Marc Lynch

How good are war reporters?

This afternoon at the Elliott School of International Affairs I moderated a really interesting panel on war reporting, co-sponsored by my Institute for Middle East Studies, Sean Aday’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications, and Jim Lebovic’s Security Policy Forum. The panel featured three major American print war journalists: Michael Gordon (of the New ...

This afternoon at the Elliott School of International Affairs I moderated a really interesting panel on war reporting, co-sponsored by my Institute for Middle East Studies, Sean Aday’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications, and Jim Lebovic’s Security Policy Forum. The panel featured three major American print war journalists: Michael Gordon (of the New York Times) and Ann Scott Tyson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran (of the Washington Post). What emerged was a fascinating picture of strengths and weaknesses, of what war reporters could and could not accomplish — especially the difficult of getting unfiltered access to local Afghan or Iraqi voices. And the panel brought out some thought-provoking points about how significantly Afghanistan differs from Iraq for the press corps… and not for the better.

There was a fairly sharp, and productive, divergence in the presentations of Gordon, on the one hand, and Tyson and Chandrasekaran on the other, about the ability of the media to cover Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such war zones. Gordon mounted a strong defense of the performance of the media in Iraq, arguing that it was the press which first noticed and drew attention to the chaos following the fall of Saddam and to the improvements following the "surge." He showed a striking slideshow of images from combat, and talked of his many embeds across Iraq as offering direct and systematic access to both the American and Iraqi sides of the conflict. All three journalists pointed to how much could be learned through embeds, from the body language and frank evaluations of the junior officers and soldiers and from the moods on the streets and bases — and all had poignant vignettes demonstrating what a sensitive and determined journalist could do with such access.

At the same time, the Washington Post reporters both offered more guarded evaluations of what the press had been able to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chandrasekaran described a brief "golden age" after the fall of Saddam when journalists could get out into all parts of Iraq fairly freely, but as the violence mounted and journalists were targeted in the struggle access to many parts of Iraq or to many Iraqis became much more difficult. For years, journalists (even those not living in the Green Zone) were forced either to huddle down in offices and rely on stringers, or else go out into the field with the military as embeds. Both routes offered useful perspectives, but neither is perfect.

Tyson and Chandrasekaran were both frank about the limitations of trying to speak to Iraqis or Afghans from within a military embed (hopping out of a military vehicle and surrounded by large men with guns is not always the best way to strike up a conversation — through a translator — with locals). The U.S. military’s decision to shift to a population-centric COIN strategy created more and better opportunities for such contacts, intriguingly. Both mentioned the great value of stringers, Iraqis who could get out into their communities, and who help constitute an effective overall team. Such use of stringers is essential but raises its own problems, of course – including, not least, their own safety. I pointed out my dismay at the number of books about Iraq written by even very good journalists which fail to quote or take heed of Iraqis themselves. Anthony Shadid was brought up several times as an exception, but what makes Shadid exceptional is that he is, in fact, exceptional in this regard both in terms of his Arabic language and his access (ditto Nir Rosen and a few others).

Both also acknowledged the reality of the Defense Department’s control of access to embeds and of crucial information (a point Gordon disputed). Tyson mentioned at least one instance where she was not allowed to travel to a location in Iraq because it would have been a "bad news story", and the frustration of trying to get accurate and useful data from the military. Meanwhile, as I pointed out, the Pentagon’s own media strategy must be taken into account — the marketing of "good news" stories, the selection of embeds, the provision of the "right" shaykhs or former insurgents with a message to send, and so on.

Chandrasekaran — just back from covering the Marja campaign — noted some significant differences between Iraq and Afghanistan for war reporters. In Iraq, he argued, Baghdad was a central hub where a lot of the meaningful politics happened, while in Afghanistan Kabul is just a bubble and tells you virtually nothing about what’s going on elsewhere. The infrastructure of stringers is far less developed in Afghanistan, curtailing that stream of vital information for reporters trying to make sense of the full range of voices and viewpoints. Tyson also pointed out differences in treatment of reporters by the British and other commands compared to the U.S. command. Both expressed concerns about journalists bringing their Iraq experiences and lessons learned to an Afghan context where they may not apply.

As usually happens when journalists come together, talk turned to the financial crisis of the press today and the resource constraints which this imposes. Both the Times and the Post have continued to devote significant resources to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even increasing the latter. But there’s a lot fewer other papers able to do so, and to this point no clearly viable new media business model to fill the gap. Tyson pointed out how the Iraq focus had sucked attention away from Afghanistan for the crucial years of 2005-2008, a gap which the media was only now beginning to fill — tellingly, following rather than leading the White House’s decision about where to focus.

Finally, Gordon complained of the "lag time" between Washington-based analysts and reporters on the ground, and hit out against bloggers, pundits, politicians, and other analysts who weren’t there on the ground. This struck me as something of a red herring — war reporters and policy analysts do different things, have access to different streams of information, have different needs and make different contributions. Embedding with the military offers an unparalleled worms eye view, but it’s only one part of a complex picture, and such experiences are only one of the multiple streams of information and context needed by serious analysis. One point which didn’t come up in the discussion but perhaps should have is the significant difference in what can be learned between long-term war correspondents, present in the field for months and months and able to get out into the field and really learn their turf, and the "war tourists" coming in for a week’s embed or a CODEL-style set of briefings and trip through a marketplace tour to be able to say they’ve "been in Iraq/Afghanistan." Those differences would make for a fascinating follow-on panel discussion — which someone else should organize!

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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