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Dangerous Conditions Constrain Journalism in Iraq

March 20, 2007 at 3:05 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Four years into the war, Iraq remains the deadliest country in the world for reporters, that according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Richard Engel went to Iraq as a freelance journalist four years ago before joining NBC. He kept a video journal of his time there and his documentary uncovering the war, called “War Zone Diary,” airs tomorrow on MSNBC.

Here’s a short excerpt. A note: We edited out one particularly disturbing image.

AMERICAN SOLDIER: Back up.

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC Correspondent: We were caught up. We had been operating one way for several months, and we thought that the pattern had emerged. We were able to go anywhere we wanted to in the country. Suddenly, the rules of the game had changed: We were targets.

SOLDIER: Everybody all right?

RICHARD ENGEL: Our hotel, our first bureau, was bombed.

BOMBING VICTIM: … move to the other side of the hotel.

JOURNALIST: Should have said yes.

JOURNALIST: I’m just astonished that it was us. Fortunately it wasn’t big enough to knock the building down.

BOMBING VICTIM: Jesus Christ.

RICHARD ENGEL: Poor guy. He was one of the hotel’s cleaning staff. He was sleeping in the lobby.

I have a theory as to why insurgents are now attacking journalists. They’re now making their own videos, posting them on the Internet. I have hundreds of them where they show their own attacks, and kidnappings, and mortars. The insurgents groups have evidently decided it’s not worth it to talk to the Western press.

We’re all infidels. We are here to just to call them terrorists. Better, they think, to put their own message out, post it so everyone in the world can see it, and then try and drive reporters out of the country.

The evolution of Iraq war coverage

Richard Engel
NBC News
It's come to the stage that we have to operate like thieves, going out into the city, stealing bits of information, conducting interviews in secret, and then bringing them out and putting our reports together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Engel joins us now from Burbank, California.

Also with us, from Cambridge, England, is John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times, who's appeared often on this program to update us on events in Iraq.

Well, Richard Engel, we saw in that clip how things suddenly changed for you. Tell us more about how the dangers affect your reporting now.

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC Correspondent: The conflict we're covering right now is not the same war that we were covering four years ago.

The initial phase of the bombing campaign had its limitations. There was the Saddam government still in power. And then, for almost a year, we had complete access in the country and were able to go anywhere. It was this time of great exploration. I would drive my own car all over the country.

And then, foreign fighters started to come in. The Sunni insurgency started to develop. And now it's come to the stage that we have to operate like thieves, going out into the city, stealing bits of information, conducting interviews in secret, and then bringing them out and putting our reports together. It is a completely different way of covering this conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Burns, you've covered other wars and conflicts. How is this compared, in terms of your ability to move around, your ability to talk to people, your ability to report the story?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: Well, I've said it before, I think that, in terms of sustained coverage, this is the most hazardous situation that Western reporters, that for people like myself and Richard, have been exposed to in a generation.

I say "sustained" because Chechnya, Somalia, Darfur -- to cite only three examples -- exposed reporters to very great hazards over the much briefer periods of time that they tend to spend in these areas.

But in Baghdad, of course, we're based there. We spend months at a time there. And there's no doubt that the hazards are very great, indeed, and that that has impacted quite seriously on our reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, John, staying with you, the question then is, how much are your readers or viewers, Richard's viewers and our viewers, how much are they seeing of the full story? Or is it just by definition in war that you don't get the full story?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I see this is a glass half-full for me. There's no doubt that, as I say, our reporting has been very much restricted, constrained by the hazards that we face.

But I've been in the United States recently and discovered that you can live relatively anonymously on the front page of the New York Times for 30 years, but if you appear on television, people recognize you, so people have been stopping me in the streets, at airports, on trains, and talking to me about Iraq, in the United States.

And what I found was the American public is extraordinarily well-informed. Whilst there are things we would like to do that we cannot do, I don't think that there are any fundamentally important truths about this war that we have not been able to tell. I don't mean just the New York Times; I mean the other principal American newspapers and the principal television networks.

So I think on that score, the American public has been -- my sense is, at least, talking to Americans, as I say over the last month or so, well-served and that the American voter, the American television viewer, the American newspaper reader knows full well what the state of affairs in Iraq is.

Dependency on local reporters

Richard Engel
NBC News
One of the main challenges we face is trying to verify this information and try and double and triple check that it's accurate. And that has been one of the main challenges that we've been struggling with.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, in that number that I cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists, by far the greatest danger is for Iraqi journalists, the local people on the ground. You work with them. You talk about two that you work with, in particular, in your documentary. Tell us about how that works for you, your reliance on them.

RICHARD ENGEL: Our dependency, I think you can say more than reliance, even, has grown over the years, that we have to use these local reporters -- and I don't mean it in an exploitative way -- but we have to rely on them and depend on them to be our eyes and ears in areas where we can no longer go.

And it is even becoming dangerous right now for Iraqi reporters to go out into Baghdad. We have to have Iraqis from a particular neighborhood gathering information and taking pictures. Shiites from eastern Baghdad simply cannot go to certain parts of Sunni western Baghdad, take pictures, and bring them back to our bureau without risking their lives.

So it is often a system where we have to operate by remote control. And over the last several years, we've developed networks of stringers, of informants, of snitches, whatever you want to call them, people who phone us in or bring in pieces of video that they've gathered all over the country.

And one of the main challenges we face is trying to verify this information and try and double and triple check that it's accurate. And that has been one of the main challenges that we've been struggling with.

Showing gruesome footage

John Burns
New York Times
I think that the extent of violence in Iraq is well-understood by even the casual reader of an American newspaper or the casual viewer of an American nightly newscast. That doesn't concern me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, another thing I noticed in watching your documentary this weekend, when I got a screening copy, was that you have a lot of gruesome footage there. You have a lot of mutilated bodies, body parts. How much of that appeared -- how much of any of it appeared on the network news? How much of that real face of war do viewers see?

RICHARD ENGEL: I personally don't think they see enough of it, and that's not because I want to put anything gratuitously violent on the air. But this documentary is very different from the normal, very fast, tightly edited pieces that I put on NBC News.

It is much slower. It's very raw. There is no story line, no characters, and no ending, really. It just shows what the war has looked like for me from the ground up.

And often for Iraqi families and for me, that means seeing bodies, having friends who are kidnapped or killed, and I think it reflects what have been the horrors of war.

Also, it shows some times that have been truly heroic, wounded soldiers carrying wounded soldiers out of battle. And I think these extreme situations in war time brings out the very best and the very worst in human nature. And often times in war, in this particular one, it's the worst.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Burns, what do you think about to what extent people are seeing that face of the war?

JOHN BURNS: Well, there's no doubt that the editors at the New York Times and other principal newspapers and at the major American television networks exercise their judgment in sparing the reader or the viewer some of the worst violence.

And I think it's probably as well that they do. They do the same thing, after all, when violence occurred elsewhere in the world and, indeed, when it occurs on American streets. That doesn't trouble me a great deal.

I think that the extent of violence in Iraq is well-understood by even the casual reader of an American newspaper or the casual viewer of an American nightly newscast. That doesn't concern me.

I do want to say, if I may, listening to what Richard said about the difficulty of going out, it is, of course, much more difficult for television crews to get out and about in Baghdad because of the bulk, if you will, of a television crew, where you've got to have a camera, which makes you very visible and very vulnerable.

It's more difficult for them than it is for us, where we can send a lone reporter out, who can, to some extent, operate sort of incognito, not completely. We have to be very careful about it. But if we want to go somewhere, we, generally speaking, can get there and we, generally speaking, can get there ourselves.

There are some cases where if we can't and where we do ask Iraqis to go for us always on a willing partner basis, but to make again the point I made earlier: If there's something important about the Iraq war, we get there. We tell the story. And I don't speak now only about the New York Times. I think it's equally true of the other principal American newspapers.

Understanding the dangers of war

John Burns
New York Times
If you're a reporter, if you're a foreign reporter, you want to be where the big story is. And the compensation for the risks taken is, of course, being there on a very big story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, I do want to ask you, you mentioned that your documentary is a sort of personal take on the experience. And you say in the film that everyone there goes through four stages of sensibility, I guess, in experiencing or covering the war. Tell us a little bit about that and where you're at now.

RICHARD ENGEL: Well, it's something of a theory. I'm not sure if every reporter goes through this. But I've noticed this, in my own experience, that stage one, when I first arrived, I was perhaps more naive and ambitious about the covering of the war. I thought, "I'm invincible. I'm Superman. Nothing is going to happen to me."

Then, as the conflict goes on, I thought, "Well, this really is dangerous. Something might happen to me."

And then you move into stage three. "I've been here a long time. Something is probably going to happen to me."

And then stage four, "This is it. I've used up all of my luck, so I'm going to die here unless I leave." And I think, over the past few years, I've definitely put myself in stage three; occasionally, on bad days, I'll even dip into stage four, and that is something that concerns me.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Burns, does it take a personal toll on you? Do you feel that in a personal way, having been there all these years?

JOHN BURNS: Look, it would be foolish and vainglorious of me to say, you know, "We don't feel it." Of course we feel it, and we should feel it.

I tell newly arrived New York Times correspondents that they should have no illusions about where they are and no illusions about the potential price that they may pay for being there.

But it needs to be said that covering a war and covering a war of the significance that this war has assumed for the United States is an exhilarating affair. It's a tragic affair. But if you're a reporter, if you're a foreign reporter, you want to be where the big story is. And the compensation for the risks taken is, of course, being there on a very big story.

You know, I'm in my sixties. I'm 62 years old. I feel myself -- and I don't want to be falsely humble here -- but I feel myself quite lucky and quite privileged, in a way, to be still there on the front line of this war, because that's where I want to be as a reporter.

We know what the risks are. And if things turn out against us, as I've often thought, in the words of Captain Scott, the British explorer who went to the South Pole in 1912 and died with all his men on the way back, he wrote in his diary on his last night before he died, which is now in a museum about a mile from where I'm sitting in Cambridge, at the Scott Polar Institute.

He said, "We took risks. We knew we took them. And now that things have turned out against them, we have no cause for complaint." I don't want to over-dramatize this, but we go there willingly. We know what the risks are. And we take them willingly. If we didn't, we would leave, and we could leave at any time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And I understand both of you are headed back pretty soon. Thanks for joining us. John Burns of the New York Times, Richard Engel of NBC.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you.