Battlefields and Bylines
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TERENCE SMITH: Covering the ongoing conflict in Iraq is proving to be a dangerous and deadly assignment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 25 news people have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war. Two of those, a correspondent and a driver for the U.S.-funded Iraqi Television Network, were killed this week by American troops near a checkpoint.
Journalists are now among the explicit targets of some of the insurgents opposing the coalition. In addition, reporters have been kidnapped, detained, and menaced. Hazards of this sort are not new to reporters accustomed to covering war, but taken as a whole, the threat condition, to use a military term, may have established a new and deadly benchmark in Iraq. Here with me to discuss the conditions for reporting in Iraq are two men with broad experience covering conflict. John Burns is chief foreign correspondent of the New York Times, and serves as the papers’ Baghdad bureau chief. And Eason Jordan is executive vice president and chief news executive for CNN.
Welcome to you both. John Burns, describe for us, if you will, the practical realities of covering Baghdad and Iraq today.
JOHN BURNS: Well, the events of the past three weeks have changed the geography of the country radically for most of us. We of the New York Times, and most print and broadcast organizations, have decided for the time being to pull back from our wider coverage outside Baghdad because there’s no such thing as an even approximately safe road in Iraq, and there is, of course, no commercial air traffic. So bombings in Basra yesterday — 50 or 60 people dead, including perhaps 20 schoolchildren in a bus — a story we would normally dispatch a correspondent to immediately; we decided after discussions with New York that the risks on the road were too great.
Inside Baghdad, it’s also pretty dangerous. Just today, as I’m sure you know, there was a foreigner, a South African, I believe, who was shot dead by masked men in an area not much more than a mile or two from where most of us have our offices. So we have to be extremely wary.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it your sense now, John Burns, that journalists have themselves become targets rather than just observers and bystanders?
JOHN BURNS: I don’t think it’s right to say we’re targets. I think what’s probably closer to the truth is to say that we don’t have an exception from the general rule that foreigners here, and any foreigner who has any association with the American occupation — and we are deemed — that is to say, American and British citizens in particular — to have that link — are included as targets along with everybody else.
I don’t think we are being selected out, although we don’t go to any trouble, as we’ve done elsewhere in the world, to identify our vehicles, for example, as being press vehicles. It’s simply that if we get stopped or we get identified, we are just as likely to be killed in drive-by shootings or to be hit with rocket-propelled grenades or to be hauled from our vehicles and kidnapped, as a number of us have been in the past two or three weeks, as anybody else. But are we more likely to be dealt with in that fashion than foreign aid workers and people driving truck convoys? No, we’re not.
TERENCE SMITH: Eason Jordan, I know you’ve been back and forth to Iraq several times, and that you deal on a daily basis with the security of your people there. How has CNN’s situation changed? What new procedures have you put in place in this very difficult three weeks that John Burns is talking about?
EASON JORDAN: Well, this has been a nightmarish time for CNN. In January, I was in Baghdad to bury two of my colleagues, Iraqi nationals who were killed on the job for CNN. In the last few weeks, we’ve had to batten down the hatches even further, very rarely sending people outside of the hotel where we have our office because it’s just too dangerous to go outside the hotel.
We have armed security guards. We’ve sent out the smallest number of people possible when we feel we can and must send people out. But I think news consumers are being shortchanged to a degree, not just on television but in print, because journalists are not able to do their jobs effectively, and certainly the depth and breadth of reporting that you saw even a month ago was far more vast than what news consumers get today.
TERENCE SMITH: And what are the networks doing — the normally very competitive networks doing — to cover the hot spots outside of Baghdad, such as the fighting in Fallujah?
EASON JORDAN: Well, in Fallujah in particular, there’s been an effort to pool resources. The five U.S. TV networks have come together and agreed to share resources. For example, right now in Fallujah there’s a Fox News cameraman, a CNN producer, and one or two others working together to provide reports for all of the U.S. networks, and that’s an effort to minimize exposure, keep the fewest number of people in these hot spots as absolutely necessary, but still provide the absolutely essential coverage from the most intense battlefield in Iraq right now, which is Fallujah.
TERENCE SMITH: And are you sharing and cooperating on intelligence information — about security, I’m talking about — within… certainly within Baghdad?
EASON JORDAN: Well, about three weeks ago, there was a meeting in New York among my five network counterparts and a few others, and we decided to do something that was unprecedented in working together, cooperating, collaborating on safety and security issues and in sharing a certain amount of news coverage, all in an effort to minimize exposure in the field and to bring our people home alive.
TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, what has been the editorial impact of these restrictions on your safe movement around, yours and your colleagues, in terms of what the reader learns or doesn’t learn?
JOHN BURNS: Well, we’re certainly not covering it in the depth and at the closeness we would like to do with our own correspondents. We do have workarounds. We do have stringers — that’s to say, Iraqi reporters that we hire in most of the major cities, who can file reports to us. We have some of our own staff members who, with considerable courage — Iraqi staff members — have volunteered to go into some of these conflicted areas, and we learn a good deal from that. Do we learn as much as we would like to? Absolutely not.
We know very little, for example, about what is really going on in Najaf or Kufa, where Muqtada al-Sadr has made his headquarters. These past two or three weeks, when we made an attempt to go in there — and I’m speaking now of myself and a photographer — we were taken hostage for 12 hours and driven out into the desert, blindfolded, and put at some risk.
It’s difficult. We do the best we can. It’s not unique. I think those with memories of the war in Cambodia would tell you there were periods then towards the end when it was similarly difficult. We just have to find new ways to do it, and we have to be honest with our readers about the restrictions that we have to place on ourselves.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think they’re not learning, the readers, as a result? Are you talking about the opportunity, for example, to go and interview people on site in Najaf or somewhere else? What is it that’s missing?
JOHN BURNS: We have been puzzled about exactly the degree of support that Muqtada al-Sadr has in Najaf. The fragmentary reports that we’ve had within the last 24 hours, which we’re going to test in the way I suggested, by having some people, some Iraqis who work for us or who are on contract to us, going the take a closer look, that Muqtada al-Sadr is nowhere near as powerful and certainly nowhere near as popular as he would have us believe in Najaf. We can only test that by having people go into the city to talk to people. But it’s very intriguing, what we’re hearing. And were we free to do so, either I or one of my colleagues would go to Najaf. It’s only 110 miles south of Baghdad. We’d go there in two, two-and-a- half hours. We could report it in some depth for tomorrow’s paper. We’re not able to do that. We’ll do the best we can, and we’ll test what we’re hearing.
It’s not ideal, but we’re not out of this game yet. We can still report a great deal. And I think that the broad and most important outlines of what’s happening are still going to be in the New York Times and the Washington Post and other major newspapers, and on the television networks. I think we’re some way away from being in a Beirut situation where most American media had to simply shut down.
TERENCE SMITH: Eason Jordan, of course it’s more difficult for television. You’ve got to get a camera to these sites. You’re more conspicuous by your presence. How are you working it out?
EASON JORDAN: Well, we do what we can to minimize our exposure, but we do think it’s important to get out there, and so we just send the smallest number of people possible out on stories, on assignments. We try to do it in a very intelligent way, taking advice from security experts who carry guns to protect us into the field.
But I do have to take issue with John’s point in the beginning. He believes that journalists are not targeted. I do believe that journalists are targeted. There are very specific examples of that. And then beyond what’s actually happened on the ground, you have Osama bin Laden in his most recent statement saying that he intends to target big media institutions because he views them as evil propagandists for the U.S. government. And so we take all these threats — and there are real examples we can cite very specifically — we take them very specifically and we do consider ourselves targeted.
TERENCE SMITH: John Burns?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think Eason has a point. There are — there have been occasions, and the incident involving CNN in January was certainly one of them. The assassination — the targeted assassination of Iraqi interpreters working for, in one case the Voice of America, in the other case Time magazine, and other warnings given to people working for us, are other indications. But these sorts of warnings have been given to other institutions: Aid agencies and other western organizations.
I’m not sure myself that we, for example, of the New York Times are a specifically targeted organization. We may be, but we don’t know that for sure. We assume that we are targeted in general, and we take all the precautions that we can. But the fact of the matter is, as any foreigner who lives here and works here will tell you, that there’s just so much that you can do, and that going out of your compound, out of the Palestine Sheraton Hotel, or in the case of the American official presence here, out of the Green Zone, is in itself an inherently dangerous enterprise. There is no certainty on any there is no certainty on any there is no certainty on any such journey that you’re going to come back safe.
TERENCE SMITH: John Burns and Eason Jordan, thank you very much for bringing us up to date on what is obviously a very tricky situation. Thank you both.