It’s a particular pleasure to welcome Michael Hoyt to today’s Book Salon to discuss Reporting Iraq, which he edited. Mike is the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and the book he has brought to us is an wonderfully readable distillation of interviews conducted with 46 journalists for the 45th anniversary edition of CJR. The original report can be found here. With John Palattella, the literary editor of The Nation, our guest has done a remarkable job of weaving together the very personal voices of these reporters as they consider their experiences covering Iraq. The book also features photos which have not been published before and powerful examples of the best of photojournalism.
From the beginning of the book, I was struck by the clarity with which the journalists describe how wrong things were in Iraq even in the first days. And this honesty leads the reader to wonder why – so frequently – their reporting did not reflect the reality they saw before them or somehow deliver that reality to us.
Michael Massing offers one answer in his NY Review of Books look at several recent soldier first-hand accounts:
Most Americans simply do not want to know too much about the acts being carried out in their name, and this serves as a powerful deterrent to editors and producers.
The reporters in Reporting Iraq speak of the difficulties of telling the full story in the face of the “incredibly powerful spin machine” as Deborah Amos of NPR noted:
And Iraqis at that time believed that if they told us these things – that they were arrested in the middle of the night, that they were humiliated in front of their children, that U.S. soldiers came in to their wife’s bedrooms at three o’clock in the morning – if they told us these things, that somehow it would stop. And they told us and told us and told us and, of course, it didn’t stop. There was always a limit to what we could do in our reporting. And remember that in the early days we were up against an incredibly powerful spin machine that accused us of only telling the bad news and so it was very hard to get that information out.
"That information” was pretty horrific. Consider Peter Maass of the New York Times’ account of the movement of the Marines into Baghdad at the very beginning of the war. The Marines had dug in, camouflaged, by a road and bridge:
Civilians who were driving up the road to flee Baghdad over the bridge did not see any American military vehicles and thought “Fine, it’s safe” …So what happened was, civilian vehicles drove up this road and the marines shot them up…. But the marines, particularly the snipers who were on the front line, who were looking through scopes and could see faces in vehicles, knew what was going on. And the photographers were there. So the photographers heard the sniper commanders saying “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” The snipers would fire to disable the vehicles … Even though the orders were, let the snipers handle it, when the marines, the ordinary grunts, heard one or two shots from a sniper, they’d all open up. So, you had all these civilians, women and children, getting killed on that road.
Maass did report on these civilian shootings but others talk about hearing of abuses that never made it into their reporting. Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, whose comments in Reporting Iraq are often particularly thoughtful, notes:
Anyway, as far as reporting, Iraqis were telling me just fantastic stories about abuse, that I just kind of shook my head and blew them off. But I remember one guy was being so detailed about this stuff that I think I even wrote it down in my notebook – because it was remarkable and maybe the detail made me think: maybe there is something here. Like all of us, I didn’t follow up.
As I read Reporting Iraq, I sensed that many of the reporters themselves wonder why they did not “follow up.” Several mention coming home with PTSD and you begin to get a sense that many were not prepared for Iraq and what they saw there. They discuss the demands for “good news” and the criticism they faced when they reported accurately. Just as we are now hearing more and more of the psychological toll on so many US soldiers, the reporters too seem to be struggling to make sense of their experiences and their work – and the higher ideals of their profession.
My big worry is that the audience sometimes doesn’t know what they are missing and we as journalists didn’t always know what we were missing, because we were unable to function as we would anywhere else in the world. … You are unable to do the things you felt you should have been doing. And worry always was that we didn’t know how much we were missing. – Caroline Hawley, BBC
The one aspect of the book that I wish was expanded would be the discussion of Iraqi and Middle Eastern journalists — the original interviews did not include teams such as Voices of Iraq at Al Aswat Iraq or the staff of McLatchy’s Inside Iraq. There remains a distance between the American experience and Iraqi that is only really bridged by several of the freelance reporters and translators:
As an Iraqi, living inside Iraq, I cannot hear good news, and even if there is good news, you cannot hear it with the noises of explosions and the noises of the terrorists and the noises of the American military operations…. So there’s no good news about Iraq. There’s no good news as all. – Yusif Mohamed Basil, Translator Time (CNN)
In the introduction Hoyt and Palatella note that:
While reading the interview transcripts we were stuck by the fact that the conventions of journalism and the exigencies of reporting this war have sometimes muffled the passion and expertise of particular voices. We wanted to hear the unvarnished stories as well as the stories behind the stories, and, almost always, our interviewees were ready to talk.
The voices in Reporting Iraq are powerful and clear, the stories they have to tell are ones we need to hear – and ones we too often do not hear as readers and audience of these reporters. Reporting Iraq gets us thinking and listening closely as the reporters themselves explore these very issues — and that is a good beginning to a much needed conversation.