By: E&P Staff and The Associated Press
The intimate portrayal of a sergeant’s death during Army efforts to clear a Baghdad neighborhood has caused friction between the military and The New York Times, while sparking larger questions about war coverage and media-military relations.
In a statement Wednesday night, the Times denied a report that two of its journalists had lost their embedded status with the military in Iraq, but confirmed a serious dispute. The Houston Chronicle reports Thursday, however, “An Army officer in Baghdad said that as a result of the conversation between the top newspaper editor and the commander, some journalists for the newspaper still would be allowed to embed with military units while the pair involved in the Leija story would not.
“But a Times spokeswoman said the paper left the meeting with a different impression, saying a Times representative and military officials will meet to discuss embedding rules and that there was no word of any journalists losing the privilege.”
The incident had emerged on Wednesday when the Houston Chronicle reported that the two journalists working on the Times’ story were apparently threatened with expulsion from their embed status ? reporting from within the Army unit ? a move that puzzled military reporters who have worked in Iraq.
Press advocates were concerned about distrust between military leaders and the media, and other observers noted the power of the video that accompanied the story, capturing the day’s mix of confusion, fear and heroics.
The story released in Monday editions followed Staff Sgt. Hector Leija and his platoon on Haifa Street in Baghdad, part of a joint American-Iraqi effort on Jan. 24 to clear out militia fighters. Leija was shot in the head ? possibly by a sniper, perhaps accidentally by soldiers in the street.
A photo that ran with the story pictured the wounded Leija, 27, being carried away by stretcher. On a five-minute video that accompanied the story online, Leija explained the unit’s efforts in the early morning hours. The camera later captured soldiers’ discovery that he had been shot, their frantic efforts to save him and their recovery ? at considerable risk ? of the equipment left behind when he fell.
Once wounded, Leija was not clearly visible on the video. The unit learned hours later that he had died.
The status of the reporter and photographer was unclear. The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday that New York Times reporter Damien Cave and Getty Images photographer Robert Nickelsberg, working for the Times, had their status as embedded journalists suspended Tuesday by the Army corps.
The New York Times now disputes this. [See New York Times statement tonight, below.]
The Chronicle reported that the journalists broke agreed-upon rules for embeds that require them to contact the family of a soldier killed in action before publishing any photos, even though the family had been notified days earlier of Leija’s death.
The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation on Wednesday.
On Wednesday in Leija’s hometown of Raymondsville, Texas, behind a chain-link fence dotted with small American flags and red-white-and-blue ribbons, his family asked to grieve in privacy.
Town leaders said the family was upset by the story and the video that accompanied it. “It doesn’t matter how graphic it was. It’s just ? you’re taking them there,” said Elma Chavez, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, who had been asked to help arrange public funeral arrangements.
Others noted that the coverage captured the loyalty of soldiers to one of their leaders and the nitty-gritty of the challenges facing the U.S. military in Iraq. Punishing reporters who capture that kind of story is shortsighted, they said.
“The military is hurting themselves,” said Sig Christenson, a military writer for the San Antonio Express-News who has made four trips to Iraq during the war.
“They’re hurting the administration’s argument that these troops are making progress. And most of all they’re hurting the people who read these stories back home and are hungry to know what’s going on in Iraq.”
Christenson and others saw the tension as part of a larger conflict in which the administration and military are increasingly suspicious of reporting that shows things going wrong in Iraq ? in sharp contrast to the welcome the press received in the first weeks of the war.
“As this war’s gone on, there’s been a greater level of distrust building,” said James Crawley, a national security reporter for Media General News Service and president of the Military Reporters and Editors group.
Times executives also did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. However, the paper released a statement that said it was “our understanding is that there is no disembedding or suspension.”
The newspaper said Executive Editor Bill Keller spoke with Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno and agreed that the paper would write a letter to the sergeant’s family.
The statement said that the newspaper took “extraordinary” measures to let the family know an article and video were going to be published. It also said the newspaper acknowledged that the family was distressed and offered its regret.
Raymondville High School Principal Gilbert Galvan said a Times reporter had called him on Monday and asked him to show the family the story about the incident that killed their son.
Galvan said Leija’s brother read the article while he was there.
“They were upset. They were visibly upset. You could tell,” he said. “To us it’s easier to see it, but for the family it would be hard.
“Maybe in the future they’ll be able to see it differently, but it’s hard right now.”
The New York Times released the following statement tonight.
The New York Times is extremely sensitive to the loss suffered by families when loved ones are killed in Iraq. We try to write with respect and compassion for the inevitable losses. We believe the article was a portrait of Sergeant Leija’s courage under fire and showed how much his men respected and cared for him.
In terms of notification, we did not run the article or the photographs until Sergeant Leija’s family had been notified of his death. We also took extraordinary measures to make sure that the family knew an article and a video were going to be published. The military assured us that they would notify the family that an article and a video were going to be published.
We have run pictures of the wounded in the past, without objection from the military. We also tried to contact the family both by calling their home, where there was no answer, and by reaching out to a local school principal and a Congressional liaison office working with the family to make sure they knew how to contact us in case of any concerns.
Bill Keller spoke this morning with General Odierno. The General shared his concerns and the concerns of Sergeant Leija’s family. The New York Times agreed to write a letter to Sergeant Leija’s family explaining the process we go through to notify families and why we run the articles and photographs we do, and expressing regret that the family suffered distress. A representative of The New York Times Baghdad bureau and the military will meet soon to be certain that both sides are on the same page about the rules of the embed agreements.
Based on those two actions, our understanding is that there is no disembedding or suspension.