TV Reporters Decry Drop in Iraq Coverage
News of the bombing that felled a CBS news crew washed over Baghdad’s tight-knit press corps like a tempest this week -- evoking waves of anxiety, sadness, resolve and more than a little dismay.
American television journalists covering Iraq confronted the difficult reality that it took the deaths of a cameraman and soundman and critical injuries to correspondent Kimberly Dozier to help push Iraq back to the forefront of the nightly news back home.
By the end of April, the amount of time devoted to Iraq on the weeknight newscasts of the three major television networks had dropped nearly 60% from 2003, according to the independent Tyndall Report tracking service.
Even before Monday’s attack in a relatively placid section of Baghdad, some network television correspondents had reached the unsettling conclusion that, even as they were risking their lives in the war zone, audiences and producers in America had grown weary of much of the coverage from Iraq.
ABC correspondent John Berman in Baghdad wrote in his blog recently that he and his colleagues felt like the castaways on the network’s prime-time drama “Lost” -- “We have come to the conclusion that no one knows we are here.”
Earlier, he wrote: “There is definitely a sense that the public feels like it knows what is going on here, and doesn’t want to hear anymore about it.”
One NBC veteran expressed frustration at the current verities of the nightly news -- the demand for ever more vivid storytelling to help combat audience fatigue, an imperative often thwarted by the relentless violence in Iraq that makes reporting so difficult.
“I think we are all very concerned that the war and Iraq are not getting their due,” said Allen Pizzey, who has covered several wars, including Iraq, in 26 years at CBS News.
After the death and injury to his friends this week, Pizzey, who recently rotated out of Baghdad, added, “You think, ‘What the hell are we out there for?’ ”
Network news executives defend their coverage. NBC News President Steve Capus said the network’s coverage was “extensive,” giving “an accurate depiction of what’s going on over there.”
Still, he acknowledged that the danger made the broadest reporting from the war zone problematic -- as evidenced by the attack that killed the CBS camera crew.
As a result, Capus has ordered his reporters to take a break from most assignments with the military, to give the network time to “pause to reassess” its safety precautions.
Coverage of Iraq has also been a political issue, with President Bush and his top aides accusing the media of driving down public support for the war by reporting only the “bad news.”
With a combined 23.5 million viewers on a typical weeknight, the three major broadcast networks draw particular scrutiny.
Media critics across the ideological spectrum also have complained about the coverage, or rather the lack thereof.
“The idea that the Brangelina baby or some salacious trial might trump coverage of the war is just stunning to me,” said Cori Dauber, a University of North Carolina researcher who has criticized television coverage from Iraq for its emphasis on violence.
Sean Aday, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reviewed all of the nightly news for NBC and Fox News in 2005 and found that they did not report most U.S. military deaths. Both news outlets also covered an even smaller fraction of violence against Iraqis, he found.
Aday attributed what he called the under-reporting in Iraq to multiple factors, including the danger faced by journalists reporting the story; the fact that random violence typically occurs outside a camera’s view; the sense among news executives that continuing attacks were no longer “news”; and, finally, political pressure on the networks.
Aday said that the constant attacks on the media for alleged negative coverage “have got to be in the back of their heads when they make these decisions.”
In the last week, Iraq has leapt back to the top of network news because of several developments: the deaths of cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan, along with a U.S. soldier; reports from the American military command that a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq this year appears unlikely; and an investigation into an incident last year in which Marines allegedly went on a shooting rampage that killed 24 men, women and children in the Euphrates River town of Haditha.
But the last week has been an exception to the general pattern of diminished coverage.
Paul Slavin, ABC’s senior vice president for worldwide news gathering, said that the networks’ coverage of Iraq should not be judged solely by the evening news. Stories about Iraq sometimes come from other locations, particularly Washington, and air on other “platforms,” such as ABC radio, newsmagazines and the company’s website, he said.
But Slavin acknowledged being “frustrated as hell about our ability to report the story.”
Rome Hartman, executive producer of the CBS Evening News, sounded a similar note. “No, we don’t give our audience as much of a picture as we would like of Iraq,” Hartman said. “But it’s not because of [time devoted to the story], it’s because the security situation makes it impossible to do.”
Many print and television journalists who have covered multiple wars around the world agreed that Iraq was the most dangerous assignment of their careers. Nearly 100 journalists and their support personnel -- the majority of them Iraqis -- have died since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
After a roadside bomb nearly killed anchor Bob Woodruff in late January, ABC tightened an already stringent security regime -- requiring every correspondent to get approval from senior news managers before traveling with a military unit.
Correspondents for all the networks still routinely conduct interviews across Baghdad and the rest of the country. But most try to limit these to well under an hour. Man-in-the-street interviews are considered virtually impossible. To linger outdoors is to be exposed to potential kidnappers or attackers.
Employing such life-saving tactics means stories take longer to complete, said NBC correspondent Jim Maceda, who described the long hours and repeated visits it took him and his crew to complete a feature on the Baghdad symphony.
“All of the conditions militate against getting the story,” Maceda said.
Still, he and other TV reporters have watched in frustration as stories they do complete from Iraq fail to make it on the air, or are delayed.
“I think there is a sense among the [producers] that viewers are turned off by stories from Iraq,” said ABC’s Berman, back in New York in late May after his ninth visit to the war zone, “so the bar is very high to get stories from there on the air and getting higher all the time.”
On his “Baghdad Journal” blog, Berman plugged his piece about Iraqis’ unexpected infatuation with 1980s pop singer Lionel Richie.
He also noted his “mixed feelings” that the piece aired, while a story about 100,000 Iraqis being displaced by sectarian strife sat on the shelf.
Berman and the other correspondents acknowledged that carping for more time on the evening news had been a perennial among reporters in the field. They stressed their respect for the producers in New York who decide what to air.
Still, because of the lack of airtime for Iraq, Pizzey said, “there is frustration. There is definitely frustration.”
“I frankly think some stories ought to run because it’s Iraq,” Pizzey, 59, added, “and the significance is obvious.”
Still overwhelmed by the loss of his colleagues, Pizzey acknowledged his ambivalence about working in Iraq.
He talked about the continuing joys of telling a unique story, such as a recent piece on young Baghdad boys who make a living by scrounging scrap metal from bombing sites. And he described the struggle, first to get stories, then to get them on the air.
The harrowing events of recent days have Pizzey and others reassessing.
“For journalists who cover wars, luck is like a blind trust fund,” Pizzey wrote in a CBS news blog. “You can make withdrawals, but not deposits, and you have no idea how much is left.”
In an interview, he added, “I have to ask myself, how much longer am I going to do this?”