The Hot Topics at Overseas Press Club Awards

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By: Joe Strupp

Six months into his editorship of the Los Angeles Times, following one of the biggest upheavals in the paper’s history, Jim O’Shea looked relaxed Thursday night at the Overseas Press Club dinner in Manhattan. And why not? His paper was being honored with four of the coveted awards for foreign reporting, well more than any other news outlet.

“I love it,” he says of his time on the job, adding that recognition for his staff “shows a commitment to doing [foreign reporting], despite all of our troubles.” Asked about Sam Zell, the incoming owner of Tribune Co., which owns the Times, O’Shea called him “a very entertaining, important guy. He has said he really believes in investment — investment in the future.”

Apparently, this week’s announcement of a buyout offer that may cut Times staff by 150 did not affect O’Shea’s view of the future. “I’m very hopeful,” he said, sipping a glass of red wine prior to dinner. Aside from the buyout, have there been any other surprises? “Are you kidding,” he shot back. “A surprise a day, But it is all great stuff.”

Like most at the dinner, however, O’Shea, speaking with Times Iraq veteran correspondent Borzou Daragahi, noted the difficulties in covering the war as year five unfolds. “Full-service coverage of Iraq is diminishing and that is not a good thing,” he said of most news outlets. “There have to be more news organizations making a commitment to coverage. It is the hardest war to cover since the Civil War. The danger is that, before, reporters were not targeted. Because of your affiliation, you are a target.”

Daragahi, who was in Iraq as recently as February, said the war remains a top story and needs the attention of as many news outlets as possible. “I think the coverage is good by the three big American papers and AP,” he said. “It is still extremely important, the one thing that still generates a lot of interest from readers.”

Sitting a few feet away, 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney was holding court with a few other guests, noting that during his time as a Stars and Stripes reporter in World War II, information was easier to get. “I don’t think they are getting much chance to do much reporting,” he said of the Iraq-based reporters, noting he covered action in Germany and France in his day. “We didn’t ask where to go and no one told us where to anyway, and I suppose now they tell them what to say.”

An outspoken opponent of the war, Rooney said “It was a huge mistake to get in, but I don’t think we can just pull out.”

Then there was Rita Cosby, recently departed from MSNBC, saying she wants to see more coverage of the soldiers in combat. A veteran of Afghanistan and other hot spot reporting, she says “It should get more coverage on American news. We can’t lose sight of Americans involved.”

Once inside the 36th-floor grand ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where attendees dined on asparagus napoleon, black bass and a dessert sampler, more Iraq discussion continued. At one table, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and veteran freelance photographer Ashley Gilbertson, known for his New York Times work in Iraq, offered dim views of life over there.

“It is a lot worse,” said Gilbertson, who had been in Iraq just a month ago and has spent much of the past five years there. “There is a lot more risk involved in getting the same story. You have to create almost a military operation to go out into what used to be a safe neighborhood.”

Simon noted the fact that more journalists (32) were killed in Iraq in 2006 than had died in the line of duty in any single country since CPJ began tracking such deaths. “Most are dying because they are being murdered, targeted and singled out,” he said.

Across the table was Mark Seibel, managing editor/international for McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He couldn’t help but take pride in the attention his reporters were receiving this week thanks to Bill Moyer’s Journal, which ran a special PBS program Wednesday on how most major news outlets failed to question the run-up to the war in 2003.

Moyers singled out McClatchy’s bureau, then run by Knight Ridder, for asking the tough questions early and often. “It is important for people to understand that it was possible to report out the Bush Administration’s allegations about Iraq,” Seibel said. “It was a failure of will and a failure of responsibility.”

Seibel went on to note that some of the reporting out of Iraq by some news outlets still does not go far enough to question assertions. “We find too many stories in the main sources of news that, when you read into the source, it is the U.S. Embassy,” he said. “Those are reporters based in Iraq who should find out what is true. I think reporters can go out, I think reporters do go out.”

At a neighboring table, sponsored by The New Yorker and not his employer, The New York Times, Dexter Filkins sipped wine and offered his view of Iraq coverage criticism. “If you look at the way public opinion has shifted, it is difficult to concur anything other than the fact that the coverage has had an impact,” said Filkins, who left Iraq in August for a fellowship at Harvard University, where he is writing a book about Iraq. He said he would be wiling to return, despite spending most of three years there already. “The same things that brought me there before, it is the biggest story of our lives,” he said.

Later, during his keynote address, New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof offered his assessment of war coverage and the state of news, with both concern and hope. “It has been very distressing recently,” he said, citing a recent poll that had journalists ranked below congress, business leaders and even the military in terms of positive public opinion. “On the bright side, we do poll better than Dick Cheney … I shouldn’t have said that, he’ll invite me to go hunting with him.”

He cited the increased push for reporters to testify in court cases, and often to reveal sources. “I had never faced a subpoena in my life,” he said. “In the past year, I have faced three of them.” But, he adds, “our problems in the news business are not entirely of other peoples’ making,” noting the same criticism of the run-up to the war that Moyers has spotlighted. “We did not do as well as we should have,” he stressed. “We were too much lapdogs and not enough watchdogs.”

Kristof, a former foreign correspondent, went on to push journalists to go beyond just reporting. “I don’t think we should be embarrassed if we have a little bit of advocacy, that we can do good. We have to serve the public good, not just the bottom line,” he declared. “The reality is that we do have an incredibly valuable spotlight.”

In addition, the columnist urged his colleagues to do more stories off the radar, and more in-depth. “We do a pretty good job of covering news that happens on any one day, particularly if it happens at a press conference,” he said. “We do need to try harder to cover stories that aren’t sexy and are the reasons we went into this profession. We in the news business have to think about our larger responsibility to society.”

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