The reality of war reporting is far different, but, like the first draft of any period in history, it's going to take some serious distance in time before the matter can be solved in anything approaching a definitive way. With all that in mind, I sat down for a long chat this week with CBS News' chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan to talk about some of the challenges of covering this war (click the picture below for one of her more recent reports from the field).
For all the sweeping generalizations we so often hear about reporters who are anti-war, administration apologists, enemy sympathizers and the like, Logan says "I'm not any of those things." She presented her views of the war as largely complicated and wholly "irrelevant" when it comes to being a part of her work. For instance, Logan told me her pre-war reporting uncovered skepticism about the ability of an invasion to achieve many stated goals, mostly because she was told over and over again by people in that region that Iraqis did not want foreign soldiers in their country. At the same time, she voiced a great deal of respect for the coalition soldiers she covers because in most every particular instance she finds "they are trying to do the right thing."
Logan noted that she has been criticized as a tool of military propaganda for stories like the one she filed for "60 Minutes" on apparently successful efforts to rid the city of Tal Afar from al Qaeda fighters. And, she's been accused of hurting the war effort for another "60 Minutes" story she filed about the supposed safety on the Baghdad airport road and more recent reports from the front lines in Ramadi.
Not one to be shy in responding to such criticism, Logan said she is more focused on the work at hand. She ticked off a list of hurdles – the difficulty of verifying many facts, understanding the various competing forces and simply managing logistics. I asked her whether it is even possible, given the obstacles, to tell the story in a two-minute "Evening News" package. "If you really understand the story, you can capture the essence," she said.
Part of understanding the story is understanding the enemy, she maintains. While some think talking to members of the insurgency or terrorists is akin to providing them free propaganda, Logan sees it as an essential part of the job. "It's the antithesis of free speech," not to hear from them she said, "you can't decide when it can or cannot apply." Logan said she feels a responsibility to the audience to provide the most complete picture she can and that includes hearing from those fighting against the coalition.
Another part of understanding the story Logan said is to experience it as much as safely possible, acknowledging both the high possibility of danger and the perception that media observers sometimes play it too safe. "It's a no-win situation" in some ways she said, noting that if a reporter takes risks they're often called "hotdogs" yet when they stay within a zone of safety they're accused of being "rooftop reporters." Logan says she relies on her Iraqi contacts and her own judgment when it comes to issues of personal safety and says she doesn't take unnecessary risks.
I asked her about complaints from military members that the media ignores some of the progress being made in Iraq like school openings, water projects and other infrastructure improvements. Logan said she sympathizes with the feeling among individuals involved in those type of improvements that they are seeing a different picture but insists that is an isolated view that ignores the bigger picture. She says new schools, water projects and sewer improvements so far represent "a fraction" of what is needed. Looking back to her recent trip to Ramadi to report on the violence in that city, Logan pointed to the fact that she found herself on patrol in the streets, "wading knee-deep in human waste."
I learned more than I expected from my talk with this war reporter, coming away with a deeper understanding of just how daunting a task it is to understand what is really happening in Iraq – and how easy it is to criticize the attempts to do so. Iraq isn't just a different culture, it's many different cultures. Each and every interest involved in the war – from local power-brokers to huge military machines -- will mislead, even lie to reporters for advantage so that nailing down even the simplest facts is often incredibly difficult and getting all of them almost impossible. Reporters face many of the same types of obstacles just covering Washington politics but we generally at least all speak the same language and usually aren't being shot at.
I was also reminded of how easy it is for arm-chair critics (including PE) to nit-pick each and every word, picture and soundbite coming to us about the war. I'm no more or less skeptical of the reporting I read and see from Iraq than I was before but I more cognizant of how much I don't know about that country, culture and conflict. And I'm even more appreciative of the efforts of all the journalists covering this war to bring us a first rough draft of history.