On The Ground: the Grunts and the Press

Some thoughts on the disconnect, and how it could be different

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is the final piece in the series.

A handful of soldiers stood around a bonfire at Joint Security Station Tarmiya, feeding the flames by tossing empty cardboard boxes from that day’s mail delivery into the pit. The former youth sports complex that serves as the home base for the 180 men of C company has an open courtyard in the middle where a fire pit has been set up, and it has become the place where soldiers gather in the evenings to get out of the confining space of the building to smoke, listen to music, and more often than not, stare into the flames in silence.

In the middle of this daily routine one night this past February, the familiar crack of automatic gunfire broke the relative stillness just outside the walls of the base, causing a few soldiers to turn down the country music they had been listening to. Another pop went off, then nothing more. The silhouettes of the guards up on the roof could be seen darting back and forth looking for the source of the gunfire, but as so often happens, the shooter had melted away into the night.

At the time, I had been in the middle of a conversation with a soldier who, when I told him I was a reporter, said, “Man, you must be making a lot of money to be here.”

If a soldier had only said this to me once, I probably would have forgotten it; twice, a coincidence. But at least a half dozen times over the four weeks I spent with infantry units in Iraq, soldiers suggested I must be getting paid extra to be there. In a way, this disconnect between perception and reality is funny, because journalists often joke about how little money we make. When I would tell the soldiers that I was making just as much by coming to Iraq as I would sitting in my office in New York, they invariably asked why I had come. The grunts didn’t seem as worked up about the lack of coverage back home of the war, which in a way makes sense: they’re living it. But in writing this series, I’ve received enough e-mails from mothers, fathers, and wives of soldiers deployed in Iraq who told me how hard it is to get any news out of Iraq these days.

Five years into the war, news organizations have understandably cut back a bit, given the immense cost of maintaining a Baghdad bureau. From life insurance for reporters to guards, armored cars (which not all bureaus have), and fortified houses outside of the Green Zone, reporting from Iraq is an incredibly expensive proposition.

But embedding with infantry units is free. Flights to Kuwait, where the Army public affairs team picks you up and puts you on a military aircraft to Iraq, and insurance still cost, but once you’re embedded, your expenses end. And that’s why I can’t understand why every major news organization doesn’t have one reporter embedded with a combat unit at all times. They won’t always be able to file stories, but they can contribute a steady stream of material about the fight—and the ground-level diplomacy—being waged by young American captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. The fact that I spent four weeks in Iraq and only ran into one stringer working for an American newspaper is testament to how few reporters are out in the field. Of course, there are reporters in Iraq, and my time bouncing between combat outposts constitutes an official census; but it is significant that in every unit I was with, I was the first reporter they had seen. It was the same story back in 2006, with I embedded with the 2nd Marine Division in Fallujah.

If this were another kind of war, a conventional war in which two armies faced off along set lines, things might be different. A fight like that is easier to understand, easier to wrap your head around, than complicated counterinsurgency campaigns like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan which involve ancient cultural and tribal equations. But understanding what the military has taken to calling the “human terrain” is what these new wars are all about, and it’s this aspect of the fight that the mainstream media is doing a scattershot job in explaining to the American people.

This raises the question: Does the public care about these stories?

A recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the percentage of news stories devoted to the war has declined since last year, dropping from an average of 15 percent of stories in print and on television in July 2007 to a paltry 3 percent in February. A new Pew survey found that, among those polled, “Iraq was the public’s most closely followed news story in all but five weeks during the first half of 2007,” but “has not been the public’s top weekly story since mid-October.” What’s more, in yet another Pew study concerning news coverage between March 10-16, only 8 percent of those polled named Iraq as the story they’re most closely following, coming in behind the 2008 presidential campaign, the former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer scandal, and the economic crisis. All this means that as much as the press has pulled back from covering the war, the public—the vast majority of which is disconnected from any direct involvement in the war effort—has simply tuned out.

Another question that several soldiers asked was how much education I had to have to be a journalist—most thought you must need a couple of graduate degrees. I’m afraid I burst the bubble of all J-school grads out there when I told them that you don’t need anything except an enormous curiosity, the desire to understand things and explain them. Degrees can’t give you that. The young soldier in Tarmiya who commented on how much I must be making told me that he was writing a novel based on his experiences in Iraq, and asked me how you go about becoming a journalist. I told him to start a blog and write about what he does every day, or get someone back home to contact the editor of his local paper in Georgia, and see if he could write a story a day in the life of a soldier in Iraq. I could tell that actually publishing something in a newspaper seemed incomprehensible to him, and he just kind of shrugged it off, but I hope he does it. Even if only a few hundred people read the story, it’s his story to tell, and it’s important for people to hear it.

The assumptions about how much reporters must earn, and how much education we must have, points to something else: despite all the hype over “citizen journalists” and how the floodgates of access to the public discourse have been opened to anyone with an Internet connection, reporting, writing, and publishing remain something alien to most Americans. I’m not saying that more reporters embedding with infantry units in the thick of the fight will change this—it won’t. I’m simply saying that by getting out there and telling the everyday stories of our soldiers, and just as important, the stories of the Iraqis they come in contact with, we might begin to change the perception that reporters as elite, out of touch with so-called average Americans.

On my way home, I spent a couple of days at Ali al Salem air base in Kuwait, where I had the chance to talk to several more soldiers, either going to Iraq or coming home. One night, I fell into conversation with a soldier headed back to Iraq after going home for R&R. He asked what I did, and I told him. When he was walking away, he turned and said, “Thanks for coming out here to tell our story.” I thanked him for serving, and was left with the thought that reporters shouldn’t have to be thanked for merely doing their job.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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