to the perils entailed by that – a point demonstrated by the over 100 hundred journalists killed in Iraq since the conflict began. However, the vast majority of reporters who come to Iraq take considerable precautions to keep them as much out of harm’s way, often at the cost of eyewitness reporting and contextually accurate stories. Trips “outside the wire,” as territory outside the safety of coalition bases and the IZ is called, are rare, and when they take place, their duration is brief.

Whether in the interest of safety or of scheduling, hearsay is relied upon far more often than is eyewitness accounting when reporting events in Iraq’s cities and at the battlefront. At a time when reporting that is both honest and accurate is more badly needed than ever, reporters are traveling all the way to Iraq and are, in the end, still settling for little more than the hearsay they could have access to at home.

There are exceptions to this, particularly within the military media embed program, which allows journalists to travel the country via military air and to “set up shop” on Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Combat Outposts (COPs), where they have access to the units doing the heavy lifting in this war. But for many embedded reporters, this is where their intrepidness ends. Far too many journalists, having arrived at their chosen (or assigned) military unit’s deployment site, settle in — again, “inside the wire” — for a brief stay (as short as a single day at times). Once again, the reportage is hearsay; jumping in the saddle with lower-echelon units and departing the relative safety of the FOB is mostly out of the question. Even some of those who do depart the base will only do so if accompanied by the unit commander’s personal security detail (a guard force of up to twenty soldiers), and if the risk involved in doing so is measurably low.

This lack of firsthand information plagues many major stories from Iraq, which end up being told, more than likely unintentionally, through the prism of the author’s personal views of events. The brief duration of many journalists’ stays with individual units, and in individual “areas of operations” (AOs), also contributes to a lack of contextual understanding of the many complexities that may go into, or stem from, the events on which they report.

It is open to debate how much difference a firsthand view of events would make too many journalists’ reports, given a fundamental lack of military experience. An example of this was recently given to me by an officer I spoke with at a previous embed site. While a reporter was riding along with his convoy, an improvised explosive device (IED) was discovered along the road by the officer’s unit. Though the area around the IED was cordoned off to enable explosive ordnance disposal specialists to deal with the potentially deadly device, a vehicle persistently attempted to enter the secure area, ignoring verbal and signaled warnings, as well as flashing lights, all of which clearly indicated to stop. Finally, unwilling to take a chance in an area known for vehicle-borne IED attacks, the officer authorized a warning shot to be fired in the direction of the car, and the driver finally came to a stop. Not understanding what it was she was seeing — or, worse, in an attempt to push an agenda — the reporter openly wondered in her article the next day whether “these soldiers shoot at every car that they see.” She had spent only one day in her embed.

An observer with even the least amount of experience and understanding of military procedure would have asked the far more relevant — and intelligent — question of “why was this driver so persistently attempting to violate this cordon that the soldiers posted there had to take dramatic steps to convince him to stop?”

Of the hundreds of journalists operating in Iraq, very few actually take the risk of going on missions with the lowest-echelon warfighters, braving the gunfire and the IEDs in order to witness firsthand the chaos and bodies left behind by insurgent attacks, to participate in patrols and offensive operations mounted by the coalition, and to see with their own eyes the school openings, the public clinics, the Concerned Citizens meetings, and the other events of great import.

The small number of journalists who dedicate sufficient time to each embed to grasp the complexities of the area and its people fall almost exclusively into a single mold. By and large, these are prior military men, independent of the bureaucracy involved in working for a single journalistic outlet, funded by their own resources or by reader donations, and committed to what they believe is the most important job in the world: providing the people at home with firsthand, on-the-ground information from the front lines in Iraq.

Writers and photographers like Michael Yon and Bill Roggio and documentarians like J. D. Johannes and Pat Dollard (an exception to the usual prior-military attribute), as well as men like Michael Totten, Matt Sanchez, and a very small number of others spend months at a time in Iraq, living amongst the troops at the lowest echelon and going “outside the wire” day and night.

Few of these individuals would claim, like establishment journalists, to be objective and have an utter lack of bias. But I find that it would be an impossible claim to make. When one is being shot at, or seeing children going back to school for the first time in years, or witnessing mutilated bodies being pulled from freshly filled graves, ideology, and the ideas one arrived here with, is far less important than is the raw human experience.

CBS News’s decision to send Katie Couric to Iraq at this time — while doubtless a solid ratings ploy — is the mark of a network focused more on the goal of a marginal increase in viewership than on acquiring more accurate and detailed information to share with the American people.

“The future of our involvement in Iraq will be decided when the Petraeus report is released. If you’re going to go to the Middle East at all, this is the time,” said Kaplan, the CBS executive producer.

His statement suggests that CBS’s intent is more to have an exotic Evening News backdrop than it is to go the extra mile in hopes of achieving more accurate and informative stories.

“The time” to be in the Middle East was months ago, and the frontlines were the place to be. As Couric’s impending trip to Iraq should remind Americans, all combat-zone journalism is not created equal. There are very few of us who have committed ourselves to being in the right place, at the right time. And we would not trade a moment of it for the world.

– Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a director of RedState.com, is currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His reader-supported reports can be seen at www.JeffEmanuel.com.

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