Monday, March 26, 2007

Barbarians here, barbarians there, everywhere barbarians

Let's see: computer? Check. Cell phone? Check. Pens and notebook? Check. Body armor? Check. Stock price? Uh oh. Come home--The most important story in American journalism is getting harder and harder to cover, is being covered less well than ever before, and presents vast new problems for newsrooms. Four years into the Iraq war--probably the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history--the media is up against stinging truths. Covering this war is so expensive that even the largest and best newsrooms are finding they are shifting resources from elsewhere to cover it or are dropping out altogether; it is getting harder to find people willing to go, and the people who are there need a break desperately. The only good news is that the people back here are paying attention as reflected in the polling data.

Because the economics of the media and the relentless pressures of the barbarians on Wall Street, whose concern for the stock price exceeds their concern for democracy, coverage is diminishing. The United States is at war and the bulk of American media have stopped covering it, an unprecedented situation.

In the history of American journalism, you will find few examples of greater heroism than the reporters, photographers and editors in Iraq. So far, 155 journalists, Iraqi and foreign, have been killed covering this war. Several are missing. The reason the war is not being covered as well as other wars is simple: it is too damned dangerous. Many, if not most, reporters are reluctant to leave the Green Zone, the haven in central Baghdad for fear of their lives, and even that sanctuary isn't safe. Stray rockets and mortar shells blow in sporadically. Going out on the streets or into the country to report the wars simply is no longer an option. The best many bureaus can do is send its Iraqi nationals out to cover the story but even that is difficult. Many have been killed, many have been forced to leave the country because of threats, and others live in total terror of what will happen to them or their families. Translators often wear ski masks to protect their identity. Some media now resort to non-Americans in their bureaus. Note the number of British and Australian accents on the air.

Part of the problem undoubtedly is getting volunteers. When I was a young reporter it was clear that if you wanted to cement your career, you went to Vietnam. I volunteered but UPI at the time would not send married reporters, so I never went. Iraq is different. Those willing to go have been sent and recycled in and out for years. Susan Chira, foreign editor of the New York Times, told Editor and Publisher that the pool of volunteers is getting smaller and the people who had been cycled in and out need to move on. John Burns of the Times, possibly the worlds' best war correspondent, is finally being removed to take over the London bureau. I think he was pushing his luck.

The Los Angeles Times put three new people in Baghdad, but all were hires from other bureaus hired in Iraq. Internal volunteers ran out. The Associated Press, which has 85 staffers, including Iraqis, in Baghdad admits that many cycled out for a rest are reluctant to return. The fact the AP has lost four staffers, two recently, probably hasn't helped recruiting. The LA Times admits that the expense--largely security--is draining the foreign news budget. Other stories go unreported in other parts of the world.

The Wall Street Journal, the last of the big four newspapers, does not have a permanent staff covering the war. They have one person assigned permanently, but that person is not there full-time and sometimes, their office is empty. In part, Bill Spindle, the Middle East Editor of the Journal says, it is the cost of security that makes it hard to operate here.

While all this is going on, the barbarians are loose. Two newspapers, the Boston Globe (owned by the Times, of all companies) and the Baltimore Sun (owned by the Tribune Co.), which once had legendary foreign correspondents, either have totally closed their foreign bureaus or are doing so. Neither covers Iraq. The Globe, which once had five people in Baghdad, closed its bureau in 2005, in part after one of its reporters, Elizabeth Neuffer was killed.

This is serious stuff. The media have a responsibility in a democracy and they are not able to fulfill it as well as they might. And everyone is to blame.

[The picture above is Anna Badkhen, on temporary assignment in Iraq for the San Francisco Chronicle.]