2003: The Year of the War Reporter

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By: Greg Mitchell

During the past year, E&P has published literally hundreds of stories, in print or online, about newspaper issues surrounding the run-up to the Iraq war, the rather brief war itself, and now the very deadly occupation. In the process, we broke numerous stories and often raised questions that, unfortunately, proved prescient.

Actually, our coverage began last fall, with the first article anywhere on two companies in England that train journalists for hazardous war duty. Our writer, Jim Moscou, revealed that few American newspapers or wire services had made use of this training, despite the almost certain dangers ahead. Subsequently, enrollment at those sites soared. For the Dec. 2, 2002, issue, Moscou returned to England to become one of the first U.S. journalists to enroll in a Chemical Warfare Awareness Training course.

By then, our first cover story on the subject had appeared, previewing war plans at one paper (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). That story was headlined: “People Get Ready: There’s a war a-coming.”

What follows is a nearly week-by-week recap of “A Year at the War,” as seen through the eyes of E&P writers. Dates reflect when the story appeared in print or at E&P Online.

Jan. 6: E&P reports first that the Pentagon is planning to greatly improve access for reporters in any attack on Iraq, far beyond the Gulf War and Afghanistan models.

Jan. 17: The New York Times becomes the first paper to announce it will put all its
war reporters through safety training. (E&P Online)

Jan. 27: Special issue of E&P devoted to “Unanswered Questions: In Grip of War Fever Has the Press Missed the Mark on Bush and Iraq?” In a lead piece, Greg Mitchell says Americans don’t seem to understand the urgency for the war, for which the press, as well as officials, deserve blame. In an interview, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame warns that with this war, as at the start with Vietnam, the public “feels it will be short and cheap,” and the press has done little to challenge this view. “There is as much lying going on as in Vietnam,” he asserts. An exclusive E&P survey of editorials in major papers finds that few advocate strong hawkish or dovish views on the war, with most stuck in the muddled middle.

Feb. 3: Reporters who have returned to the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad express fears about the coming attack but are determined to stick it out. Yes, it has an Internet Cafe, and it is bustling.

Feb.14: E&P is the first news outlet to obtain a copy of the Pentagon’s rules for embedded journalists. While offering wide access, the rules also restrict coverage under various circumstances and also mandate that military personnel only talk “on the record” to reporters. (E&P Online)

Feb. 17: A Pentagon spokesman tells E&P the total number of embeds could surpass 500, but critics charge that the arrangement will make the reporters “indebted” as well as embedded, too close to the military to provide impartial reports. But one military reporter replies: “What horse’s ass said that? Who in our business can argue for less access?”

Feb. 24: An E&P cover asks if the embedded reporters will “get the real story.” Joe Strupp reveals that hundreds of reporters are packing gas masks and protective suits, “and some are even rewriting their wills.” Editors remain optimistic about embedding, but celebrated war correspondent Chris Hedges raises a red flag: “When the military has a war to win, everything gets sacrificed before that objective, including the truth.” Already it was clear to him that “the broadcast media has been so corrupted it is just parroting” the military line.
Sydney Schanberg, another famous war journo, finds a lot to like in the embed program but observes it’s “hard for any reporter to be aggressively critical of someone you’re bonding with.”

March 7: At President Bush’s only press conference on Iraq, reporters (in pre-arranged order) asked timid questions, so E&P provides “13 Questions We Wished They’d Asked,” such as: ” You say one major reason for taking this action is to protect Americans from terrorism. How do you respond to the warnings of CIA Director George Tenet and others that invading Iraq would in fact likely increase terrorism?”

March 10: As Chris Hedges had hoped, some reporters are vowing to cover the war as “unilaterals” outside military control. But a Washington Post unilateral says: “The downside is, the American military shoots a lot of people. You might want to be on their side of the line when that happens.”
In an opinion piece, former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker notes that the press has not pressed Bush strongly enough on many questions, including: What kind of democracy allows its leaders to take it into war without fully specifying the reasons? And should a watchdog press present the supposed link between Iraq and al-Qaeda as if it had been demonstrated — because President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell say so — or point out that it hasn’t really been proven? The press “seems sometimes to be playing on the administration team rather than pursuing the necessary search for truth, wherever it may lead.”

March 14: Another E&P survey of the top newspapers now finds 18 in favor of war, while 24 want to give diplomacy more time to work. (E&P Online)

March 17: On the eve of likely war, editors are unsure if, and when, to order reporters out of Baghdad. A North Carolina paper, meanwhile, recalls its reporter from Kuwait after she carries the “embedded” notion too far by becoming engaged to a major in the Army unit she was assigned to cover.
Joseph Galloway, another famed war correspondent, offers a survival guide for embeds which includes these tips: “Do not lay down and go to sleep in proximity to any military vehicle. It will leave suddenly and run over you”; and “Be aware that the GI, the grunt, has a perverse and often black sense of humor. He will pull your chain, given the opportunity.”

March 24: The war has begun and editors and reporters tell us they are amazed how smoothly stories are being filed, considering the conditions. Many reporters wear chemical suits all day and night.
E&P‘s Ari Berman reveals that according to polls nearly half of Americans incorrectly think some or most of the 9/11 attackers were Iraqis; and four in 10 think Iraq possesses nuclear weapons. In an opinion column, Marvin Kalb worries that “patriotic reporting” will mean that the public will have to wait months for the true story of the Iraq mission.

March 27: The war is barely under way and already the media (mainly TV) has, E&P points out, gotten at least 15 stories wrong, ranging from reporting that Saddam was likely killed in the first night of shelling to announcing, for four days running, that Umm Qasr had fallen. (E&P Online)

March 31: Two journalists have already been killed in Iraq. But Sydney Schanberg warns that this is not Vietnam — yet. In an opinion piece, Joseph Galloway slams the useless press briefings at U.S. headquarters but calls the embeds heroes for risking life and limb near the front lines.

April 2: Although the war is now going well for the U.S., Chris Hedges says: “My suspicion is that the Iraqis view it as an invasion and occupation, not a liberation. This resistance we are seeing may in fact just be the beginning of organized resistance, not the death throes of Saddam’s Fedayeen. It reminds me of what happened to the Israelis after taking over Gaza, moving among hostile populations. It’s 1967, and we’ve just become Israel.” Also, we’ve been lulled into a belief that we can wage war cost-free: “We lose track of what war is and what it can do to a society. The military had a great disquiet about the war plans, as far back as last fall. The press did not chase down that story.”

April 7: Michael Kelly becomes the first U.S. journo killed in Iraq. The embeds are sending back gripping accounts but some critics point out that they have had almost nothing to say about civilian casualties. Craig Nelson of Cox Newspapers, one of the very few reporters left in Baghdad, offers a frank appraisal of difficulties in reporting on civilian casualties. We also catch up to embeds from small daily papers who are hanging with soldiers from their hometown military bases.
Two Newday employees, photographer Moises Saman and reporter Matthew McAllester are missing, along with freelance photog Molly Bingham (they turn up safe a few days later).

April 14: Baghdad has fallen and newspapers try to decide whether to pull out reporters or dig in for a hot aftermath.

April 21: In an opinion piece, Tom Wicker warns that the victory may not be as wonderful as it seems; Saddam has gotten away, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and not that many Iraqis are greeting Americans as liberators: “Yet many news organizations are now recalling reporters from Iraq, when it may well be that this story has only begun.”

April 28: The number of embeds has dropped from 800 to 190. Cox’s Craig Nelson, still in Baghdad, writes that trigger-happy U.S. soldiers risk alienating average Iraqis. Some reporters have also shown callous attitudes.

May 12: Chris Hedges urges newspapers to keep reporters in Iraq: “The deep divisions among the varying factions could be extremely hard to bridge…”

May 26: Craig Nelson recalls the rock that kept the journos rolling in Baghdad. Favorites included “Say a Little Prayer,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Shelter from the Storm.”

June 9: Some editors now admit the press did not question the Bush administration hard enough before the war. “Clearly, the reporting on this before the war may not have been critical enough,” says Knight Ridder’s bureau chief in Washington.

June 16: One reporter who helped sell the war with what turned out to be wildly exaggerated WMD reports was The New York Times‘ Judith Miller, says William E. Jackson Jr. Barton Gellman of The Washington Post has done a much more solid job.

June 23: The U.S. military won’t do it, so the Associated Press conducts a survey of civilian deaths in the Iraq war. It comes up with a total of more than 3,000 but calls this death count “fragmentary.”

July 14: As conflict in Iraq heats up again, few reporters remain to cover it. Some papers have reached their budgetary limits, while others need to give correspondents a breather. David Halberstam tells us, “It’s obviously a shallow outlook but the serious people with serious reporting come forward at this time.”

July 22: An E&P report on lack of coverage of the unusually high number of soldiers killed and injured in “accidents” draws a record e-mail response. (E&P Online)

Sept. 8: Better late than never, the AP dissects Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in February, a pivotal moment in the White House’s selling of the war – and finds that almost none of his charges and evidence have held up.

Sept. 15: One of the rare female embeds, Chantal Escoto of The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., describes her post-traumatic shock. She’s glad she went to war, but “it messed me up.”

Sept. 15: John Burns of The New York Times charges that some of the other Baghdad reporters before the war went soft on covering Saddam’s terror in exchange for access. (E&P Online)

Sept. 19: When Bush finally admits that there were no Saddam links to 9/11, why did only three of the 12 largest daily newspapers in the U.S. put this on their front page, and why did two did not mention it at all? (E&P Online)

Oct. 23: The press is offering a misleading idea of the cost of war in Iraq by only reporting the number of U.S soldiers killed under hostile fire instead of the much larger number of those killed by related causes. It also has carried only sketchy reports on the more than 2,000 wounded. (E&P Online)

Nov. 13: In two separate letters to the Pentagon, press groups claim that U.S. troops are harassing journalists in Iraq and sometimes confiscating equipment, digital camera disks and videotapes. (E&P Online)

Nov. 17: Perhaps partly due to prodding from this magazine, many more newspapers have switched over to listing the total death toll for U.S. soldiers and giving the many wounded far wider coverage.

Nov. 24: In its annual Features of the Year issue, E&P hails columnists and cartoonists who “went to war” in 2003.

Nov. 26: The Associated Press and the U.S. military exchange charges on who was to blame for incorrect accounts of two slain U.S. soldiers being “mutilated” in Mosul. (E&P Online)

Dec. 8: Recent incidents in Mosul and Samarra, now in dispute, show that the press still tends to take the U.S. military at its word — and asks questions later.

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