Late that evening, Carroll heard the wife approach as he was trying to sleep. “I never saw her, the wife,” says Carroll. “But it was obvious she was really curious to see what I looked like.” By then, Carroll had endeared himself enough to his captor to earn an upgrade to a cot. He lay very still. “I didn’t turn around,” he says, “because I knew it’d freak her out. I just pretended to sleep.”
Not long after that, Carroll’s captor told him he was going to be released, and some men came along and put him in the trunk of a car. He was dumped in front of a large compound. Ahmad Chalabi, then the deputy prime minister of Iraq, greeted him with a grin, Carroll wrote.
Carroll flew back to the U.K. after that. He wasn’t even given the chance to stop first at his hotel to pick up his belongings. And from that moment forward, the Guardian decided it would no longer have a full-time person in Baghdad but a rotating cast of four. It was a controversial choice. But Carroll defends it. “The risk-and-reward rate,” he says, “was diminishing.”
So what, precisely, are news bureaus gaining from being in Iraq? In some ways, the challenges of covering the Iraq war extend far beyond logistics. They do for any war, because covering wars means covering the military in action, and when the military is in action, it has paradoxical aims: On the one hand, it wants the world to appreciate the magnitude and danger of its endeavor, and therefore offers journalists transportation, food, and shelter (and, during the Civil War, the use of its telegraph machines); on the other hand, it wants very badly to control information, for reasons of national security, morale, and politics. When the United States claims to have killed 25 militants in a secret raid, how are reporters supposed to confirm it? As Rory Carroll notes, “It’s not like the militants are available for comment.”
“If you write with any evenhandedness about this war—and, let’s face it, if you are reporting on a suicide bombing, your description is bound to present it as a slaughter—you are at risk of being identified by radical Islamists as a collaborator,” says Burns.
Making sense of the non-American point of view during wartime is generally no easier. “There are so many versions of truth floating around out there,” says Robert Worth, who first started covering Iraq for the Times in June 2003. “Some of them are colored by recent agendas or atrocities, but others go back fourteen centuries.” The Washington Post, for instance, reported that 1,300 civilians died in the direct aftermath of the bombing of a historic Shiite mosque in Samarra this February, but backtracked some days later, when it was clear it had been given bad information. Eighteen months ago, says Rubin, now in Vienna, the L.A. Times discovered that certain stringers in Samarra, including one of its own, were inflating numbers of both civilian and U.S. casualties for effect. “So we let that stringer go and switched to another one,” she says. “But it was always impossible to be 100 percent sure that the information you were getting was accurate.”
But news organizations have come to a particularly sorry pass when they can’t even show up at the scene of breaking news in a war zone. And in Iraq today, they cannot. Tempers are too inflamed; the fury of the mob is too raw. Print publications can get around this problem by phoning hospitals and morgues and even visiting them. But the inability to cover spot news has been a huge problem for television. Daily unrest, violence, death—these are the very images of war. CNN’s Jane Arraf went so crazy from the limitations of Baghdad life that she left to be embedded with the military so that she could feel more productive. “There is absolutely no substitute for being there,” says Arraf. “I remember covering one suicide bombing—it was a small hotel that had just blown up, and we were broadcasting live all night long as they pulled bodies out of the rubble—and I could never have imagined the things that I saw there unfolding. I could never have imagined how articulate ordinary Iraqis are. I could never have imagined the multilayered rage in their voices when something like that happened. And that’s a lot of what we have given up. We’ve given up the ability to, I think, put things in context, in some sense, because we can’t be there.”
Indeed, trying to understand the nature of Iraq’s violence in a deeper, more analytical way has become almost impossible, and this difficulty has unforeseen complications. “Because there are constraints on reporting about violence, it’s very hard to make reliable judgments about the politics, I repeat, politics of Iraq right now,” says Mark Danner, who was last in Baghdad this past November. “People think the violence in Iraq is sealed off from its politics, but it isn’t. The violent, militarized groups are an inherent part of Iraqi politics right now.”