City Paper is not for tourists
These days, there are plenty of home-front stories like the one Anthony Shadid wrote for last Friday’s Washington Post. It was a profile of a widowed mother of eight, recounting her thoughts about the future. At one point, the mother, Karima, talked about the heartbreak of sending her eldest son off to fight for his country.
“A mother’s heart rests on her son’s heart,” said Karima. “Every hour, I cry for him.”
What put this mother’s thoughts on Page A1, above the fold, was the place where Shadid scored the candid interview: wartime Baghdad.
There’s no such thing as a routine person-on-the-street chat for reporters in the Iraqi capital. To tell the story of Karima and her children, Shadid first had to shake the official Iraqi monitor who follows him on his daily reporting excursions.
“He’s able to have developed conversations with people out of the earshot of government officials, and he’s very good at that,” Post
foreign editor Philip Bennett says.
All of the dozen or so U.S. reporters in Baghdad have government escorts hovering close by when they enter Iraqi homes or talk to people in public. And few have matched Shadid, a fluent Arabic speaker, in juking their tails.
“Some of these [minders] are a little more zealous than others,” Shadid says via satellite phone from Baghdad.
While media outlets have twisted themselves into navel-gazing knots questioning the objectivity of correspondents embedded with the U.S. military, the greater challenge has been on the other side of the battle linesnamely, securing untainted interviews with ordinary Iraqis.
Nearly every word spoken by Iraqi citizens in this conflict is open to second-guessing: Are these men in Umm Qasr holding back their support for the invaders, fearing the United States might pull out before the Baath regime falls? Is this woman at a checkpoint near Karbala frowning at the troops because her neighbors could be Fedayeen militants?
But in Baghdad, there’s no need to speculate about the barriers to candor. Minders from the Iraqi Ministry of Information, whose mission is to flack for Saddam Hussein, are tracking the press’s every move. In the aftermath of errant missile attacks, their job entails parading reporters past the scenes of destruction and into hospitals where the wounded lie in agony. When it comes time to interview ordinary Iraqis, the officials stand ready to listen in.
“There is never a conversation that is completely honest in the presence of a minder,” says Shadid.
And so Baghdad reporters each day step out of their closely watched accommodations at the Palestine Hotel with hopes of securing unsupervised interactions with city residents. Step No. 1: Lose your minder.
Cloak-and-dagger dodging tricks are a bad strategy for ditching your Baghdad escort, according to editors and reporters who’ve dealt with the situation. Ducking out the back door of a mosque or hiding in the bustle of a crowded city market won’t work. Those tactics will likely earn you an interrogation sessionor worsewith government officials.
Instead, reporters have to develop a feel for the contours of official surveillanceand pounce when they sense it’s slackening. “We do everything we can to get a true and honest picture without doing anything stupid that’s going to endanger our people,” says Newsweek Foreign Editor Jeffrey Bartholet, who edits Baghdad dispatches from correspondent Melinda Liu. Bartholet says Liu has pulled off interviews free of official oversight.
Bartholet dealt with Iraqi minders during a couple of Baghdad stints before and after the Persian Gulf War. He says they’re often low-level bureaucrats whose vigilance varies with the news environment. “Sometimes we had a minder and sometimes we didn’t,” he recalls.
Whatever their effectiveness, the minders appear to lead sequacious professional lives. Shadid reports that his minder bunks in the Palestine Hotel, too. When Shadid awakes, he calls the minder to apprise him of his schedule and arrange outings. And when Shadid needs to make extemporaneous trips, the minder is never too far away. “I actually like it. When I need to run and go somewhere, he’s there,” says Shadid.
Shadid says that his minder looked the other way on each of the two outings when he secured clean interviews with Iraqis. In one instance, he told the minder that he was off to visit a friend that he’d met during a previous Baghdad tour of duty. The minder didn’t appear to mind, recalls Shadid. “It may have been a little dodgy, and there were some questions later,” he says. “But we have a good relationship….He has a job to do, and I have a job to do….There’s mutual respect and a certain friendliness in that kind of environment.”
At least for Shadid, that is. Andy Alexander, the Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, says his Baghdad crew once drew the hairy eyeball from Iraqi officialdom. On a recent evening, says Alexander, one of his reporters ventured out for groceries in Baghdad unaccompanied by his minder. “He was chastised for going out alone,” says Alexander.
Alexander declines to identify which of Cox’s two Baghdad reporters received the rebuke. Most news organizations likewise won’t discuss their sources and methods in Baghdad, out of concern for their reporters’ safety. Two Baghdad-based journalists from Newsday disappeared in late March, prompting a wave of anxiety among stateside news organizations; they turned up in Jordan on Tuesday after being detained, interrogated, and expelled by Hussein’s regime. National Public Radio, the New York Times, and the New Yorker have reporters in Baghdad and did not answer the Washington City Paper’s queries about their comings and goings.
The treatment of the expelled journalistsas well as the prior expulsion of CNNhas news outlets guessing at Iraq’s reportorial rules of engagement. “In the case of the Newsday people, we are interested in knowing what infraction the Iraqis claim,” says Cox’s Alexander.
Absent a manual, reporters watch their minders for cues on news-gathering strictures. As U.S. forces inch closer to the capital, Ministry of Information officials are reportedly shortening the leash on visiting reporters. “Up until a few days ago, if you went to see a friend, it wasn’t a big deal,” says Shadid. “Now is not a good time to be pushing the envelope.” Erik Wemple