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All Combat Zone Journalism is NOT Created Equal

Katie Couric’s Impending Trip to Iraq Highlights the Difference Between Real Front-Line Reporting and Simply Going for an Exotic Byline

August 29, 2007

BAGHDAD, IRAQ – The recent headline-grabbing announcement that, in an effort to bolster the network’s sagging ratings, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric will be coming to Iraq for 12 days in September has, as it should, caused new attention to be cast on combat zone journalism.

However, amidst all of the hubbub and hoopla about the ‘danger’ of her trip to Iraq, it is important to draw a distinction between what Ms. Couric and the majority of her colleagues in the media are doing, and what others in Iraq are contributing, information-wise, to the debate.

Hundreds of journalists come to Baghdad to cover the war and the reconstruction. Outlets like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, and many others have Baghdad Bureaus, from which their reporters can access the ‘Green Zone’ (now known as the ‘International Zone,’ or ‘IZ’) for press conferences and meetings, and can correspond and work with stringers, fixers, and other individuals who can provide them with information, set up meetings with high-ranking officials (as well as, occasionally, those whom CBS executive producer Rick Kaplan called “alleged terror leaders”), and, in general, give them stories and tell them what is going on in various parts of the country.

Movement around Baghdad is relatively simple for these Big News individuals. They usually have drivers and vehicles, and rarely go anywhere – IZ included – without bodyguards, many of whom are former British or American Special Forces. When traveling outside the heavily fortified IZ on their own, as CBS has said it plans to do with Couric’s contingent, efforts are taken to “keep their profile as low as possible.”

This is not to say that these journalists do not face danger; Iraq is, after all, a combat zone, and all people here are subject to the perils involved in such – as the over one hundred journalists killed since the conflict began have demonstrated. However, the vast majority of reporters who come to Iraq do so with multiple precautions having been taken to keep them as much out of harm’s way as possible – often at the cost of an eyewitness, contextually accurate story. Trips ‘outside the wire,’ as the territory outside the safety of coalition bases and the IZ are called, are rare, and when they take place, they are for brief periods of time at most. Trips to different locations are carried out both quickly and succinctly, with just enough information for a story being gathered, and then a fast departure made.

Furthermore, whether in the interest of safety or of scheduling, hearsay is relied upon far more often than is eyewitness accounting when reporting events and occurrences in Iraq’s cities and at the battlefront. At a time when reporting which is both honest and accurate – both in terms of narrative and context – is perhaps more badly needed than ever, reporters are traveling all the way to Iraq and are, in the end, still settling for little more than hearsay of the type which they could have access to at home.

There are exceptions to this, particularly within the military media embed program, which allows journalists to travel the country via military air and to ‘set up shop’ on Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Combat Outposts (COPs), where they have access to the and units doing the heavy lifting in this war.

However, for many ‘embedded’ reporters, this is where their intrepidness ends. Far too many journalists, having arrived at their chosen (or assigned) military unit’s Battalion or Brigade level, settle in – again, ‘inside the wire’ – for the brief duration (as short as a single day at times) and once again report hearsay, rather than jumping in the saddle with lower-echelon units and departing the relative safety of the FOB in search of actual first-person experience and understanding. Even some of those who do depart the base will only do so if accompanied by the unit commander’s personal security detail (a guard force of up to twenty soldiers), and if the risk involved in doing so is measurably low.

Unfortunately, this lack of firsthand information lends itself to so many major stories from Iraq being cast – more than likely unintentionally – through the prism of the storyteller’s personal views of events and issues, rather than to their simply being reported as they happened. The brief duration of many journalists’ stays with individual units, and in individual areas of operations (AOs), also contributes to a lack of contextual understanding of the many complexities that may go into, or stem from, the events on which they report, as well.

This being said, it is open to debate how much difference a firsthand view of events would make to many journalists’ reports, given – due not only to a lack of experience and understanding within the AO, but also to a fundamental lack of military experience, or of understanding of military operations. In other words, even if these reporters did venture ‘outside the wire’ with their chosen military units, the vast majority likely lacks the military and contextual knowledge and background to really understand what it is they would be seeing.

An example of this was recently given me by an officer I spoke with while at a previous embed. While a reporter was riding along with his convoy, an improvised explosive device (IED) was discovered along the road by the officer’s unit. Though the area around the IED was cordoned off to enable explosive ordnance disposal specialists to deal with the potentially deadly device, a vehicle persistently attempted to enter the secure area, ignoring verbal and signaled warnings, as well as flashing lights, all of which clearly meant for the driver to stop. Finally – unwilling to take a chance in an area known for vehicle-borne IED attacks – the officer authorized a warning shot to be fired in the direction of the car, which resulted in the driver finally coming to a stop. Not understanding what it was she was seeing – or, worse, in an attempt to push an agenda – the reporter, who left the unit at the end of her one-day ‘embed,’, openly wondered in her article the next day whether “these soldiers shoot at every car that they see.”

An observer with even the least amount of experience and understanding of such things would have asked the far more relevant – and intelligent - question of “why was this driver so persistently attempting to violate this cordon, that the soldiers there had to take step after step – building all the way to a warning shot – to convince him to stop?”

Unfortunately, of the hundreds of journalists operating in Iraq, very few actually take the risk of going ‘outside the wire’ with the lowest-echelon warfighters, braving the gunfire and the IEDs in order to witness firsthand the chaos and bodies left behind by insurgent attacks, to participate in patrols and offensive operations mounted by the coalition, and to see with their own eyes the school openings, the public clinics, the Concerned Citizens meetings, and the other events of great import.

The number of those who have the experience to fully understand such things, and who dedicate sufficient time to each unit and AO to grasp the complexities of the area and its people, and to gain a contextual understanding of the unit’s operations, is very, very small – and they almost exclusively fall into a single mold. By and large, these men are prior military, independent of the bureaucracy involved in working for a single journalistic outlet, funded entirely by their own resources and/or by reader donations, and one hundred percent committed to what they believe is the most important job in the world: providing the people at home with firsthand, on-the-ground information from the front lines in Iraq.

Writers and photographers like Michael Yon and Bill Roggio and documentarians like J.D. Johannes and Pat Dollard, as well as men like Michael Totten (along with Dollard, a rare exception to the usual prior-military attribute), and a very small number of others – including myself – spend (and have spent) months at a time in Iraq, living amongst the troops at the lowest echelon possible, and going ‘outside the wire’ day and night, participating in combat operations, patrols, meetings, civil affairs activities, and every other mission and operation that Iraq has to offer, duly documenting their experiences and the events which take place around them.

While few of these individuals would make the counterfactual claim that so many establishment journalists (who take advantage of what safety there is to be found in Iraq while reporting – doubtless to the best of their ability – what amounts to little more than hearsay in one form or another) make with regards to ‘objectivity’ and an utter lack of bias, the fact is that, when one is being shot at or blown up, or witnessing children going back to school or getting medical care for the first time in years – or witnessing their mutilated bodies being pulled from freshly filled graves – ideology, and the ideas one arrived here with, are far less important than those who sit at home and view the conflict from a distance, and through their own prism of belief, think that it is.

For these few men who truly live in harm’s way for the sole purpose of providing eyewitness information to the American people, the facts are what is most important. They do not come to Iraq to make a statement, to boost network ratings, or to achieve a nice backdrop or byline for the reporting that they would – and could – be accomplishing were they not here. Rather, they believe, one hundred percent, that what they are doing is, in fact, the most important job in the world – and they are willing to risk their lives, side by side with the soldiers and Iraqi civilians who are the biggest targets in this postwar, in order to serve as the vehicles through which these people can tell their stories, and through which these events can reach the people at home.

In contrast, CBS News’s decision to send Katie Couric to Iraq at this time – while doubtless a solid ratings ploy – is the result of a network which, like so many other organizations, is focused more on the goal of a marginal increase in viewership than on acquiring more accurate and detailed information to share with the American people.

“The future of our involvement in Iraq will be decided when the Petreaus report is released,” said CBS’s Kaplan. “If you're going to go to the Middle East at all, this is the time.”

Unfortunately, this statement provides all of the evidence that is needed to see that their intent is more to have an exotic Evening News backdrop than it is to go the extra mile in hopes of achieving more accurate and informative stories.

“The time” to be in the Middle East was months ago – and the place to be, in order to capture the essence of what is really going on there, is on the front lines, alongside those fighting this war, and in full view of events as they have unfolded. As Ms. Couric’s impending trip to Iraq should remind Americans, all journalism in the combat zone is not created equal. There are very few of us who have committed ourselves to being in the right place, and who have been doing what we think is the most important job imaginable, long before it became “the time” to be there, or ‘the thing’ to do.

And we would not trade a moment of it for the world.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a director of conservative weblog, is currently embedded with the US military on the front lines in Iraq. His mission is 100% funded by reader donations, and his reports can be seen at

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At 3:23 PM, Anonymous I've Had It With The LMSM said...

Thank you for this!!! It is the BEST description to date as to how the drive by media collects their information in Iraq.


At 5:45 PM, Blogger BrianFH said...

A clear and sufficiently thorough summary, Jeff. Well said, and well done. Thanks for this and all your efforts.

At 7:38 PM, Blogger The G-man said...

There just ain't nothing like calling a spade a spade. That's what this piece is. Besides, I seriously doubt that Katie is going to find anyone in the Middle East to sleep with that can further her career.

At 12:57 AM, Anonymous sinanju said...

So it comes down to a handful of real guys doing real reporting.

For my own part, I can hardly wait to see Perky Katie in her cute little helmet and vest speaking breathlessly into the mike from the top of the Al Rashid with the now familiar Blue Penis minaret of the 14th of July mosque in the background.

While we're on the subject--has anyone got the inside story of CNN's extremely smug and tiresome self-consciously swashbuckling aussie Baghdad correspondent? Has any footage ever been shot of him "outside the wire?" Inquiring minds want to know.


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