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Some big names in Iraqi battle
June 21, 2007

On Tuesday, about 10,000 U.S. soldiers launched “Operation Arrowhead Ripper,” an aggressive offensive against Al Qaeda in Baqubah, a city of about 300,000 people northeast of Baghdad. While the operation is only about two days old, the reporting about the massive operation, at least in print, has been pretty slim thus far.

Independent reporter Michael Yon is, as usual, in the thick of things and filed a report on his Web site yesterday. Interesting in terms of media coverage are his comments about the access the Army is giving him, and other reporters, embedded with the troops. He writes that he’s getting “full access to the battlefield” and that the military is “hiding nothing. Or if they are, it’s in plain view…A reporter can see as much as he or she can stand.” This is good news, especially coming from a guy who has had a few very public spats with the military over getting access to the troops in Iraq, and who isn’t afraid to let the military have it when they fail to allow a reporter to do their work.

Yon also takes a look around to try and gage how many reporters are out there covering the fight on the ground, and what he finds is…The New York Times‘ Michael Gordon. “I saw Gordon today, his shirt stained white from sweat…Gordon has been running with other soldiers, so it will be important to hear his accounts. From what I’ve read so far, Gordon has been very accurate and on target.”

On Wednesday morning, Yon was told that CNN, Time and Reuters were trying to get reporters to the battlefield, but that for the moment, it “looks like Gordon and I are mostly alone for now. Others are said to be in Baqubah, but if they are here, they are missing some of the most important parts, and if they were at the important commander’s meetings, I would have seen them.”

Some of those reporters in Baqubah filed riveting accounts of the fighting this morning, none more so than the Los Angeles Times‘ Alexandra Zavis, who interviewed soldiers in the fight and Iraqi residents of the city. She gives by far the most detailed and nuanced take on the story thus far, highlighting some of the successes–Iraqis giving American troops vital intelligence about hidden arms caches and IED emplacements–and the difficulties–terrorists blending in to the population–that the troops are experiencing.

It’s worthy of note, as well, that the Times was the only major paper to put the major offensive on its front page. The Washington Post buried its story on page eighteen, and relied exclusively on Iraqi Army and U.S. Army spokesmen for its reporting, while The New York Times stuck its story on page six, though it was reported by the paper’s man on the ground, Michael Gordon. Still, the story reads like a typical dry, lifeless Times piece, and Gordon’s contribution only takes up half of the space, with the other half a roundup of other stories of violence in Iraq.

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Joe Klein, of all people, is also on the ground in Baqubah with Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, and he filed a solid, big-picture-type piece on the Time Web site this morning.

Not to ignore television completely, props goes to CNN’s Karl Penhaul, who filed an excellent report from an outpost in Baqubah (see video on the lower left of the page), and who captures some great images of American soldiers in the fight.

To set the record straight, I’m not necessarily criticizing anyone here, since, as we all know, you can’t just rub two sticks together and produce a story–especially from a war zone where correspondents will almost certainly have a hard time sitting down to write, or even call a story in by sat phone. And requesting an embed with a combat unit and making it out to them from Baghdad, where news organizations have their bureaus, doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger. But Operation Arrowhead Ripper is a big deal, involving thousands of Americans in house to house combat, trying to take an entire city. That, I would think, even after four years of war, would warrant a little more attention, or at least give rise to deeper coverage of the situation, like the Los Angeles Times and CNN have done.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.