On 4th Anniversary, Editors Say War is Taking Toll — But Vow to Keep Covering

By: Joe Strupp

As the Iraq War enters its fifth year this week, newspapers that have been covering the conflict closely say the pool of reporters willing and able to report on the war is shrinking, budget constraints remain an issue, and the dangers continue to mount.

Still, top news outfits, from The New York Times to Associated Press, remain committed to covering the war, with no immediate plans for cutbacks, despite the toll it is taking, although finding fresh recruits can be difficult. “The pool of people who can go is smaller,” admits Susan Chira, New York Times foreign editor since 2004. “Some of the people are cycling out now and are ready to stop now. They are ready to move on.”

The AP’s international editor, John Daniszewski, contends the coverage is wearing people out. “It is a toll,” he said about the impact the war has had. “There are people who have gone there and are not so willing to go back, have apprehensions about going back. We have enough volunteers, but it is now often people on their first or second tour, not their fourth or fifth.”

But Phil Bennett, managing editor at The Washington Post, declares: “I have never seen a more sustained example of heroism among journalists than the number of volunteers who are willing to go to Iraq.”

Among those leaving Baghdad is longtime New York Times reporter John Burns, who has spent the entire war in Iraq and plans to take over the paper’s London bureau this summer. Chira also noted Dexter Filkins, another longtime Times fixture there, who left last fall for a fellowship. She said the paper has maintained a pool of six to seven reporters who serve anywhere from six to 12 weeks at a time. Usually three to four reporters are based in the Baghdad bureau at any one time.

“We still have people who want to go and we are having something of a shifting of the guard,” Chira said. “We will keep the same level of coverage.” But she stressed that the safety factor is the worst it has ever been. “It is more dangerous than it was four years ago. When I was first foreign editor, people could go out to restaurants, they could drive over land in the country, they could go into Fallujah.”

At the Los Angles Times, recent changes also have occurred with personnel in Iraq in an effort to give long-timers a break, according to Foreign Editor Marjorie Miller. She said the paper will keep a three-person bureau in Baghdad as it has in the past, but recently brought in three new people for those posts.

Recently replacing longtime Baghdad correspondents Borzou Daragahi, Solomon Moore and Louise Roug are Tina Sussman, Alexandra Zavis and Ned Parker. In a sign of the impact the war has had on the Times staff, all three of the new hires came from other news organizations, not internal departments.

“We use to be able to staff it with people already on staff, but we have used so many of those we have to hire new people,” said Miler, who estimates at least 40 Times reporters have served in Iraq. “We have already used people who are able and wiling to move there. Others will do a few weeks there but most have family issues and don’t want to be war correspondents.”

Miller also said the budget impact is unavoidable, noting that 25% of the foreign budget has gone to Iraq reporting. “My last four hires were through Baghdad,” she said. “Before Iraq, I would have gone outside the paper for other bureaus. Because we have so few hires, they have to go to Baghdad.”

The Los Angeles Time also has had to increase the use of Iraqis who work for the Baghdad bureau, Miller said, estimating that at least 25 such employees are on the job there. Another major cost, she said, was security. “We keep doing what we are doing, but we only wish it would go away,” Miller said of the story. “It is a humanitarian disaster and there is the rest of the world [to cover]. There are other things we might be doing in Latin America or Asia if we were not in Iraq.”

At The Washington Post, longtime Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmeyer recently left after several years in the bureau to cover Cairo. Managing Editor Bennett said the paper continues with an average of three to four people in Baghdad, but says it is tougher on reporters than in the past. “It takes a real toll on people and that is a real challenge,” said Bennett, who estimates about one-fourth of the Post’s reporters have gone to Iraq at some point.

For AP, which has seen four staffers killed since the invasion occurred in 2003 — two in just the past four months — the fifth year of the war will likely include an increase in its deployment, which currently sits at 85 staffers in Baghdad with its mix of print, photo, video and audio journalists.

International Editor Daniszewski, who was in Baghdad writing for the Los Angeles Times during the initial invasion, is among many editors who had expected the conflict to be mostly resolved by now. “The feeling of most of the press corps then was it would be a story about rebuilding and reconstruction,” he recalls. “I’m surprised the war has lasted this long.”

McClatchy, which took over Knight Ridder’s prominent Baghdad bureau when it bought the chain last year, recently installed its third Baghdad bureau chief, transferring two-year bureau leader Nancy Youssef to Pentagon coverage and adding Leila Fadel, who had worked at the chain’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Veteran Iraq reporter Tom Lasseter, meanwhile, relocated to Moscow, said Mark Seibel, managing editor/international.

Former Baghdad bureau chief Hannah Allam, now based in Cairo, recently returned to Baghdad, Siebel said, to help fill in with coverage.

But Seibel said the real impact has been on the dozen or so Iraqi citizens who work for the bureau, doing everything from translating to writing stories. He said many of them have been forced to flee the country, making local staffing scarce. “Many are refugees,” he said. “We had a staffer who had to resign because she was getting threats, two left the country because of sectarian violence. The Iraqi staff is just as likely to be affected as anyone else in Iraq.”

Still Seibel said the Baghdad bureau will remain staffed with at least two full-timers. “When we started out, we never thought we would be doing this this long,” he said.

Bill Spindle, Middle East editor for The Wall Street Journal, also noted a limit on the use of local Iraqis. He said the internal violence has restricted where some of their workers can travel. “In the last six to eight months, the local staff has realized they can no longer go into some of these neighborhoods,” he said. “It is even more difficult for [full-time] correspondents to go out, just safety concerns.”

Spindle said the Journal usually keeps just one full-time reporter in its Baghdad bureau, but often not 100% of the time. “He is in and out, sometime we don’t have anyone there,” he explained. “But we will have people in on embeds.” He said the biggest cost is security. “It gets harder and harder to operate there,” he said. “More expensive.”

Then there are those papers, such as The Boston Globe, that have pulled out completely on full-time Iraq bureaus since the war began. The Globe, which closed its Baghdad bureau in 2005, is in the process of closing all foreign bureaus in a budget-cutting move.

“We have tried to offset that with trips from Washington and [coverage from] other non-Iraq-based staffers,” said James Smith, Globe foreign editor, who said the paper had five people in Iraq at one time. “There was tremendous psychological and physical wear and tear on staffers as they have gone in and out, it is very draining.” He also pointed to the death in 2003 of Globe writer Elizabeth Neuffer, who died in a car accident outside Baghdad. “If it was just costs alone, we would have stayed,” he said.

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