‘The Last Embed’ Fears Press Abandoning Iraq News

By: Dennis Anderson

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson was the only daily newspaper editor to be embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq. We profiled Anderson, editor of the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif., back in March and then he wrote an article for E&P about his first days over there in May with a National Guard unit. Here Anderson writes about his return to the U.S.

As a suburban newspaper editor I had the opportunity to go into a war zone with soldiers from my home town and to see the strangeness of the world unfold for them as it opened, the bloom of a deadly reality in full flower. I wish I could have stayed the whole tour, but I found myself there in a strange window of time — after most journalists had gone home, and before many will no doubt return.

Despite the uncertainty and the dangers, if a reporter is determined to understand, then one must go. The fundamentals of providing a home audience, broadcast or print, with an accurate and robust picture simply pre-supposes that the press must be where the big story is.

It’s worth remembering that when the Rangers got killed in Somalia, there was no American press on the scene. They had already abandoned the story. Mark Bowden’s historic “Blackhawk Down” reporting was a reconstruction completed only because he troubled himself to do it. But the consequences of the “Blackhawk Down” episode ranged much further and wider than the deaths of the Rangers. It changed a world’s perception of America’s concept of commitment. It is that perception that our soldiers are facing, sometimes to their dying breaths, in the street to this day.

As I returned home, the wretched ambushes appeared to mount daily in their intensity. My own return after about five weeks in Iraq was required. Finally, a publisher wants his editor to be at his desk, doing the editor job, as opposed to the embedded reporter job.

Before I left, I had the opportunity to go on an eight-day, 1,400 mile convoy that traversed Basra in the south, to Bagdhad and slightly to the west, and then we dropped down to the border of Saudi Arabia to recover armored vehicles that broke down on the path of invasion.

My convoy threaded through some stray shots and around some land mines and moved in time between the first few days of the fatal ambushes in Fallujah. We were on our way to Fallujah the night the first ambushes occurred, and we were sidetracked while the military police shut down the roads. We spent the night “wagons circled” between a couple of Abrams tanks that the 1st Division, “Old Ironsides,” provided for our road security.

How dangerous is Baghdad?

Danger is a checkerboard. You can be in the middle of it, and you move a square down the board and you are just out of it.

In Bagdhad, there may be little evidence of war in the street. But if two soldiers are assassinated, that is war enough for any American mother, father, relative, or consumer of daily news.

Reporters going where the news is tend to step on the square that is the “danger” square on the checkerboard. In that way, reporters share the dangers of soldiers.

So, that Brit aspiring war correspondent that got tagged on the steps of the museum recently? Just rotten luck, and there’s no other way to see it. No one in the Iraqi underworld/underground is bothering to inform us where the dangerous squares are located on any given day.

For troops, and press, this must be extremely stressful. And there really is no exit from the checkerboard.

The American troops wear uniforms, are easily identified, and stand as one congressman put it, “in a kind of shooting gallery.” And it is terrifying that the cost of waging war presumptively to make America safer comes with the awful “road tax” of exposing our soldiers to such daily jeopardy.

How dangerous is it? It’s a lottery. It reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s terrifying short story, “The Lottery.” As the sole recipient of the slip of paper with the “X” drawn from the box, the woman stares at it in horror and says, “It’s not fair.” As Jackson wrote, “And then they were on her.”

That’s the dread of this time. My sense is that we can help the Iraqis bring their post-Saddam world to a degree of order, but that everyone from the White House to the GIs in the street have to be as alert and smart as they can be. I hope that will be the case. The outcome, like the future, is utterly unknowable.

As for an editor contemplating sending reporters to “the arena”: It is simply the world’s biggest continuing story. Can the United States bring anything better to an area that was already sandbagged with one of the world’s worst governments? The question again remains open.

While I was traveling with my unit, however, I never encountered another print reporter. Everybody had already “disembedded” and shipped home. That’s a generalization, but there’s truth in it. I saw no press at Camp Doha near Kuwait City, the Centcom HQ. And no reporters moving with units heading south to redeploy. They had already gone away. When the ambushes nudged up the daily death count, Fox News returned to Bagdhad, and so did the other crows looking for the right fence to land on.

But understanding for an informed reading public only comes, I think, from a large foreign correspondency, and as we know, that rank of American journalists has been shrinking for years. The wire services do a more than adequate and sometimes epic job, but wouldn’t more newspapers want to see and know for themselves?

As for the level of danger, the determined in the professional corps of press correspondents simply must be willing to undertake that daily dance with the bitch goddess in charge of the odds.

The American press never should have left the Somalia story, and if Iraq too eventually “falls to the back pages” it will be at the peril of the American public and policy makers as well. We see how the policy makers make large “category” mistakes when they do not believe they are under the continuous scrutiny of an active press. In like fashion, Afghanistan threatens to become a “lost story.” It’s a treasure trove for the right national reporters who would propose to examine what exactly has been accomplished and what are we failing to achieve.

I wish I were back at Camp Victory between missions, simply working on the most fascinating story of a lifetime, with my too senior, too smart, and too settled citizen soldiers who daily roll into harm’s way.

I hope to return if they are still running missions past Labor Day. It might be a matter of taking some vacation time and throwing the cost of ticket on a credit card, because I’ve used up about all the daily suburban newspaper time an editor can devote to a single story. But it is a great story.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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