Into harm's way

As war looms in Iraq, journalists disagree about how best to cover the conflict - and live to tell the story

The first Gulf War was a fiasco. Journalists who covered it will tell you: Some of the dispatches they sent home in the winter and spring of 1991 are embarrassing to read today. Holed up in a hotel, herded into pens for military briefings, few of the roughly 1,400 who reported from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Operation Desert Storm had the military expertise to judge whether the press releases they were fed - about the successes of Patriot missiles, the accuracy of smart bombs - could possibly be true.

"We were being shown pictures of bombs going down chimneys," says Peter Ford, who covered the war from Dhahran for The Monitor. "Of course, we weren't shown pictures of the bombs that didn't go down chimneys. And we now know many more didn't than did."

Now, as war again looms in Iraq, all those who plan to be involved in its coverage - from the Pentagon to the press corps - are clear about one thing: No one wants a reprise of the last war.

Facing unprecedented dangers, correspondents (and their editors) are now weighing how best to cover the conflict. Some will go in with US troops; others are now making their way to Baghdad or Northern Iraq independently.

But all roads to Iraq are not equal.

This week, in newsrooms across the United States, editors, producers, and executives are debating where and how to send their reporters to cover what may be the end of Saddam Hussein's nearly quarter-century stranglehold on Iraq. Everybody wants this story.

And, of course, everybody wants their reporters to survive its telling.

"In this business, there's always the sense that you're telling them to be careful, but with a wink and a nod, because you want the story," says Bill Spindle, who edits Middle East news for The Wall Street Journal - including, until last February, stories by the late Daniel Pearl. "I spend a lot of time telling reporters, "We're not winking. We're not nodding. We really don't want you in [the] fighting.'"

If this war comes, those covering it will be in more danger than any wartime press corps in history. They'll face not only shooting, shelling, and gassing, but a host of relatively new perilous possibilities: kidnapping, use as human shields, and Hussein's much-debated nuclear, biological, and chemical arsenal.

"Frankly, I've been surprised by how many people signed up [to cover the conflict]," says Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news for ABC. Yes, it's a big story, he says, "but there's also more of a threat."

But these are only the most obvious dangers. Perhaps an even greater obstacle to balanced war coverage is a deep skepticism in the Arab world about the impartiality of Western, particularly American, journalists. "They have no experience of a free press to begin with," says Scott Anderson, who has spent the past year reporting from the Middle East for the New York Times Magazine. The idea that a journalist could be independent, he says, "is pretty alien to them."

What's more, argues Robert Wiener, who produced CNN's coverage of the first Gulf War from Baghdad, news organizations aren't helping to make the case that their reporting is unbiased when TV anchors - even on his own former network - wear accessories as blatantly patriotic as American-flag lapel pins. To do so, he says, "places CNN people in Baghdad and other spots which are potentially hostile to journalists in danger unnecessarily."

But this week, amid the visa forms, the gas-mask fittings, and the hundred logistical hurdles that precede covering such a story, many reporters are finding themselves most anxious about the quality of their coverage.

"I'm sure when the time comes I'll be as scared as anyone," says reporter Steve Inskeep, who plans to report the conflict for National Public Radio. "But right now I'm most worried about: Is this going to be a war that we're going to be able to cover in a meaningful way?"

To that end, scores of international journalists are now camped at the Al Rasheed and other hotels in Baghdad, struggling to extend 10-day visas until the conflict begins. An unknown number of others, including Monitor overseas correspondents Scott Peterson and Cameron Barr, are in neighboring countries awaiting visas for Iraq - or the weakening of national borders that could follow a US-led invasion.

Still others - 238 by Feb. 7, including the Monitor's Pentagon correspondent Ann Tyson - will have gone through weeklong courses at bases in Georgia and Virginia, where they're training to be "embedded," or follow individual US military units to war. Embedding is the Pentagon's answer to pervasive criticism of its recent press-handling policies, and officials have pledged that reporters' interviewing and their ability to write freely about what they learn will be restricted only in cases that compromise "operational security."

News outlets are now jockeying for these slots. (Reporters who lose out may spend the war at the 24-hour Defense Department press center in Qatar, listening to operations briefings and checking their e-mail.) But despite the buzz over the new policy, journalism historians point out that "embedding" is really just a new name for an old practice.

American war reporters have traditionally been tight with the troops. In World Wars I and II, they wore the uniforms and enjoyed the privileges of captains. The Vietnam War broke that mold: Reporters roamed freely and sent back vivid portraits of the horrors they witnessed. Many in the military blamed the press for the American public's lack of support for the war. It was, in the crudest calculation, a PR nightmare.

Vietnam reporters, and the generation who've taken their reporting as a model, defend its legacy. "Any time something is dishonest, it's a public-relations disaster for the person who's lying," says Mr. Wiener, who began his career in Vietnam. "One could say that Watergate was a PR disaster for the [Nixon] White House."

But if Vietnam was a break from the kind of cozy relationship that can compromise press impartiality, it was also seen in military circles as a breach of trust - of a sort officials vowed never to allow again. In Grenada, Panama, the Gulf, and Afghanistan, they more or less made good on that promise.

With the embedding program, Pentagon officials told a crowd of news editors at a briefing earlier this month, those days are past. Some officials have even acknowledged that the war effort might benefit from press coverage of the challenges faced by US troops. Mistrust still runs deep on both sides, though, and veteran war reporters say they fear this spirit of cooperation may be the first casualty when bullets start to fly.

Journalists who arrive in Iraq without military protection will undoubtedly have more freedom to report what they see without official "handling." But the dangers they face rise in proportion to that freedom. If this war takes its cue from those of the past decade, it will have no traditional "front line." For reporters on their own, that means infinite ways to stumble into danger, and no clear way to avoid it. In addition, some worry that the embedding program could heighten Iraqi wariness of - and, should it come to this, reprisals against - American journalists, whether or not they rolled in with the tanks.

Those journalists now in or heading to Baghdad say that for the opportunity to report fairly on Iraq during what may be Hussein's final days, they'll take those chances. It's an important story. It's their job.

"I know war," says Jon Lee Anderson, who hopes to spend the war in Baghdad for the New Yorker. Over the past two decades, he's reported from 13 conflict zones. "I'm surprised myself, but I've lived with it now for 20 years. It's what I'm good at."

"I've had more combat experience than most Army officers," adds Chris Hedges, author of the new book, "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." A war reporter for 15 years before he hung up his flak jacket, he knows war too, "and it's about death and it's about self-destruction and it's about betrayal."

"And yet," he says, "we're drawn to it."

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