July 26, 2007

A Second Iraqi Media Worker Dies for The New York Times

The mainstream media practices its own form of apartheid in Iraq

By David Paulin

It’s an Iraq story that reporters ought to fall over themselves to cover: Iraqis employed by U.S. companies are being sacrificed for the sake of corporate profits. You might call it a sort of corporate apartheid. But you won’t find the Bush administration or Halliburton in this scandal. The culprits are America’s most illustrious media giants – The New York Times, Associated Press, and a number of others. At issue is their practice of “hotel journalism.”

American journalists for much of the war have stayed holed up in hotels and well-guarded homes in the Green Zone. Most write their stories and do phone interviews there. And they communicate with Iraqis whom their companies employ as reporters, translators, and photographers.

Hastily trained, most of these Iraqis lack the professional backgrounds that even a small-town weekly paper in the U.S. would demand. Yet they are shaping our view of the war. These Iraqis, moreover, are dying in large numbers; yet they earn local wages and benefits; and though their compensation is high by local standards, it’s still Third World.

There’s a curious irony here. Liberal papers like The New York Times rail against the economic injustices of outsourcing; yet they demonstrate no such anger over their own employment practices.

Some Iraqi media workers, to be sure, have demonstrated courage and a commitment to a democratic Iraq, and it appears that Hassan was one of them. But others appear to have questionable loyalties or understanding of what constitutes good journalism. One Iraqi AP photographer, Bilal Hussein, is even being held by U.S. military authorities for allegedly having improper ties to terrorists. Oddly, some Iraqi photographers have an uncanny ability to arrive, unimpeded, to cover unfolding terrorist activity or the downing of aircraft. The AP has has vigorously defended Hussein.

Whether exceptional, mediocre, are despicable, all Iraqi media workers have one thing in common. They grew up in a brutal Stalinist dictatorship – one simmering with social tensions and devoid of intellectual freedom and a responsible press.

'Hotel Journalism’

The blogesphere has registered the harshest criticism of “hotel journalism.” But earlier this month, The Times addressed the issue in some unusually frank and circumspect articles regarding the death of one of its media workers. He was the second murder victim in ten months.

Khalid W. Hassan, 23, gave his life on July 13 for the Gray Lady. A Palestinian Sunni, Hassan was driving to work when he was shot to death under circumstances that The Times said were unclear. The well-liked Iraqi interpreter and translator started with the newspaper of record when he was just 19 years old. And on Sept. 19, 2005 a highly respected Iraqi stringer, Fakher Haider, 38, was kidnapped and murdered in the port city of Basra under mysterious circumstances.

The two are among at least 129 Iraqi journalists and media workers who have been murdered or killed in hostilities since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In contrast, only two American journalists have died.

Paying tribute to Hassan, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said Hassan comprised a “large, sometimes unsung” group of media workers who “take enormous risks every day. Without them, Americans’ understanding of what is happening on the ground in Iraq would be much, much poorer.” In a 670-word statement on a Times blog, Baghdad bureau chief John F. Burns tiptoed around the issue of exactly how his paper uses its Iraqi employees. An excerpt:

“Our Iraqi reporters — who do double duty as interpreters when they accompany New York-based correspondents and photographers on assignments — are the bedrock of our enterprise.

“This is not to confirm what some of the more scathing critics of the American media’s performance in Iraq have alleged, which is that American reporters in Baghdad practice a form of “hotel journalism” — meaning that for most of what we write we rely on the reporting of Iraqi staff members who venture beyond our well-guarded compounds, and rarely do so ourselves. There is hardly ever a day when one or more of our American reporters is not out in the city, or on embeds in Baghdad and beyond with American and Iraqi troops, and the results can be measured, on any day, by the authenticity of the reports that appear in the paper.

“But it would be foolish to deny that there are occasions when a sensible calibration of risk deters us from going out on assignment ourselves. Often, those judgments apply in equal measure to our Iraqi reporters, too. But there are other times when an Iraqi, blending into the environment in ways that no foreigner can, feels safe in taking on an assignment that we judge to be too hazardous to undertake ourselves. Our principle is that any Iraqi leaving our compound on assignment — whether reporter, driver or guard — does so only as a “willing partner,” and after a thorough security review of the assignment beforehand."

Burns is one of the most well respected Western journalists in Iraq. But his comments must be considered within the context of who is dying for America’s Fourth Estate. It’s certainly not Americans. Of the two who died, only one was a staff writer – Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. He died at the start of the war when his Humvee careened off a road after coming under enemy fire. The other was Steven Vincent, a freelancer who was kidnapped and murdered in Basra one year ago.

Dying in Large Numbers

In all, at least 152 journalists and media workers have died: 109 were murdered and 43 killed due to hostilities, according to CPJ. Sixty-four (42 percent) worked for international news organizations – including The New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, and McClatchy (formerly Knight Ridder). Iraqis comprised 90 of those whom the CPJ classified as “journalists.”

Some American reporters, to be sure, have faced perilous situations. Following some close calls, Times reporter Dexter Filkins even packed a sidearm for a while, much to the consternation of Baghdad’s upright bureau chief at the time, Susan Sachs.

Burns’ comments to the contrary, the blood Iraqis are spilling for The Times and other news outlets underscores the apartheid-like nature of the mainstream media’s war coverage. AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman summed up things two years ago, telling The Times: “The main obstacle we face is the severe limitation on our movement and our ability to get out and report. It’s very confining for our staff to go into Baghdad and have to spend most of their time on the fifth floor of the Palestine Hotel.”

That’s how Knight Ridder (now McClautchy) has operated too, said its Baghdad bureau chief two years ago. “We’re still spending a lot of time inside the hotel,” noted 25-year-old Hannah Allam, now based in Cairo. “Even if we do go out, we don’t stay in any one place more than 20 minutes; and then we go back to the hotel. But we’re doing a lot of phone interviews. We’re sending our Iraqi staff members out a lot more, to gather information and to conduct interviews.”

Months later, Allam made a splash with a controversial memo addressed to Knight Ridder editors that was widely circulated on the Internet. She attacked a columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press – the Knight Ridder paper she worked at not long before Baghdad – who had dared to criticize Knight Ridder’s reporting as being overly negative.

'Outsourcing' the News

The heavy use of non-staff personnel in Iraq is part of a trend in the news business dating to the 1980s. Since then, print and television organizations have increasingly adopted corporate America’s outsourcing model: They’ve closed dozens of foreign bureaus. And to maintain foreign coverage and appearances, they’ve relied on increasing numbers of freelancers, “contract reporters,” and people they hire locally. But while outsourcing may work for corporate America, it’s a miserable model for foreign news gathering.

In Iraq, the system of journalistic apartheid encourages distorted reporting for a number of reasons. Like freelance journalists and temporary media workers everywhere, Iraqi’s media personnel have no real job security. They’re either hired on a temporary basis or work as freelancers, meaning they’re paid for each assignment or story or photograph.They essentially chase a paycheck with every assignment. As a result, they have a built-in incentive to cheat. This may involve hyping a story or photograph to ensure they’re used – and to ensure their services remain in demand.

Cheats have an advantage when working abroad: They face little accountability. Who is going to complain when a story gets a few facts screwed up? And to whom would they complain? A weekly paper in the U.S. is apt to get a complaint for something as minor as a misspelled name.

In the chaos of Iraq, reporters can fabricate quotes, slant coverage, or hype stories – and they’ll probably get away with it. Biased editors tend not to question articles, quotes, and photos that confirm their biases. And well-meaning though inexperienced freelancers and temporary media workers are unlikely to assert themselves in a dispute with an editor. They must think about their next paycheck.

"There's a dramatic relationship between changes in the industry and use of freelancers. It's something that a lot of people are very worried about," observed Josh Friedman, director of the Columbia journalism school’s international program. "If you complain, employers will just drop you and get somebody else."

Friedman was quoted in a recent article about Jill Carroll, the American freelancer who was kidnapped in Baghdad while on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor. The fascinating piece in Radar, an online magazine, echoed the first two posts published by this website, more than one year ago.

Fortunately, some counterbalance has been provided by well-informed bloggers who are scrutinizing the media’s war coverage. Without them, public opinion against the war would probably be even lower that it has been, noted author James Q. Wilson.

High-Risk Job

Of course, the most brutal aspect of Iraq’s journalistic apartheid is that Iraqi media workers are more likely to die than their American counterparts, who have well-paying staff positions and good benefits. There are systemic reasons for this. For one thing, freelancers and temporary workers are compromised due, once again, to a lack of job security and professional standing. They can’t easily turn down too many assignments, especially if other media workers are willing to do them. Obviously, they’ll risk getting replaced. And if they're replaced, it’s unlikely they’ll have the right to appeal the decision to a U.S.-based personnel manager.

The news business is competitive, and news managers are expected to produce. When I had a stint as a wire service reporter in the Caribbean, my bureau chief and news editor suggested that their photographer in Jamaica was a coward. They talked of getting rid of him, complaining he was reluctant to charge into dangerous flare-ups of civil unrest, when armed gangs were shooting it out.

The photographer, a Jamaican father with children, was paid for individual assignments and photos. As a black Jamaican, he could easily be mistaken for a combatant, as opposed to an impartial photojournalist. The editors, single women tenaciously wedded to their careers, nevertheless fretted over the photos they were missing. I knew the photographer, and they were wrong about him. It didn’t matter. The editors had one concern – results.

Interestingly, the photographer was not issued a bullet-proof vest, even though I, as a Jamaica-based contract correspondent, got one. When I pointed this out to the photographer, he laughed nervously.

What kinds of pressures are being put on freelancers and media workers in Iraqi and other high-risk areas? And what responsibilities do media companies have toward them?

“The relationship is informal contract labor,” pointed out McClatchy’s managing editor for international coverage, Mark Seibel. “How far should an international news organization go to help them? There is probably a need to review and go over polices.”

Seibel has lots of experience with informal labor. As a Miami Herald senior editor in the late 1990s, he oversaw the paper’s international edition: Its masthead listed me as its “Caracas correspondent.” A non-staff position, it paid a few hundred dollars per article. It could be a tough way to make a living. Jill Carroll would attest to that. In a colorful piece in American Journalism Review, she described her hardscrabble freelancing days in Baghdad.

Hassan apparently had money problems of his own, despite his prestigious job with The Times. One Times editor said he “spent most of his salary on rent for a cramped apartment for him, his mother and his siblings.” Fortunately, The Times set up a fund for Hassan’s family, noted The Times blog. People wishing to contribute were advised to “please send an email to foreign@nytimes.com with ‘fund for Khalid Hassan’s family’ in the subject line.”

Beyond problems arising from its system of journalistic apartheid, news outlets distort reality by adopting a morally neutral worldview, part of today’s journalistic conceit promulgated by media elites. Speaking years ago at a Columbia University seminar broadcast by PBS, veteran CBS newsman Mike Wallace famously declared that American war correspondents were neutral observers and thus had no obligation to warn U.S. troops of an impending ambush. “No, you don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter,” he declared. The ethical thing to do, as a journalist, would be to film the slaughter. And when criticizing the U.S. military’s detention of Bilal Hussein, the AP photographer, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said: “There’s no way to cover an insurgency without having contact with insurgents.”

Steven Vincent, the murdered freelancer, wrote eloquently of how such moral neutrality and equivalency was distorting our picture of Iraq. He preferred words such as “paramilitaries” and "death squads" instead of “insurgents” to define the enemy.

'If it Bleeds, It Leads'

And then there’s the problematic way in which news is defined and presented. Conflict is stressed above all else: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Most Americans get their Iraq news from the AP, and the opening paragraphs of its stories – those which command the most attention – invariably stress the most recent suicide bombing. It’s part of a standard “hard news” formula in which conflict is hyped to the limit. But it’s not a good way to cover a war.

After all, you could write nearly every story the same way out of Venezuela, which has a population of about 27 million people, about the same as Iraq’s. Like Iraq, Venezuela is a chaotic and violent place with reported murders having doubled during eight years of Hugo Chavez. There were 12,557 last year. That’s more than 34 ever day – the equivalent of about one suicide bombing every day in Iraq.

Imagine the kind of stories you’d see out of Venezuela if it were covered like Iraq. Here’s an example:

Venezuela’s Chavez opens food market amid mounting violence, deaths

By The Associated Press
CARACASPresident Hugo Chavez, flanked by Cindy Sheehan and Danny Glover, opened a new government-subsidized food market today amid mounting violence across the country.

Over the last three days, there were more than 150 murders across the South American nation, with most taking place in the grimy hillside slums where Chavez’s support is the strongest.

Chavez drew smiles from Sheehan and Glover when he said President George Bush could “learn a thing or two about eliminating poverty and creating jobs” with the subsidized market.

Meanwhile, much of Caracas was without water due to city-wide outage, the third in as many weeks. Electricity outages occurred in parts of the city, too. These problems have plagued the city, Venezuela’s capital, for years.

Chavez’s critics blame the runaway murder rate on government mismanagement and official corruption, which they contend has led to increased poverty and deteriorating basic services, despite record-high oil profits. But Chavez blames the violence on “oligarchs” whom he says are instigating the violence.

Aside from some artistic license, there’s nothing wrong with the basic facts here; you could put them in any story. Yet in reality it’s not quite so grim in Caracas, where I used to live and still visit: Streets are choked with traffic, people crowd sidewalk cafes, and fashion-conscious women visit beauty parlors. In Iraq, similar examples of normality may be found. When she was Knight Ridder’s bureau chief, Allam said she would unwind by treating herself to a manicure at a local beauty parlor. Hassan, for his part, was recalled as a fun-loving man-about-town who enjoyed his work.

All in all, you might get better news coverage all around if you covered Iraq like Venezuela – and Venezuela like Iraq. Allam, for her part, is sure to find a beauty parlor in Caracas that would suit her.

Additional Reading:

*See Kesher Talk's coverage of a panel discussion in New York, "Fixers on the Front Lines."

No comments: