Press Box

“Journalism by Remote Control”

Baghdad correspondents talk about covering the war from afar with Iraqi staffers and stringers.

A year ago, the Western press corps felt secure enough to travel Baghdad and throughout a good deal of Iraq to report its stories. But since the April battle of Fallujah, violence has convulsed parts of the country, and increased suspicion and hostility have made the most trivial passage across town for a government press briefing a potentially death-defying adventure. Washington Post foreign correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who recently left Iraq after running the paper’s Baghdad bureau for 18 months, describes for the paper’s Oct. 17 edition  how the walls have closed in:

By this summer, every road leading out of Baghdad had become too dangerous to travel. North to Mosul, west to Ramadi, northeast to Baqubah, southeast to Kut, south to Hilla, Karbala, Najaf and Basra—all had turned into “red routes” in the parlance of security specialists, meaning too dangerous to travel. The capital itself was a patchwork of red (no-go) and yellow (proceed with extreme caution) zones, surrounding the American-controlled Green Zone. Neighborhoods where I had visited Iraqi friends for lunch were now too insecure to enter. And even if I was willing to chance it, my Iraqi friends didn’t want to risk being seen allowing a foreigner into their house.

To keep routine trips from morphing into suicide missions, most Western reporters have cut back on travel. Reporters who might have been out and about constantly last year reduced daily outings to three or so in the early summer in the name of security. Now, they may venture out just once a day in Baghdad, but not before carefully plotting their excursions. Many of them feel “stalked” and hunted. Chandrasekaran says the Post bureau put a halt to all non-essential travel, parties, and dinners on the town by September.

To compensate for their loss of mobility, most Western reporters have increasingly turned to their Iraqi news stringers in the provinces and trusted Iraqi staffers—translators, drivers, fixers—to collect first-hand information from news scenes and conduct interviews with Iraqis.

Chandrasekaran calls this kind of reporting “journalism by remote control.” Although he says no Western journalist is happy about having to cover the Iraq news from a remove—”No question about it, it affects the quality of reporting”—he and his colleagues say the work-around is better than no reporting at all.

The Iraq assistants face great risks. Some who deserve co-bylines or credit for their work ask not to be named because insurgents read the Web looking for names and may mark them for death as American collaborators.

“They’re asked to be cub reporters in a very complex time,” says Los Angeles Times Baghdad correspondent Alissa J. Rubin.

The Post Baghdad bureau employs five Iraqis who assist in reporting, as well as four or five stringers in outlying cities, who are paid by the job. The paper enrolled two of its Iraqi staffers in a weeklong training program run by the Knight Foundation, but most Iraqis working for Western press have depended on their translation skills to learn the job of journalism as they go along. Their backgrounds vary—English major, architect, doctor, airline employee, hotel receptionist, pharmacist, and professional translator, to name a few.

Translators act as linguistic go-betweens and advisers on customs, culture, and the trustworthiness of interview subjects for many a foreign correspondent. But converting a translator into a journalist requires coaching, says Cox Newspapers Baghdad correspondent Larry Kaplow, who has reported from Iraq since March 2003. He finds himself reminding his Iraqi helper to remember to take out his notebook when at the scene of a bombing or other news location, and write down all he sees.

“You have to get the [Iraqi staffer] to know what the people across the ocean are interested in,” Kaplow says. “And you’ve get to get them in the habit of asking for examples when they interview people.” Sounds like lessons from Combat Journalism 101, doesn’t it? Rubin says she finds herself teaching some of her Iraqi understudies the art of skepticism.

What’s gained with the use of Iraqi stringers and staffers, obviously, is coverage. In these dangerous times, Iraqis can blend into the scene in a way Western reporter can’t. They can talk to people without arousing suspicion. They understand the important differences between tribes. They can phone in breaking news. They can talk to women without accidentally violating local taboos. They’re not as ripe a target for kidnappers. “They’re Iraqis, and they know how to talk and act,” says the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, an Arabic speaker who will return to Iraq in three weeks after several months of book leave.

What is lost, says Kaplow, is “the feel” he and other reporters had for the country and its people when they did their own reporting alongside their translators.

“We now speak with a little less authority,” says Kaplow. “We work off of fewer interviews.”

“We’re deprived of detail, intimacy. Deprived of a degree of reporting depth and on-the-ground observation seen through the eyes of a foreign correspondent,” Chandrasekaran says.

“Reporters are more comfortable about writing stories they’ve seen,” Rubin concurs.

“There are stories too numerous to count that we haven’t been able to report” because of the dangers, Chandrasekaran says, offering the early October U.S. offensive in Samarra as one.

“It would be great to have somebody go into Samarra,” he says. How many insurgents were killed? Did they go underground? Do the locals feel that their problems have been solved by the U.S. push? But the solution isn’t to embed with the military, Chandrasekaran says, because that vantage point gives only one side of the story: The presence of soldiers limits what Iraqis will tell a reporter.

But even placing talented Iraqis in off-limits places like Samarra to report doesn’t solve all the problems—any information they send back to Western reporters must be weighed carefully for its truth value because 1) the sender’s local protectors might be spinning him; 2) he may not be accurately interpreting the information coming his way; and 3) the points of independent, professional corroboration (news wires, TV, telephonable sources) are too few.

It takes nothing away from the brave work U.S. correspondents do in Iraq to note that the color picture journalists once provided from Iraq has paled as they’ve had to turn to their proxies for primary information. The Baghdad correspondents are quick to acknowledge their assistants’ limits in reporting stories that go beyond spot news and demand analysis. And in those instances where the Baghdad correspondent can’t place an independent, reliable news gatherer near the scene, as happened in Samarra, the picture starts to fade to black and white and even blur.

Shadid doesn’t want anything he says to sound as though he’s criticizing reporters in Iraq from the comfy confines of a Washington office building. But the new conditions reporters face have made it harder and harder for him to discern what Iraqis are thinking.

“The [Western] reporters aren’t doing any less work,” Shadid insists. “They’re working harder to get less. In many cases, they’re gathering three to five times as much information.”

The much decorated John Burns of the New York Times speaks admiringly of his newspaper’s Iraqi staff, commending their courage, high intelligence, and intrepidness. Burns, currently taking a breather in Britain, plugs the American media for being “more persistent” in following the Iraq story than the rest of the world press.

“I’d like to stress not what is lost but what is gained,” he says. The circumstances reporters in Iraq face are the worst he’s seen in a generation of war reporting. “Reporting on any war at any time is difficult. These are new complications on top of old complications.”

He calls the reliance on Iraqi helpers a “second-best option,” conceding that readers are best-served when experienced reporters are on the scene. Yet Burns doesn’t find the situation impossible, calling the information his newspaper publishes very reliable.

However, Burns frets over the ethical implications posed by Western journalists who might expose Iraqis to levels of danger that they themselves avoid to get a story. (He isn’t accusing anybody of doing that.) He says he avoids asking Iraqi staffers to do anything that’s more dangerous than what he does.

“Our Iraqi staff are, in the purest sense, volunteers,” says Burns. “There is no coercion.”

He expands his views on risk with an anecdote about an auto racer he knew who tried to talk an aspiring young racer out of trying to join the circuit. When Burns asked the veteran how he gave such advise, the racer said there are some things in life that, if you can be talked out of, you should be. War reporting is such a thing, Burns says, and that’s a conversation he’s had with both Iraqi and Western staffers.

The families of many Iraqi staffers and stringers would prefer they didn’t work for the Western press, says Rubin. Chandrasekaran says that his assistants have been threatened and attacked, and the paper has relocated some. The good salaries Iraqis can earn working for the Western press motivates some. A Baghdad correspondent who surveyed print outlets found pay for Iraqi translator-fixer-reporters ranging from $1,000 to $1,700 a month, a middle-class income in an economy where there are few jobs.

But money isn’t the whole story.

“They’re smart. They’re doing it because they love journalism. They believe in what they’re doing,” says Chandrasekaran.

“They take pride in doing something they haven’t been able to do before,” says Shadid, and that is working with a free press.

One Iraqi who works as the eyes and ears of a Western correspondent, and who will remain nameless for his protection, talked to me from Baghdad about why he does the work. He segued from translator to reporter as his employer’s needs expanded over the course of a year and a half.

“Each person who is working this kind of field, they are in danger,” the Iraqi says. But he expresses a sense of mission in helping his correspondent tell the story of Iraq to the outside world.

“This is my life, my field, what I want to do. I think I am doing the right thing,” he says. “There is hope for this country to get back on its feet” after elections are held.

“I hope one day I can go further and deeper in this kind of job.”