In the aftermath of the American invasion, hundreds of Western journalists—perhaps as many as a thousand—rushed to Iraq. An estimated 70 remain. For this small group, the country has become an otherplanetary place to work and live. It’s a place where Anne Garrels, now in her fourth year in Baghdad for NPR, puts on her heavy flak jacket and walks around her compound for exercise. It’s a place where male reporters buy acid-washed jeans with Western labels in order to look more Iraqi, and female reporters seek out abayas, a crude emblem of Middle Eastern female oppression, in order to move around with greater freedom. Though freedom in this environment is a relative matter. It’s hard to feel free when a trip to the local market requires two armored cars.
The Bush administration and its shriller supporters have often complained that reporters are barely doing their jobs in Iraq, hiding in their compounds instead. This is a notion, needless to say, that offends many reporters in Baghdad, particularly if they’ve been shot at or chased by mobs. “There’s this notion that the reporters in Iraq don’t get out,” says Dexter Filkins, who’s been in the Baghdad bureau of the New York Times almost continuously since the war began. “Can I just put something out there? I go out. I go out, like, every day, and most of my colleagues do, too.”
It’s just that going out in Baghdad is a little different from going out in Paris. “The way to understand reporting in Iraq right now is this,” says Filkins. “You can wake up on any given morning and the phones don’t work. The only way to see people is to go to their houses. So you have to talk to your security adviser, so that he can tell you what neighborhood is bad that day, and then you have to rustle up a driver for your car, and a chase car, and a translator, and some guards. But then you get in that car to drive down the street and you find a car bomb has gone off an hour before, so to get somewhere still takes three hours. And that’s for one interview.”
Naturally, these constraints have consequences. Iraq is a limited-access beat, perversely like the White House, where spot news and press conferences drive the daily coverage; nuances and trends require patience, creativity, and better sources; and the real stories may never be told. If reporters can no longer wander the streets or visit people’s homes, then naturally it is harder for them to understand what the people of the country are perceiving. If reporters are likely to be kidnapped when pursuing militias or crushed by a mob in the aftermath of a suicide bomb, then naturally it is harder for them to understand the nature of Iraq’s violence. “It’s like there’s a blanket over the country,” says Mark Danner, who writes about Iraq for the New York Review of Books, “and all we see are the shapes.”
What’s strange is how vulnerable reporters still remain under these compromised circumstances. Jill Carroll, abaya-clad and otherwise unprotected, attempted to interview a hard-line Sunni politician and was abducted for 82 days. Bob Woodruff, intent on doing a good-news story for ABC, set out to chronicle the progress of the Iraqi military and was rewarded for his efforts with an IED, or improvised explosive device, shattering as he stood in the hatch of his vehicle. He’s still recovering from shrapnel wounds to his body and brain.
Reporters began fudging their identities. “I always said I was a journalist,” says Shadid. “But I didn’t always say I was from the Washington Post. ‘Washington’ is not the best reference.” Adds another reporter, “I often said I was Canadian. Or a neutral country. In extreme situations, you bend the rules.”
To see Iraq through the eyes of the journalists in Baghdad is, in a way, to understand the news we read and see. What they can’t learn, we can’t either. Their limitations, in a sense, become our own.
It’s April 2003, and Jane Arraf, Baghdad bureau chief of CNN, goes down to the lobby of the Palestine Hotel. It’s a gloomy dump with cold water and inedible food. It is also teeming with life. “It was like the bar scene in Star Wars,” says Arraf, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Every morning, there would be a long, long line of people. And you would never know whether it would be the guy who said he had nuclear documents in his basement, or the woman who said she had weapons of mass destruction in the trunk of her car and was willing to sell some of them, or people who needed kidney transplants . . . ”
Just after the American invasion, Iraq was a reporter’s paradise. Writers, producers, cameramen, and photographers suddenly had full-saturation access to a country and people once dominated by a sociopath. If they were in the right place at the right time, they could swim in Saddam Hussein’s pool, leaf through his old photo albums, stare at the rows of Italian suits in his closets. Farnaz Fassihi, the Wall Street Journal’s Baghdad bureau chief until this past January, made daily trips to Samarra to report on its newly formed soccer team. Anthony Shadid, who won the 2004 Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage in the Washington Post, could have lunch in Fallujah and spend the day in the Shaker Thahi Mosque. Dissidents and scholars and artists who’d been stifled were speaking out; the tortured and the brutalized came forward with their questions and their rage. “It was the most remarkable year of reporting I’d ever experienced, 2003,” says Shadid. “It was the first time in the Arab world where I wasn’t dealing with the Information Ministry, with intimidation, with censorship. If you had the dedication, time, and endurance, you could cover anything.”