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The five speakers on stage at Wheeler (L-r) Anna Badkhen, San Francisco Chronicle; Jackie Spinner, Washington Post; Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism; John Burns, New York Times; and Mark Danner, UC Berkeley journalism professor and contributor to The New York Review of Books. (Photos by BAP)

Top Iraq war correspondents discuss risking their lives to tell a truth that few want to hear — or believe

– "I have lost all faith in the media," says the National Guardsman narrating "The War Tapes," the first war documentary to be filmed entirely by soldiers. A portion of the as-yet-unreleased film about the Iraq war was screened for a UC Berkeley audience last night (March 13) as part of a forum titled "Iraq: Reports from the Frontlines," introduced by San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein. That soldier's sentiment was the backdrop for the discussion that followed among five influential journalists who have reported extensively on the Iraq war — and judging by occasional bitterness-tinged heckling, more than a few audience members shared the soldier's viewpoint. 

Iraq behind the headlines
Journalism dean Orville Schell's gripping piece "Baghdad: The Besieged Press," slated to appear April 6 in the New York Review of Books, is available now from Salon.com and TomDispatch.com. In it, Schell visits U.S. reporters holed up in fortified compounds and increasingly cut off from the hideous reality just outside in Baghdad.

The discussion centered on two deeply polarizing questions. Given the extreme danger of the situation in Iraq, are journalists in Iraq even able to cover the real story? And are they getting the story "right"? Responding to moderator Orville Schell, dean of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and just back from a trip to Iraq, the four participants offered rather different perspectives on both questions. Meanwhile, two reporters who were not present cast long shadows over the journalistic exchange: the constant deadly threat faced by reporters was symbolized by Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor freelancer kidnapped in Baghdad in January and still missing, while the damage to journalistic reputations and credibility was embodied by controversial former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Straight from the fog of war

The segment of "The War Tapes" proved the perfect introduction to the evening's topic. According to forum participant John Burns, the New York Times' Baghdad bureau chief and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner,  this is "the single best document you could see. It captures, in ways we as embedded reporters could not, the misery and futility of this war."

Directed by Deborah Scranton via Internet uploads and instant-messaging, the film will be released to theaters in July; its producers are those behind "The Fog of War," the Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara. To create the film, five soldiers volunteered to bring small digital cameras with them on deployment, often mounting the cameras inside their HumVees and on tanks as they patrolled. (One of them was New Hampshire National Guard Sergeant Steve Pink, who joined Scranton to address last night's audience briefly.) The edited result of more than 100 hours of footage is a never-before-seen account of war from the warriors' perspective: at times terrifying, ribald, tedious, and heart-wrenching.

Training in cold New Hampshire before being deployed, troops in camouflage uniforms make angels in the snow as the cameraman giggles and jokes that of course "we're ready for the desert." Later, when mortars land at Baghdad's Camp Anaconda a little too close for comfort, both the camera and the soldier-narrator's voice shake from adrenaline as he tells how Anaconda is the most heavily attacked base in Iraq. An Iraqi selling a pornographic pin-up of a woman is asked if he has any "with farm animals." A Lebanese-born, Arabic-speaking National Guardsman, one of the cameramen,  chats easily with the young boys who gather around the soldiers whenever they are out of their vehicles. The interview of that soldier's mother at home in the United States, and her tearful incomprehension of how she could have gotten her son out of a civil war zone to emigrate, only to have him volunteer to go fight in another such war, is one of the segment's most memorable.

The film's footage of the immediate aftermath of a car bomb near a checkpoint is visceral. Such bombs are a daily hazard in Iraq and dutifully noted in U.S. newspapers, but few Americans have seen the gruesome reality as revealed in "War Tapes." The camera pans slowly over the blackened shell of the vehicle and the charred upper torso of a man, head burned beyond recognition, lying halfway outside the open car door in a pool of blood. In numb tones, the soldier holding the camera tells us what that blood and flesh smells like and describes how crisped skin fragments are crunching under his feet.

A ticket to the adrenaline roller coaster

Watching the film gave the Berkeley audience the tiniest taste of what it feels like to be in Iraq right now: hearts taking off like jackrabbits when artillery fire suddenly pings the windshield right in front of you, stomachs turning at the sight of the remnants of violent death. And yet, "when you travel with the U.S. military you only get one part of the story," reminded participant Anna Badkhen, a Chronicle staff writer who has reported from wartime Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Iraq. "You can't say on a raid, 'Excuse me, I'm just going to talk to this person, can you wait 10 minutes' … We never find out what the Iraqis are feeling."

jackie Spinner speaking
'The American public, it seemed, had no idea why I was in Iraq. It is not that I wanted their praise.…I don't run from controversial stories just because bloggers or anyone else might take a crack at me. After all, the very principle of free speech that sent me to Iraq gives people the right to criticize what I write. I'm fair game.'
-Jackie Spinner, writing in her memoir about Iraq, "Tell Them I Didn't Cry"

Jackie Spinner, Washington Post staff writer and author of "Tell Them I Didn't Cry," an account of a year spent in Baghdad starting in May 2004, disagreed that reporters in Iraq are prevented from telling both sides. "I think we're getting 90 percent of the story," she said. When disbelieving guffaws rang out from the audience, she retorted, "Excuse me, have you been there?" She went on to explain how when Washington Post reporters can't go out, "we rely on this whole cadre of Iraqi stringers and translators, who in the case of the Washington Post are Post-trained journalists."

Those skeptical of this reliance should take the time to read Spinner's book, which describes in detail the tight bond between the Post's Baghdad correspondents and the Iraqis who risk their lives to work for the bureau, often keeping their jobs a secret even from family members lest the insurgents kill them in retaliation. Before the situation in Iraq turned even more dangerous, Spinner — a UC Berkeley journalism alumna — would dress in a headscarf and full-length abaya and ride to the scene of an incident. There she would wait while her translator brought her an Iraqi who she could interview inside the tinted windows of the car. Later, she could not always go herself, but would be in constant contact with the Iraqi staff, guiding what questions they asked and pressing for details of the source's mannerisms, hesitations, and context.

And yet, "it's never quite the same as going yourself," admitted Burns. He invoked the Carroll kidnapping and reminded the audience that almost 70 journalists, the majority of them Iraqi, have already been killed in these three years of the Iraq war — roughly the same number as died during the decade-plus duration of the Vietnam War. (Three Iraqi journalists were shot dead just in the past seven days.) Explaining the bind he is in as bureau chief, deciding whether getting a particular story is worth the risk to his staff, he asked, "Am I going to commit my colleagues or myself into a situation which can very easily turn catastrophic for us? My pledge to my editors is that everyone who goes comes home safe, although it's more a prayer than an expectation at this point."

Mark Danner, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, was the most pessimistic of the group, although he tried to couch his disagreement respectfully. "I think it's important to distinguish between good journalism, which is being done there, and conditions that are overwhelmingly difficult," said Danner, who has made three trips to Iraq and is the author of 2004's "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror" and "The Iraq War: The Secret Way to War," forthcoming this year.

"The story we're getting is very limited because the risks are so great," Danner concluded. "[The violence] has to have an effect, it has had an effect, and I think we should recognize that."

When no news is good-enough news

Whether journalists are getting even that limited story right depends on what "right" means to the reader. Most soldiers, including those who made "The War Tapes," and conservatives believe that the media focuses on the war's negative aspects, to the exclusion of all the good works  being done in Iraq. When Schell, Burns, and Spinner were interviewed on KQED's Forum program the morning of the Berkeley talk, one caller to the program excoriated the media for failing to report sooner on the torture and degradation by U.S. soldiers of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which he claimed were known about for a year beforehand.

Spinner defended her coverage, even in the face of e-mails like one she recalled receiving that told her she should have died that day in Fallujah, instead of the marine whose death she reported. "The Iraq war has so polarized this country. That's why you hear hisses and boos and claps, depending on what you're saying — people want to hear journalists reaffirm their previously held beliefs about the war," Spinner said. "And I don't do that. I simply speak what I see. And I'm sorry if that's offensive to people, but I'm a journalist."

Not just a journalist but an "old-school journalist," she clarified in response to Schell's first question about the evolutions of the panelists' views of the war. "I went to Iraq not because I was for or against it, but because there was a war," Spinner said, adding she believes it is inappropriate for journalists to take sides publicly, as they are supposed to write from a neutral stance.

John Burns speaking
'We've been fairly inventive in ways of getting around the security situation. We do go out. This is not hotel journalism.…All of the elements that are crucial to the American public to reach its decisions about this war, are accessible in the coverage that they are getting from the principal newspapers and television networks. Would we like to do more? Yes we would.'
-John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief
for the
New York Times

The others were not so circumspect. "I've covered so many conflicts, and seen so many unnecessary deaths, and I thought this war could have been avoided," Badkhen answered Schell. Danner's quip that "I thought it was a terrible idea at the beginning, and then I really turned against it," got a big laugh and a round of applause, but he had the home-team advantage: many in the audience had likely attended his pre-invasion debate in January 2003 with hawkish journalist Christopher Hitchens over whether war with Iraq would make America safer.

Meanwhile Burns, who began reporting from Iraq long before the U.S.-led invasion, said that he had at first believed that Iraqis would be better off if the violent tyrant Saddam Hussein were toppled. He had been "mesmerized by Saddam Hussein's brutality into looking through a narrow glass," he admitted, and had "missed the fractured society beneath the tyranny," a society that is now looking as if it is about to degenerate into a bloody, decades-long, unresolvable civil war.

One would think that when Burns — with his 40-year career of reporting on wars — says somberly that this war does not look as if it's going to turn out well for either Iraq or America, that would be a somewhat persuasive message across political-party lines. And yet he too hears constantly that the New York Times is not reporting the "good news" coming out of Iraq. In that morning's KQED interview, he asked rhetorically whether Americans would prefer a "good-news newspaper," like the Soviet Union's Pravda was, before explaining that journalism's nature "inclines us somewhat more to look at things that go wrong than things that go right."

The torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by U.S. soldiers was unarguably the biggest single story of the war today, Burns said, calling it "an arrow in the back of every American soldier who goes to Iraq."  And yet the Abu Ghraib incidents are not representative of what the U.S. armed forces in Iraq do — building schools, repairing sewage lines, helping Iraqi victims of suicide bombings — and Americans have every reason to be deeply proud of their armed forces in Iraq, he emphasized. "Is that adequately reflected in what we write? I'm afraid to say it isn't…if 52 people get killed in a succession of bombings as they were yesterday in Sadr City in Baghdad, that's a major story. You can't ignore it. We have to dedicate resources to it," Burns explained. "Now,  whilst that was going on I have no doubt that there were thousands of American troops doing things of direct and immediate benefit to the Iraqi people."

Weapons of mass distraction

Schell asked Burns if he thought whether the reporting done by fellow New York Times' reporter Judy Miller on Saddam's presumed weapons of mass destruction — reporting that was later shown to be based on manufactured and erroneous intelligence from sources with motives of their own — had overly greased America's path to war. Burns replied at length how Miller was not alone in being duped, that he too could not forgive himself for having failed "to follow through on my own precepts. I thought this man was … a trickster of the highest order," he said. "Why did it never cross my mind that he didn't have them but wanted us to believe that he did?"

Danner swooped in to suggest that the nonexistence of those WMDs had muddied the waters and caused people to forget the original argument, which was still worth debating: "The real question was whether [Saddam's] possession of those weapons justified the war to remove the regime," he argued, adding his contention, which he has held since before the invasion, that American security would almost certainly be degraded by a preemptive war. The WMDs "were in essence a pretext, a symbol," he said. "The war was not under debate" — only the reason for it was.

According to Danner, a government that wants to make a case for war based on classified intelligence  is in a very powerful position, "because it can dole out those bits of information to a scoop-hungry press like little sweetmeats," Danner said, gesturing as if teasing a dog at a dinner table. "That's essentially what Judy Miller was made into, a kind of seal who jumped up for these tidbits." After the laughter subsided, Danner acknowledged that other journalists fell into the same subservient trap as Miller, and that she was simply the highest-profile seal. 

Anger management

Schell's last question to the assembled journalists was which story from Iraq they would most like to cover if security were not an issue. Spinner quickly said that in an ideal world, she would like to get at the heart of the insurgency, that she cannot understand why the foreign fighters who come to Iraq are tolerated by the Iraqis. Nor can the Iraqis she interviews understand why the world's strongest military power has not yet vanquished the insurgents.

"That is the story," agreed Burns. "Three years into this war and we still don't know who the insurgents are or how they are structured."

Danner detoured back to answer a previous question of Schell's: whether the anger felt toward the media by the U.S. public — including some in the Berkeley audience — was displaced anger that "really wants to be directed at the government, but since the government isn't listening, it gets directed at journalists?"

Journalists, Danner argued, have indeed been getting enough of the story both in Iraq and in Washington, DC, and getting it right. "The conceptual problem has to do with information versus politics," he said.

His argument, essentially, was that the Bush Administration has hijacked reality, and that a confused and angry public has turned to shooting the messenger. Although almost as soon as the invasion commenced, journalists were reporting accurately that the military did not have enough troops to secure the cities — a fact later admitted by figures as high up as Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq — "the problem is that no consequences have flowed from that. No one's been fired, no more troops have been sent.…And that's true of torture, of a lot of other policy failures of this administration," said Danner. "We know about them, yet we keep looking to the press to say, 'You have to prove it, you have to prove it!'"

But not only does the public no longer trust that any such proof from the media can be conclusive, it also sees that nothing happens after it is published, rendering the "truth" of such proof impotent, Danner concluded. "The problem is that this next step after revelation, which is investigation and then punishment — or expiation and political change  — hasn't happened."

The evening  concluded on this glum note, as Schell deemed it too late to take any questions from the audience. The five journalists were thus left unasked whether they agreed with the spirit of this quotation from Spinner's book — "I didn't become a journalist to serve my country; I became a journalist to serve the story. Dying for my country was not as noble as dying for the truth" — or the follow-up question:

Is it worth risking your life for a truth your countrymen choose not to believe?

The forum was part of the Herb Caen/San Francisco Chronicle lecture series, presented by UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, The San Francisco Chronicle and The World Affairs Council.

Further reading



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