The Newsroom: How Newsweek Covered Iraq

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Toppling of Saddam Hussein statue, Firdos Square, Iraq, April 9, 2003. Jerome Delay/AP

Few days before the start of the Iraq War, I was summoned to the Pentagon, along with other senior editors for major U.S. news organizations. The message from Victoria Clarke, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s spokesperson, was severe and unequivocal: the bombing of Baghdad would soon begin and our correspondents on the scene would be in grave danger unless we pulled them out.

Leaving the meeting, I felt both manipulated and uncertain. The Pentagon surely had its own reasons for not wanting reporters on the scene. At the same time, how could we judge the real risks from our offices in Washington and New York? And was any story important enough to risk the death of one of our reporters? For Newsweek, the reporter in question was Melinda Liu, one of our most experienced foreign correspondents. Melinda had covered conflicts and coups around the world and had even been shot while on assignment for Newsweek in Manila. While we had pulled out another correspondent in the run-up to the war, we’d agreed to let Melinda ride it out. But now we faced a difficult choice.

As Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, I delivered the Pentagon’s message to Melinda. Not surprisingly, she was adamant about staying. She felt safe enough in the Palestine Hotel, which was removed from the government ministries and major military installations that were the primary U.S. targets. But the orders for her to leave Iraq were coming from on high. Donald Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Co., which at the time owned Newsweek, called me to say he hoped we were pulling Melinda out. It fell to Richard Smith, Newsweek’s chairman and editor in chief, to give the order. Melinda was furious. What had she been doing living under one of the world’s deadliest regimes for the past two months if not preparing to cover the war? She agreed to leave—but not before sitting down at her laptop and writing a letter of resignation.

In the end, it didn’t come to that. In the chaos and confusion of the war, Melinda was unable to get an exit visa from the Information Ministry. It quickly became clear that it would be too dangerous to try to flee Iraq overland without the proper papers. She had to stay. Back home we were all concerned about Melinda’s safety. At the same time, there was something comforting about having Melinda, pro that she was, on such a big and important story. Instead of resigning, Melinda, the only newsmagazine correspondent still in Baghdad, got to work.

The next evening the bombs began to fall. Watching the spectacle unfold from the balcony of her hotel was like having a front-row seat at an IMAX war movie. As she described the scene in Newsweek, “The night sky pulsed with crimson fireballs and Iraqi tracer fire, the concussion had knocked the plaster from my hotel’s ceilings and an entire riverbank of government buildings had disintegrated as I watched from an upper floor.” That night, Melinda filed in short bursts as a precautionary measure in case they were hit or lost power. In New York, her editors weaved together her dispatches into a brilliant diary that vividly captured the surreal quality of Saddam’s final days, as well as the spreading chaos and fear as war gripped the city.

klaidman-FE01-nw-iraq-second On the battlefield and in Washington, journalists covering Iraq faced difficult choices. Alex Majoli/Magnum

War is the most extreme circumstance journalists face. It imposes especially difficult choices because the stakes are so high. Reporters have to balance their own safety—and the safety of their sources—against the imperatives of covering a crucial news event. They have to avoid manipulation by their government in the most charged of settings and when the truth is most elusive. They have to navigate the thin line between their responsibilities as citizens of a country and their mission as truth-seeking journalists. The choices are often far from clear.

One of the most important choices journalists faced was how to cover the ground invasion as American forces pushed north from Kuwait. Most reporters—including some from Newsweek—were embedded with U.S. troops. But Rod Nordland, who was coordinating Newsweek’s coverage from the war zone, was worried that reporters, restricted to the movements of the units they were traveling with, wouldn’t get a broad enough view. (During the first Gulf War, Newsweek’s Ray Wilkinson got stuck with a unit in a desert campsite for three months.) So with the approval of editors in New York, Rod sent Scott Johnson in as a “unilateral,” unattached to any American contingent. After hiding out in the desert frontier, Scott and French photographer Luc Delahaye crossed into Iraq on March 21, driving their Pajero SUVs alongside the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade. When the Marines told them to head back south, they ignored the order. Instead, they cut through the desert, off-road, to meet up with the Third Infantry Division advancing on Baghdad. Once they reached the massive American column, they decided to head on toward the next U.S. convoy.

The next morning an American soldier called Newsweek’s headquarters in New York and reached Dave Friedman at the news desk. The U.S. military had found the wreckage of Scott’s SUV and his satellite phone. But there was no sign of Scott. Newsweek’s editor Mark Whitaker remembers it being one of the most difficult moments of his career as a journalist. Had Scott been captured or killed by Iraqi forces? Later that morning, Delahaye surfaced, and said Scott was still missing. Finally word came that Scott was alive. While in between convoys, he had driven straight into an Iraqi ambush. His car had flipped and crashed into a light post as he tried to speed away. Eventually, Scott was rescued by a passing American convoy.

klaidman-FE01-nw-iraq-third American troops in Iraq, April 2003. Alex Majoli/Magnum

The next day, I picked up my phone after returning from lunch to find Victoria Clarke on the line. She was livid. Not only had we almost gotten one of our own correspondents killed, Clarke argued, we had jeopardized the security of the U.S. service members who had to divert from their mission to rescue Scott. (For his part, Scott says U.S. troops did not put themselves in danger to rescue him. See his recounting of the story here.)

Talking to Clarke, I wondered whether the Pentagon was once again trying to keep the media on a tight leash. The reality, of course, was complicated. Rod, Newsweek’s most battle-tested correspondent, was annoyed at Scott and Delahaye: in his view, they’d foolishly made the mistake of outrunning the unit they were with, hence their brush with the Iraqis. This was bound to give unilaterals a bad name. From Scott’s perspective, however, he was simply doing what Newsweek wanted: covering the war as thoroughly as possible by trying to get to the frontlines.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military had put together one of the most elaborate “embed” programs war had ever known. It was billed by the Pentagon as an opportunity for the press to cover the conflict more authentically; reporters would get the grunt’s-eye view of war. But many journalists—not to mention media critics—were suspicious. They feared that it was a way for the military to control the message. (Strategic communications, or “Stratcom” in military parlance, had become a major priority for the Pentagon. It was a hangover from Vietnam, where the military said the press had “lost” the war.) Being embedded in Iraq was like any access reporting; there was always the danger of being seduced or shading the coverage—consciously or not—to avoid being cut off.

But the best reporters used their access to report unflinchingly. Kevin Peraino was embedded with Charlie Rock Company of the Third Infantry Division. Their mission was to seize control of the Baghdad International Airport. Peraino’s riveting dispatch captured the human and sometimes banal side of war—the tedium, grime, putrid smells, and occasional blunders, as well as flashes of heroism and character. He also chronicled the mischief and breakdown in discipline that sometimes happen when groups of testosterone-filled young men spend long hours together in tense anticipation of fighting. On one occasion, the boys of Charlie Rock blew up an airplane sitting on the tarmac for sport. The grunts didn’t like Kevin’s portrait of them—an awkward situation for him, since he remained with the unit. He felt better when one of their officers, Capt. Todd Kelly, clapped him on the back and complimented him on the story. “The truth is ruthless,” Kelly said, an allusion to a comment Averell Harriman once made about Robert F. Kennedy.

That said, the relationship between reporters and soldiers wasn’t always tense. The basic elements of war often had a way of bringing them together. Melinda was in Firdos Square on the day that Saddam’s statue was famously knocked down by sledgehammer-bearing Iraqis, with American help—footage that was flashed around the world to the delight of the Bush administration. (Later, the episode was the subject of controversy when some suggested the toppling of the statute was stage-managed by a PR-conscious military.) As darkness fell, she met a group of Marines who wanted nothing more than to call their loved ones back home, especially one who was having a family emergency. So Melinda invited them back to her hotel where they could use her satellite phone. After the calls, Melinda offered the Marines canned tuna and vodka (a “victory toast,” they called it). As it turned out, they had been the Marines who had given the sledgehammers and rope to the Iraqis who were trying to destroy the Saddam statue.

Documenting the war visually posed another set of dilemmas. This was one area where newsmagazines still had an advantage over their competitors. Newsweek repeatedly opted to print disturbing and sometimes grisly pictures—images that brought home the human tragedy of the conflict. One image in particular by photojournalist Chris Hondros (who later died in Libya) continues to haunt. On January 18, 2005, Hondros was in Tel Afar, a hotbed of the insurgency, as dusk was descending. A car was approaching a U.S. checkpoint. In the confusion of the moment, the driver failed to heed the warnings of jittery troops to stop. The soldiers opened fire. Inside was a family of eight. The parents were killed instantly, while a number of their children sustained terrible injuries. The picture that Newsweek published was of 5-year-old Samar Hassan, screaming in anguish, splattered with the blood of her mother and father.

klaidman-FE01-nw-iraq-fourth Baghdad during the fall of Saddam’s regime. Alex Majoli/Magnum

Some of the most consequential choices for journalists had unfolded before the war started. The rap on the press, largely true, is that we did not write as skeptically as we should have in 2002 and early 2003—particularly on the question of whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, but also on the wisdom of invading and occupying a major country in a volatile region. My own view—admittedly biased—is that Newsweek was better than most. Middle East editor and Paris bureau chief Christopher Dickey cast a skeptical eye from almost the moment Washington started saber rattling about Iraq in the days and weeks following 9/11. In an article called “The Perils of Victory” that ran weeks before the start of hostilities, he wrote that “after a U.S. invasion, far from being a City on a Hill that provides a shining example, [Iraq] will be more like a roach motel: you can check in, but you can’t check out.”

Meanwhile investigative reporter Michael Isikoff helped demolish the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam’s regime had significant ties to al Qaeda. In a series of stories, Mike thoroughly debunked the purported meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent in Prague. Other stories poked holes in the intelligence the Bush administration relied on to support its claims that Saddam had WMDs. One, by Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas, portrayed Ahmed Chalabi—the Iraqi exile, darling of the neocons, and major purveyor of intel to the administration—as a “snake-oil salesman.”

Yet we also made our share of missteps. One instance was particularly maddening because we had a great piece of reporting but badly underplayed it. One month before the war, Pentagon reporter John Barry discovered a nugget that in retrospect was a blockbuster. In 1995, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, one of Saddam’s sons-in-law and the head of the military commission that supervised Iraq’s WMD stocks, had defected to Jordan, where he spilled his knowledge to Western intelligence agencies and U.N. weapons inspectors. A month before the 2003 invasion, Barry learned that Kamel had told his interrogators that Iraq had destroyed all of its WMDs after the first Gulf War. Newsweek published the revelation as a short item near the front of the magazine, under an ambiguous headline. It had little impact. (A CIA spokesman furiously denied the report at the time as “incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue.”)

klaidman-FE01-nw-iraq-fifth Samar Hassan, after U.S. troops shot her parents. Chris Hondros/Getty

Why did the media’s coverage fall short on WMDs? For one thing it’s hard to prove a negative. But Evan Thomas had another explanation for the lack of skepticism. Evan believed he and other Washington journalists had caught a mild case of war fever. Reporters are human, and 9/11 was the most catastrophic event they had ever covered. Like many Americans, they experienced an almost atavistic desire for revenge, not to mention an impulse to rally around the flag. (It would have been more patriotic, of course, to report fairly but skeptically.) This psychology may well have affected the tone, if not the substance, of our coverage.

As the war slogged on, Newsweek stayed committed to the story. From Washington, we documented how the administration had pushed faulty and twisted intelligence in its march to war. And from Iraq—where the magazine spent as much as $1 million per year to maintain its Baghdad bureau—our correspondents chronicled the brutal and bloody insurgency that raged through 2007. Always, they reported on the human toll of the violence—on Iraqis as well as American service members.

In 2007, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham wanted to produce an oral history of the war. We decided to tell the story through the letters and emails of those Americans who had died on the battlefield. Collecting and editing their correspondence was a massive undertaking. Eve Conant, one of the many reporters who was tasked with collecting letters from grieving families, described the wrenching process: “We humans are hard-wired for empathy and reporter deadlines, fluorescent office lighting, and our other phones lines ringing doesn’t change any of that.” Cumulatively the “Voices of the Fallen” issue captured the widest range of human experience in war—from the mundane to the tragic, the humorous to the desperate. Don Graham called it the best issue of Newsweek in its then almost 75-year history.

klaidman-FE01-nw-iraq-sixth Looting in Baghdad, April 2003. Alex Majoli/Magnum

With one of the largest footprints in Iraq of any news organization, security was always a major concern for Newsweek. No one was more diligent about the safety of our journalists, including the large Iraqi staff we relied on, than Rod. He was particularly paternal toward the younger, greener correspondents whom we increasingly turned to as the war ground on. Rod made a point of calling each of their mothers to reassure them that Newsweek was doing everything we could to keep their children safe. He made the controversial decision to move the bureau into the Green Zone, when most other American outlets stayed outside of the compound so they could move around more freely.

As it turned out, maintaining the only journalists’ quarters inside the Green Zone had an upside beyond security: our headquarters became a refuge for diplomats, military people, and spooks who could relax more easily—and drink more freely—than they could in their own areas. (Rod even rigged up a misting system to keep their kebab dinners on the patio more bearable during scorching hot evenings.) In the end, Rod was vindicated: throughout the entire course of the war, not a single Newsweek employee, American or Iraqi, was killed or seriously injured. “That record is one we can be proud of,” Rod emailed earlier this week from Kabul, where he is now based for The New York Times.

In 2007, Larry Kaplow—the longest continually serving American reporter in Iraq—became our man in Baghdad. (He had previously worked for Cox newspapers.) By 2009, he’d picked up an expression that American soldiers and diplomats had begun to use to describe the limits of what America would be able to achieve in Iraq. The phrase was “Iraqi good enough”—a pragmatic concession that, while the worst days of the bloodbath were over, stable democracy was not in the country’s immediate future.

Larry wrote a retrospective for Newsweek about his years covering the war, using that phrase as a jumping-off point. The article was newsmagazine journalism at its finest: it told the story of what had by then become a deeply sad zeitgeist surrounding an American adventure gone awry. I thought of that phrase—and Larry’s piece—when I heard earlier this week that a string of coordinated car bombings had ripped through Baghdad, killing at least 18 people and wounding scores more.

Correction: This article has been revised to include Scott Johnson’s perspective on his ambush in Iraq. Johnson says he did not race into the Iraqi unknown—as the article originally stated—but was instead driving toward a convoy that was further ahead. He also says that he did not endanger the U.S. troops who rescued him or disregard the military’s rules for war coverage—and that he was covering the war as he believed Newsweek wanted it to be covered.

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