March 30, 2006

Jill Carroll's kidnapping: A black eye for mainstream media's use of freelancers

Jill Carroll, the freelance journalist kidnapped in Baghdad nearly three months ago, was freed today. In the coming days, the mainstream media will thoroughly examine her capture and ordeal. But one thing will be left out: its own role in her kidnapping and the murder of her translator, thanks to policies revolving around its use - and misuse - of freelancers.

By David Paulin
Austin, Texas
-- Jill Carroll, the 28-year-old freelance journalist kidnapped in Baghdad nearly three months ago, was attempting to make her mark in journalism by going to Iraq. She had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and in the months ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Carroll, who had been laid off at The Wall Street Journal, figured the Middle East was the place to go.

Carroll was released today. Her translator, Allan Enwiyah, was not as lucky. He was shot and killed when the car in which he and Carroll were riding was intercepted in broad daylight.

Carroll has yet to speak publicly. But one thing is certain: Apart from her extraordinary mettle, she appears in many ways to be a typical of the freelance foreign correspondents on which news outlets have increasingly relied in recent years; and herein are some dirty little secrets of the media industry.

Faced with plummeting advertising revenues, media organizations have slashed their staffs and operating budgets in the past couple of decades in pursuit of ever greater profits. One of the causalities have been foreign news bureaus. As a consequence, many outlets have turned increasingly to freelancers like Carroll. Compared to staff writers, they're cheap.

Carroll freelanced for The Christian Science Monitor and several other publications -- in other words, she got paid per article. I don't know what she was earning. But as a former freelance foreign correspondent who has written for some of the same publications as Carroll, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe and Platts Oilgram News, I assume she got a few hundred dollars per article. It's really not much for a multi-source showcase piece, written from a war zone amid myriad inconveniences and risks: electrical outages, irregular phone service, and vicious Muslim terrorists not inclined to look kindly upon an American woman writing for a paper called The Christian Science Monitor, for which she'd been working "on assignment" (to use the lexicon of freelance journalism).

Clearly, idealism, ambition, and a spirit of adventure are the motivating forces driving Carroll and other freelancers working abroad. And more than a few are encouraged by editors who suggest their freelancing may eventually lead to staff positions with a regular salary and usual benefits – the very things one expects in any decent job, whether an office...or a coal mine.

Carroll would have enjoyed none of the benefits enjoyed by staff writers in Iraq: No bullet-proof vests; no war-zone training; no armed guards. Forget about insurance of any kind. (The Christian Science Monitor, to be sure, has yet to comment publicly on these issues; however, it appears she was not treated like a typical freelancer.) Even so, she was on her own, living in what The New York Times described as a modest "threadbare" room -- all for the love of journalism. (See correction/author's note, below.)

There's a certain hypocrisy at play when one compares the media's attitude toward freelancers like Carroll against the values it professes as a noble and vigilant watchdog of the public's trust. Consider the mining accident at the Sago mine in West Virginia, which occurred just days before Carroll's kidnapping. The mainstream media quickly raised its collective voice in anger over every hint of safety violations at the mine. Yet when it comes to journalists like Carroll, it tolerates and even encourages the same abuses it gleefully excoriates in those who fall into its journalistic cross hairs.

The public hasn't a clue about what's going on. The average reader would never suspect Carroll's freelance status by looking at her byline in The Christian Science Monitor or other publications for which she wrote. Most would assume she was part of the paper's foreign staff.

In Iraq and elsewhere, Carroll was part of what might be called a three-tier system of news gathering; it enables news outlets to cut cost and boost profits, all while delivering a credible product.

Staff reporters are in the top tier. They earn decent salaries and get a variety of benefits. Next are freelancers along with "contract" reporters. Freelancers are paid per article; contract reporters get a salary but one that's probably below what a staff reporter gets. There are no benefits. And as many editors will tell new contract reporters, they're responsible for paying their taxes when living abroad (wink, wink). I say this based on my own experience as a contact reporter in Jamaica for the Associated Press. I worked there for a few months in 2001 until leaving (full disclosure here) after a row with a news editor.

On the bottom rung are news assistants or "fixers" who, in places like Iraq, are Iraqis. (See my article from Editor & Publisher, here.) Fixers may set up interviews and help with translation; they'll serve as guides and may even do a bit of reporting despite limited journalism training. In Iraq, they've become vital. That's especially so for the Associated Press, whose staff reporters tend to stay holed up in the safety of their offices in the U.S.-controlled "Green Zone."

Not surprisingly, Iraqi fixers are taking the bulk of the risk, and doing most of the dying. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, more than 20 news assistants have been killed in the line of duty in Iraq since 2003, including 20 Iraqis and one Lebanese. During the same period, 55 journalists have been killed in the performance of their jobs - 65 percent or 36 of whom were Iraqis. Only two were Americans. Nine were from Europe and the rest form other countries including the Middle East, according to SPJ

That Iraqi fixers or news assistants are dying in the greatest numbers is another of the news media's dirty little secrets. Like freelancers and contract reporters, they generally work without benefits or insurance; there are just a handful of exceptions. Yet they are at the greatest risks because of Iraq's sectarian and political violence; not to mention widespread Internet access, which exposes fixers to retaliation when stories they played a part in are posted on media web sites.

Last August, Steven Vincent, an American freelance journalist who wrote for several conservative publications, was kidnapped with his translator, Nour Itais. Vincent was shot to death; Nour shot and left for dead. The incident occurred just three days after Vincent had published an Op-Ed in The New York Times criticizing the increasing infiltration of the Basran police force by Islamic extremists.

When put within a certain context, there is more than just a little hypocrisy here. What, after all, would happen if the news media in Iraq learned U.S. military commanders were sending African-American and Hispanic soldiers on its most dangers missions -- while keeping white troops confined to secure bases? Such a revelation would ignite a journalistic feeding frenzy. On the other hand, there's little if any public soul searching by the media in respect to its relationship to its fixers and freelancers.

Is Iraq an aberration in this respect? I doubt it. During my reporting days in Jamaica, for example, the Associated Press issued me a bullet proof vest. I needed it because gritty sections of Jamaica's capital, Kingston, occasionally descend into raging civil conflict, with violent inner-city gangs, divided along political lines and with loose ties to local politicians, engaging in bloody shoot-outs.

Interestingly, however, no bullet proof vests were issued to the AP's local freelance photographer or freelance correspondent. Yet when the photographer expressed the least bit of hesitation about covering a nasty shootout or violent demonstration, the AP's top two editors in its Caribbean bureau were upset. They intimated he had a yellow streak and talked of getting rid of him.

Both of these guys were black Jamaicans and thus were at a far greater risk than me, a white American; for they could easily be mistaken for combatants when covering a spasm of unrest on an island whose population is overwhelmingly black. It's the same situation for all those Iraqi news assistants - a fact underscored by the way Carroll's kidnappers wasted no time in shooting her translator in the head.

What would Al Sharpton make of all this?

CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and the Miami Herald are reportedly among a few news outlets that, in some ways, treat their fixers as employees – a practice that nevertheless is not widespread, according to an article titled “The Fixers” in the current issue of Dangerous Assignments, published by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In that same article, Mark Seibel, managing international editor of Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau, expressed uncertainty about the obligations media outlets have toward protecting their fixers. "The relationship is informal contract labor,” he observed. “How far should an international news organization go to help them? There is probably a need to review and go over polices.”

For Seibel to suggest he has given no thought to this is puzzling. A highly capable editor, Seibel has spent most of his career with Knight-Ridder; and that includes during the years the news chain eliminated numerous foreign bureaus and came to rely on freelancers such as me: I was the Caracas correspondent for The Herald's international edition for four years in the late 1990's, an edition for which Seibel was responsible.

It was a great job. Hugo Chavez was coming to power, and Seibel put my name on the edition's masthead. And although the señoritas were impressed, the fact is I was just a freelancer, a guy making an irregular salary who had no benefits.

When my apartment was robbed and laptop stolen, The Herald could have cared less. I had hoped the paper might have an old laptop lying around to send me. But Seibel's comment, which a sympathetic editor relayed to me, was the same one he offered to Dangerous Assignments: We don't have a policy on that.

As to Jill Carroll, it will be interesting to see how much The Christian Science Monitor and others for which she freelanced will do to help her out at this point. Will anybody offer her a fulltime job? It was certainly decent of The Monitor's editors, days after her kidnapping, to prevail upon news outlets to impose a limited black out on reporting her name and media affiliation, the idea being that this might afford her some protection from Muslim fanatics.

My own sense was the Carroll was pretty much on her own during her freelancing career and kidnapping ordeal. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out.

Related reading:
"The Jill Carroll/Jordan Times Connection: It's Worse Than Her Critics Imagine."

May 9, 2006

Correction/Author’s Note:
A staff reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, Dan Murphy, recently e-mailed me from Baghdad to protest how I described The Monitor’s relationship with Jill Carroll.

Murphy disputed my contention that Carroll, during her freelancing days with The Monitor, endured the hardscrabble life of a typical freelancer – living on her own in a budget hotel, and enjoying none of the same benefits as the Monitor’s staff reporters.

Carroll, to be sure, had lived such a life for at least one year in Baghdad – a life she described in a colorful article in last year’s February/March issue of American Journalism Review. But when she started freelancing for The Monitor in mid-February, the paper took the unusual step of providing her the same benefits as staffers, even though it compensated her as a freelancer – in other words, paying her for each article. She “had access to precisely the same security arrangements and insurance cover that our staffers enjoyed,” Murphy insisted. She also started to live at The Monitor’s rented hotel facilities, which serve as housing and editorial offices, he said.

I have no reason to disbelieve Murphy. My suggestion that Carroll continued to live a hand-to-mouth existence, while freelancing for The Monitor, should have been more circumspect given what was known -- and unknown – at the time I wrote this article, not long after Carroll’s kidnapping.

That said, the article’s main theme – the mainstream media’s exploitation of freelancers – remains accurate. Readers can decide for themselves whether The Monitor’s unusual relationship with an accomplished but young journalist like Carroll, providing her employee benefits but paying her as a freelancer, was part of the cost-cutting trends I criticized. Even so, there’s no denying that The Monitor treated Carroll better than other news outlets for which she freelanced.

In preparing this article, I should note that not long after Carroll’s kidnapping, I exchanged e-mails with Monitor Editor Richard Bergenheim. But citing the precariousness of Carroll’s situation, he declined to clarify his paper’s relationship with her, saying only that my “assumptions…about our relations with and treatment of Jill are wrong.”

With Bergenheim declining to elaborate, I was left with Carroll’s account in AJR. A quick Google search for her byline prompted me to infer, mistakenly, that she was freelancing for The Monitor when she wrote that piece. Reinforcing my assumption that Carroll endured a hardscrabble freelancer’s life, while writing for The Monitor, was a piece in The New York Times: “For Freelancer Held Hostage, Caution Fell Short,” published Jan. 23, 2006.

It referred to Carroll’s “threadbare” and “inexpensive” hotel room – a description that echoed what Carroll had described in her AJR article. To me this suggested Carroll, despite Bergenheim’s claims to the contrary, was still pretty much on her own. In fact, as Murphy pointed out, her “threadbare” room was at The Monitor’s rented hotel facilities – a detail The Times’ article omitted.

Murphy, incidentally, objected to The Times’ description of Carroll’s room, noting author Sabrina Tavernise never visited it. Tavernise told me in an e-mail from Baghdad that an Iraqi reporter and photographer employed by The Times had visited the room and described it to her.

Yet another detail that was unknown to me is that after Carroll’s kidnapping, The Monitor secretly added her to its reporting staff. This, Murphy explained, was to ensure she had a financial “cushion” after her release. The Monitor waited until after her release to publicize this, he explained, because of concerns that revealing this while she was in captivity would jeopardize her situation with her kidnappers.

Murphy, incidentally, declined to answer my question about how much Carroll earned per article, saying he was “not going to tell you or anyone else.” But another Monitor freelancer, the late Steven Vincent, earned $300 apiece for three articles "if I remember rightly," said his widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, in an e-mail to me.