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The Baghdad Press Club


Because Westerners are such tempting targets, their news organizations have come to rely almost entirely on Iraqi stringers for vast amounts of reporting. Outsourcing news-gathering is a very upsetting, morally complicated business. The bulk of the journalist casualties in Iraq—50 out of 69—have been Iraqis. “I had a translator who had a 3-year-old,” says the Journal’s Fassihi, now in Beirut. “And every time I wanted him to go somewhere, I’d say, This is a man with a 3-year-old child. Do I send him or not?”

Western reporters still interview ordinary Iraqi citizens, but they generally do so in the safety of their hotels; any interview beyond the compound tends to last no longer than 30 minutes because word may leak out that a Westerner, ripe for kidnapping, is at large. And we’ve paid a price for this remove. Most of us have no sense of what the streets of Iraq’s major cities look like, and even less of a sense of the street life. We don’t have a sense of the ordinary structure and fabric of Iraqi society—how Iraqis live and what they do for work, how many of them work, how many hours of electricity people in Baghdad are getting per day. (The answer to this last question, according to the correspondents there, is still roughly four.)

Of course, the press corps’ logistical problems aren’t the only reason we don’t know the answers to the questions. Part of the reason is because neither our government nor the Iraqi government can answer all of them, and the answers they do know are not good. Some editors and producers—mostly in television—aren’t especially interested in how people live, either, because their readers or viewers don’t care: What they want to know is if we’re winning and when the troops are coming home. “I think there’s often a lack of appetite among the decision-makers at news organizations to have coverage with real depth,” says Dan Senor, former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. “So reporters who would otherwise be inclined to spend more time and take more risks are often incentivized not to do so because they can’t get on the air or get valuable real estate in the newspapers.”

To some extent, news itself becomes a casualty in any war. Reporters are asked to choose between what is conscientious and what is safe, what is ethically impeccable and what is human. “This past election, we wanted to send someone to Fallujah,” says Fassihi, “and none of our staff would go. No one wanted to be branded for working with the Western press. And this was really newsworthy. We wanted to know what Sunnis are thinking.” The day Rory Carroll was abducted, she adds, happened to be the first day Saddam Hussein appeared in court. Yet when Fassihi heard, she stopped watching television and began making phone calls instead, hoping to discover something about who took Carroll and to agitate for his release. “We just . . . forgot about the trial, forgot there was this huge news story, and tried to make sure he was safe,” she says. “And that’s your instinct. To abandon the story. I missed the Asia deadline and then the European deadline, and this was one of the biggest stories of the year.”

Yet Fassihi still says that of course it was worth the Journal’s time to have her there—even if, as she once famously wrote in an e-mail to family and friends, she couldn’t go grocery shopping, couldn’t eat in restaurants, couldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger, couldn’t look for stories, couldn’t drive in anything but a fully armored car, couldn’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, couldn’t be stuck in traffic, couldn’t speak English outside, couldn’t take a road trip, couldn’t say she was an American, couldn’t linger at checkpoints, couldn’t be curious about what people were saying, doing, feeling, and couldn’t and couldn’t. “Just being there, with my Iraqi staff, learning about what happened to their lives, was the best education,” she says. “All of them could write a book.”

Kraul returned to Baghdad this past January. Partly, he says, it was because he wanted to prove to himself that he wasn’t “terminally unlucky.” But he also wanted to see the L.A. Times’ Iraqi staff again. And there was one story in particular he wanted to tell: the story of a soldier who’d been wounded and come back to Iraq, just as Kraul had.

He discovered a different world. All the Iraqi staffers of the L.A. Times bureau told him they felt exhausted, nervous, watched; the 22-year-old son of one of his favorite translators, himself a translator for the U.S. Army, had died just ten days before Kraul arrived. His first day there, as they were heading to the Green Zone, Kraul’s driver turned to him and offered him his kaffiyeh, or traditional red checked scarf, if they were ever pulled aside. If somebody stops us, he told Kraul, you are my father. You don’t speak and you don’t hear.


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