A Dwindling Corps in a Volatile, Battered City

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - As media outlets pull out of Iraq, the journalists that remain are a hardened bunch, angry at their inability to move around - and becoming increasingly isolated.

Part of a continuing series about the life of an embedded reporter in Iraq.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Among reporters who have been in and out of Iraq since the beginning of the war, there seems to be a kind of consensus that the summer of 2003 and, to a much lesser extent, part of 2004, was a kind of golden period for reporting.

It was still possible then for Westerners to walk the streets of Baghdad, sit in restaurants and, most importantly, spend time with ordinary Iraqis. But as the insurgency became more violent, more brazen and more constant, reporters were forced to cut back on their forays into the city.

This isn’t to say they no longer go out. While I was in Baghdad, one reporter left her paper’s guarded compound to spend the night at an Iraqi family’s house to do some reporting, and everyone I spoke to said that they do get out a couple of times a week to work a story. Still, the situation being what it is, bureaus rely heavily on Iraqi stringers and fixers to go out and collect information for their stories. When Westerners do go out, they normally bring at least one armed Iraqi guard, and plan their trips as much as possible so that someone knows where they are, and how long they should be gone.

But it wasn’t always like this. A photographer I spoke to in Baghdad told me that at one point things were so lax that “we would drive to Fallujah for lunch and visit some tea shops, then drive back.” In the earlier stages of the war, some reporters even were able to end-run the official channels of the embedding process. The same photographer told me, “We would get a driver, drive up to an American base and introduce ourselves, and ask if we could deploy with them for a day or two. Usually the private at the gate would go get an officer, and the officer would just shrug and say, ‘Sure, c’mon in.’”

Over dinner in an empty restaurant with two newspaper reporters (still within the blast walls surrounding the hotel and a few houses transformed into compounds for Western news organizations), I heard similar stories about easier times, including a karaoke bar reporters visited a few times in Baghdad.

But those days are long gone, and all that’s left are a group of hardened, somewhat frustrated reporters, angry at their inability to move around; a group, it must be said, that is becoming increasingly isolated as the once-formidable media presence in Baghdad slowly clears out.

At my hotel, most mornings I was the only non-Iraqi who partook of the free breakfasts available, save for one American editor who would have early morning meetings with his Iraqi stringers.

Since I arrived in town just two days after the Christian Science Monitor’s Jill Carroll was kidnapped, her abduction invariably came up in conversations with other reporters. Given the fact that the press pool has coalesced around a shrinking number of people and they’re all gathered in a few compounds, everyone seems to know one another, and Carroll’s abduction has cast a pall over the small group. Every reporter I spoke to was acutely aware that, although Carroll went out without an armed guard, what happened to her could happen to any of them, at any time. For reporters in Baghdad, death or abduction are very real possibilities every time they leave their protected areas.

Blame who you will for a city of rubble, teetering on the brink of chaos — the Bush administration for starting a war while failing to plan for the aftermath, Paul Bremer’s ineffectual Coalition Provisional Authority, the horrific bloodlust of the terrorists. But the result is that the certainty of violence is woven into the daily life of Baghdad. And for anyone who criticizes the so-called “hotel journalism” that they claim is practiced by the dwindling Baghdad news corps, I would invite them to trade in their morning Egg McMuffin and leisurely 30-minute drive to work for just one foray into the streets of Baghdad to get a story with one of these reporters.

The members of the press here aren’t above reproach, but the situation they find themselves in is almost impossible — and one that could go bad for anyone at any moment, as November’s bombing of the al Hamra hotel and Jill Carroll’s abduction illustrate graphically, and tragically.

Editor’s note, Jan. 29: ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were hit by an improvised explosive device as the two were traveling with an Iraqi military unit Sunday. Each suffered head injuries from shrapnel, and, at last report, were in serious but stable condition at a U.S. military hospital.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.