Papers Say They’re Ready to Cover Iraq War

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By: Joe Strupp

As a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq nears — perhaps next month — editors at most major daily newspapers remain confident they’ll be able to cover the war with journalists bunkered in Baghdad, embedded with troops, or posted elsewhere in the Middle East. Reporters, by all accounts, are tanned, rested, and ready. Many are also packing gas masks and protective suits, and some are even rewriting their wills.

Most major papers are relying on the embedding opportunities offered by the Pentagon to supplement coverage, with a number of them receiving as many as half a dozen slots for journalists to travel with the armed forces. Editors say the restrictions placed on embedded reporters — and concerns that journalists bonding with troops might hurt coverage – do not worry them.

“I don’t see any reason not to be close to the troops,” says Marjorie Miller, the Los Angeles Times‘ foreign editor, who expects to direct at least six embedded reporters and about 20 in the region overall.

While an invasion is far from inevitable, editors and publishers at several major papers have already started planning for coverage of a postwar Iraq — literally jumping the gun. A destructive attack followed by a U.S. occupation most likely would require beefed-up reporting in the Persian Gulf area for years.

“We will probably set up a mini-bureau there,” Colin McMahon, foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune, says of this scenario. “I would imagine five or six people there for several months, perhaps a year.”

“Our long-term coverage will depend on how long the war lasts,” says Dennis McGrath, nation/world editor for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, citing resources as a concern. “If it’s a short war, we can do more occupation coverage.”

Bill Spindle, Middle East editor at The Wall Street Journal, says the postwar shakedown “is much more our story than the fighting,” pointing to effects of a projected Iraqi regime change on oil prices, long-term Middle East stability, and the world economy.

Several editors told E&P, however, that they had not even begun to look that far down the road (a charge now being leveled at the Bush administration). But newspapers already making plans for postwar coverage include USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, The Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, The Miami Herald, and The Denver Post.

The road to, and from, Baghdad

As with past wars, many papers, such as The Oregonian in Portland, will rely exclusively on wires and syndicates for their invasion coverage. But for others, having everyone in place when the U.S. attack occurs is the chief concern. For many editors, that means placing the majority of their would-be war correspondents in the region as soon as possible — even as early as, well, today.

“We know there is a narrowing time frame,” says Philip Bennett, assistant managing editor/foreign for The Washington Post, who sent the first of as many as 20 reporters slated for war-related coverage into the Middle East a week ago. Like most major dailies, the Post will have a handful of reporters embedded with troops, others in surrounding countries, and at least one or two in Baghdad, Bennett says. The one hitch in that plan, however, is keeping access into Iraq open with limited visa availability. “We have only been able to get one writer in at a time,” he says.

Other editors admit to suffering from visa-related headaches. One of them, Susan Stevenson, deputy managing editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has three journalists in the region and hopes to have a reporter in Baghdad this week.

For some editors, reporting from Baghdad is not an attractive option once the war begins. “My instinct is still not to have anyone in Baghdad when the shooting starts,” says James Smith, the Globe‘s foreign editor. John Walcott, chief of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, agrees, calling it “too risky.”

But risks have not stopped Knight Ridder from organizing a team of about three dozen reporters from its newspapers for war coverage. The chain is putting people to work from its 32 dailies, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss. “Luckily, we have enough quality papers to make us well-positioned to think of how to cover prewar, war, and postwar realities,” says Joyce Davis, deputy foreign editor of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau.

The Pentagon’s ground rules for embedded reporters — which, among other things, may curtail reports even on completed missions — have led to little or no objection from editors contacted by E&P. (For contrary views from two celebrated war correspondents, read War Correspondent’s Advice and Schanberg’s Take.) Most seem more concerned about technical problems that could prevent filing stories in a timely manner.

“The ground rules as written are reasonable,” says Andy Alexander, Cox Newspapers Inc.’s Washington bureau chief. “The biggest question is how they will be applied in the field by local commanders.” Tim Connolly, international editor for The Dallas Morning News, calls the restrictions “pretty predictable and not terribly limiting.”

Knight Ridder’s Walcott plans to remain vigilant, however. “The main reason the Pentagon wants us here is to serve as a check against enemy disinformation,” he observes. “It would be foolhardy of the Pentagon to use propaganda of their own or censorship.” Lawyers and editors have looked through the ground rules, he says, and “we have told our reporters that they can not be arbitrarily censored by military in the field.”

Editors at every major newspaper who spoke to E&P say all reporters bound for the Iraq region were being given biological and chemical protective suits and that they had undergone some kind of military survival training.

Peter Gavrilovich, deputy nation/world editor at the Detroit Free Press, which is contributing reporters to Knight Ridder’s chainwide deployment, says some staffers are rewriting their wills prior to shipping out. “Some are anxious to cover the story; others are cautious about dangers,” he adds. “But readers and the industry expect that they will do their job correctly.”

Michelle Fulcher, foreign editor at The Denver Post, which has at least three reporters heading to the region, says, “When you see the biochemical suits, they make you think hard.”

Still, newsroom leaders such as Juan Vasquez, world editor at The Miami Herald, say reporters are not letting their concerns overtake their preparedness. “Our reporters have the necessary training, and are excited to go and cover the story,” he tells E&P. “Members of Congress are less prepared than the press on this issue.”

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