Anthony Shadid, who for the past year has been reporting from Iraq for The Washington Post, delivered the 23rd Joe Alex Morris, Jr. Memorial Lecture at the Nieman Foundation on March 11, 2004. This lecture series was established by Morris’s Harvard classmates and journalistic colleagues to honor his life as a reporter who covered wars, revolutions, coups and uprisings as a foreign correspondent. When he died of a bullet wound in Tehran in February 1979, Morris was covering the final days of the Iranian revolution as the Los Angeles Times’s Middle East bureau chief. In his remarks to the Nieman Fellows and invited guests, Shadid spoke of the responsibilities and risks of working as a reporter in Iraq. A few weeks after the lecture, Shadid won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Excerpts from his talk and his responses to questions follow.
I want to speak to you very much from the day-to-day work I’ve been doing over the past year in Iraq. Maybe I can bring experiences that might shed something new on the business that we’re all involved in. By the end of the talk I hope I will have raised more questions than answers with the knowledge that in these questions there are no good answers available.
For the past year I’ve tried to understand Iraq, admittedly with varying degrees of success. Let me recount to you three stories that drive to the heart of the changing nature of the profession of foreign correspondents and the growing dangers in carrying out that work. What troubles me is a tendency I’ve noticed over the past year for a profession to make what you might describe as seismic decisions about how we conduct our work, often by simply backing into those decisions.
I wrote the first story in July, and I’m going to recount a few paragraphs from it. It was datelined Thuluya, which is a very scenic town about 90 miles north of Baghdad.
“Two hours before the dawn call to prayer, in a village still shrouded in silence, Sabah Kerbul’s executioners arrived. His father carried an AK-47 rifle, as did his brother. With barely a word spoken, they led the man accused by the village of working as an American informer behind a house girded with fig trees, vineyards and orange groves. His hands trembling, his father raised his rifle and aimed at his oldest son. One shot tore through Kerbul’s leg, another his torso. He fell to the ground still breathing, his blood soaking the parched dust near the banks of the Tigris. His father could go no further. Some accounts say he collapsed. His other son then fired three times. Villagers said, at least once at his brother’s head. Kerbul, a tall, husky 28-year-old, died. ‘It wasn’t an easy thing to kill him,’ his brother Salah said.
“In his simple home of cement and cinder blocks, his father Salem nervously thumbed black prayer beads this week as he recalled the warning from village residents earlier this month. He insisted Kerbul was not an informer, but he said his words meant little to a village seething with anger. Their threat was clear: Either he killed his son, he said, or villagers resorted to tribal justice and killed the rest of his family, the retaliation for Kerbul’s role in a U.S. operation in the village in June.
“‘I have the heart of a father, and he’s my son,’ Salem said. ‘Even the prophet Abraham didn’t have to kill his son.’ He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. ‘There was no other choice,’ he whispered.”
The second story was datelined Baghdad. It was a piece that I did in June. It focused on the ordeals of a U.S. military police unit, in particular the sentiments of its commander. One quote I’m going to read was slightly edited when it appeared in the paper. You might see why.
“To Staff Sgt. Charles Pollard, the working-class neighborhood of Mashtal is ‘a very, very, very, very bad neighborhood.’ His frustration in training Iraqi police is matched only by his suspicion, and he has one desire. ‘U.S. officials need to get our asses out of here,’ said the 43-year-old reservist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ‘I say that seriously. We have no business being here. We will not change the culture they have in Iraq and Baghdad. Baghdad is so corrupted. All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks.’”
The last one I wanted to mention is a brief passage from a story I did in Basra, a large city in southern Iraq. I did the piece in August, after weekend riots erupted over collapsing infrastructure. In it, I quoted a guy named Iain Pickard, who was the British civilian spokesman in the city. I was struck in our interview by how forthright he was, how outspoken.
“Pickard acknowledged there was ‘an understandable degree of frustration’ and complained that the priorities of British officials in Basra—power, water and fuel—are not shared to the same degree by U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad. ‘It seemed so bureaucratic, so difficult to get things going,’ he said, from a building looted of everything but its windows before they moved in. ‘We have not had a great deal of say. We don’t feel we’ve been able to influence the reconstruction program.’ He pointed to a U.S.-funded project to renovate 200 schools in the region. ‘While admirable,’ Pickard said, ‘painting schools isn’t going to stop people from rioting.’”
The Price Paid for Coverage
Why do I bring up these stories? To me, they all had something in common. Looking back, they were some of the toughest stories I had to report. Gaining access was difficult. Even more difficult was gaining a small degree of trust that led those people to talk. But it wasn’t necessarily what went into reporting them—not really the content itself. Rather, it was what followed their publication—what the stories prompted—and the landscape that made that response possible.
Within weeks of the story about the father killing his son, the U.S. military started a manhunt for the father along the irrigated farms that border the Tigris. To this day, he remains in hiding. The same village that forced him to kill his son is now trying to protect him.
Sgt. Pollard? His story is a little more colorful. He never recanted his quote, and he was disciplined. He was removed from his command and sent back to base. He became a folk hero of sorts. People hung up the article on the walls of the base known as Mule Skinner. They asked him to sign their T-shirts. They said that, somehow, he was giving voice to what they had wanted to say out loud for quite a while. His family sent out e-mails to protest his circumstances. But in the end, he was still punished for speaking out by a military that doesn’t tolerate dissent.
Finally, the spokesman in Basra. He was fired the next day after the story was published. That kind of criticism, it was made clear to him, was unacceptable. It probably goes without saying that getting a quote out of his replacement, which I’ve tried to do, is next to impossible.
My first reaction in learning of the repercussions was deep unease. “At what cost?,” I asked myself. Were the stories worth the pain they caused? Did they illustrate something that readers would have suffered if they had not known about them? Can we be too reckless in pursuit of a story that has somehow at the time, at least to us, seemed to define the events going on around us?
It was easy to rationalize. All the men spoke on the record. All knew they were talking to a journalist. But then I realized something that has grown in importance in the months since last summer. While every story is admittedly unique, Iraq is far, far different than any other. The judgment that went into writing and reporting stories, rules I’ve adhered to for perhaps a decade or so (and many people in this room probably have, too) don’t hold up in the current Baghdad environment. While Iraq is unlike any other story in the world, there are elements of that story of Iraq that we may start to see elsewhere, in other assignments in the very near future.
Government and the Press
What do I mean by that? For the first time, perhaps, since Vietnam, we’re dealing with a foreign story in which the U.S. government—a government very aware of the power of image—is the central, dominant player. Across the country, we’re dealing with a level of violence that has grimly escalated at every turn to the point that reporters and those who work for them are operating at great risk. It’s a risk that I’m increasingly believing may be too great. We’re dealing with the locale in which the independence of journalists, in particular Arab reporters, is questioned by both the U.S. government and those who are opposed to it in Iraq.
Let me briefly take a look at each of these points. I reported in the Middle East for 10 years and then in Washington for two years. In many ways, what I’ve learned in Washington helps me better understand what’s happening in Iraq. There’s an unending struggle between reporters and U.S. officials to set the priorities of coverage. Reporters see it as newsgathering. The U.S. administration sees it as overemphasis on gloomy news. Their response has been wide-ranging.
From an almost overwhelming flow of news releases to the Pentagon’s own newsgathering efforts, there has been an insistence on getting out the government’s version of events. The latest innovation, “a gaggle”—that fixture of background reporting at the White House—was instituted last month in Baghdad’s conference center. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s their job to best market their message. It’s a new pressure for foreign correspondents to deal with. The U.S. government is an integral part of the story, to a degree unmatched anywhere else abroad, and it plays favorites. Leaks occur, as they do in Washington. Briefings and news conferences take on greater importance. Those who talk, meanwhile, are fearful for their jobs—rightfully so, as I saw with the story in Basra.
If I understood then what I understand now, would I have quoted the spokesman in Basra knowing that he might get fired the next day? Would I have asked the U.S. military about Sabah Kerbul’s father, giving them a lead on the manhunt that, according to the villagers, is still going on? Would I have hesitated to quote Sgt. Pollard by name? I don’t know the answers. I do keep asking myself the questions.
Assessing the Risks of Reporting
The second point I mentioned was violence, and that has been far easier to grasp. For much of the last year, many reporters felt the greatest danger came from being in the wrong place at the wrong time with U.S. troops in the area, it’s sad to say. It was a tragic irony that given all the talk about what the Iraqi government might do to journalists during the war—talk about human shields and hostage-taking—it was the U.S. military blamed for the deaths of two journalists in the Palestine Hotel during the war’s final days. No less tragic was the death of Mazen Dana, a 43-year-old father of four and an award-winning Reuters cameraman, who was killed in August outside of Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. military apparently mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade, even though a U.S. soldier at the prison had granted them permission to film.
We’re seeing a very alarming increase in violence from insurgents directed against journalists. My newspaper was one of the first to experience it. In February, the house of one of our assistants was bombed, and he along with his family was forced to flee into exile. The same day, we noticed men in a car taking pictures of our house in Baghdad. Last week, a translator for the Voice of America was killed, along with his mother and his sister. While no one knows the motive for sure, both had been targeted after helping work on stories that try to get inside the strategy and the tactics of insurgents battling U.S. troops. I think it’s quickly becoming the consensus among journalists that any kind of resistance reporting is off-limits, if not for one’s own safety, then for the safety of those who help them.
Finally, there was the point of journalists losing their status of independents. This is perhaps the most far-reaching, if least noticed, aspect of what’s happening in Iraq today. Arab journalists with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have been routinely harassed, both by the U.S. military and the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council. The word in Baghdad is that it would take very little for either to be closed permanently. The military suspects them of actually cooperating in some attacks. Both networks have already suffered varying levels of sanctions that, I think, if imposed on a U.S. network, would have raised vociferous protests.
Their treatment has given rise to fears that what might emerge in the future is a more permanent distinction between those who are embedded and unilateral journalists—reporters who are somehow sanctioned and unsanctioned with the ensuing risk difference. On the other hand, “insurgents,” or however we want to describe them, have been drawing fewer and fewer lines: A journalist is a foreigner, and a foreigner is a target. Those working with foreigners are targets. It’s that simple. In Iraq, we’ve seen the image of noncombatants erode to a point where the act of newsgathering has become as hazardous as anywhere else in the world.
News Organizations Respond
What’s been the response? I mentioned earlier that some decisions of vast importance seem to be made by simply backing into them. Journalists are facing a threat in Iraq—a threat that no one would dare understate. In response, TV networks have hired armed guards—guards very willing to shoot. The most recent example of that was two staffers with CNN who were killed at a checkpoint south of Baghdad. At least one reporter started wearing a weapon, for a brief time. Newspaper journalists, many of whom prided themselves on working low to the ground, had begun openly debating whether or not they should adopt television’s tactic of riding with armed security or providing weapons to their drivers. Houses have become fortified. Hotels where journalists work are often behind two-story, concrete barricades, their entrances manned by checkpoints with U.S. soldiers, guard dogs, or contracted security.
We’re cut off from the very city we cover. The psychological barriers are my greatest fear. Since they affect the very nature of our reporting, there’s always this question of sentiments, and I think sentiments since the start of the conflict have been the great unknown. Is it occupation or liberation? Is it freedom, or is it something short of that? I don’t know that we’ve seen the long-term implications of our growing isolation.
The question that should be asked is: What happens when we start losing touch with how a city feels, how a city responds, how it reacts—its very energy? Can we afford to ignore such a central component of the story, when that component may very well determine the outcome of the project underway in Iraq?
Again, I’m struck by this question: At what cost? Is this the future of reporting in war zones—the scenario in which we require the blessing of the dominant military, where we fortify ourselves against the country we’re supposed to cover, where we travel in the same fashion as armed combatants would?
That’s quickly describing reporting in Iraq. Perhaps that’s all it describes. But I fear the momentum of some of the changes taking place will carry over into other locales that require our work.
In a landscape like Iraq, how do we protect ourselves, or how do we protect our sources and our story—protection that may have been a secondary concern in a less hostile environment? With a changing U.S. role abroad in places like Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq, how do we keep our distance and an independent role? This is ever more important as foreign conflicts, like Iraq, become domestic stories in themselves. How do we protect against violence while protecting our image as noncombatants? How do we guard against danger without sealing ourselves off? No less important, how do we guard our profession in a changing world?
In conclusion, I wanted to mention a proverb, and if anybody’s traveled the Middle East, they know that the region is full of them. It’s one of my favorite sayings in Iraq. It goes something like this. It’s set in a market with a man shopping. He’s talking to a vendor, who says: “If you want a rabbit, take a rabbit. If you want a gazelle, go ahead and settle for a rabbit.”
Sometimes I fear that, as journalists, we might be settling for rabbits. In a chaotic, precarious landscape we’re arming ourselves and fortifying against danger without understanding the implications of that process. We’re making concessions to authorities—and those who defy authority—without recourse. Perhaps there is no recourse. We’re losing our status as noncomba-tants while not recognizing the danger of the alternative. None by itself is decisive, but these actions have the tendency to set precedents. Precedents, in the freewheeling work that we do, have a way of gaining momentum. It remains a question today whether that momentum can be stopped.
The following is an edited transcript of the question and answer session that occurred after Anthony Shadid’s speech.
Erik Eckholm, 2004 Nieman Fellow: What do you think are the alternatives to the concerns you raise? Reporters can’t just be totally reckless.
Shadid: The reason I’m raising more questions than I have answers is because I’m not sure what the answers are. There clearly are two trends going on for reporters working in a place like Baghdad. Do you have a large footprint in that city? Do you protect yourselves accordingly? In other words, do you have armed guards? Do you fortify your compound? Do you live behind cement barricades? Or do you shrink down to a much smaller operation? Do you have one person, maybe two people? Do you keep as low a profile as possible? You try not to attract the attention that’s going to endanger you in the first place.
Obviously [because I speak Arabic], I’m going to speak a little differently than many of the other correspondents and be able to operate perhaps a little bit more discretely in Baghdad. But is an armed guard in a car going to protect me? I don’t think so. Is being behind a barricade going to necessarily not attract attention? I don’t think so. I think some of these precautions that are being taken are almost an instinctive reaction to what we need to provide our security. But I don’t think we’re necessarily providing more security. They make us feel better about what we’re doing. But in the end, are we having any better chance of getting out of this conflict alive? I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.
David Beard, Boston Globe regional editor: Don’t these changes have a greater effect on you because you’re the street guy in a team? Somebody else can be covering the news and stay in the fortified area and covering that side, if the news organization’s got somebody covering the streets.
Shadid: I agree with that. The street reporting is the stuff that we’re talking about that’s becoming more and more difficult. There’s also this precedent that gets set. That is what I was talking about a little earlier—about backing into decisions without necessarily thinking of the implications. If journalists are beginning to arm themselves, if they’re beginning to carry armed guards in cars as the networks do, there is going to be an assumption that emerges pretty quickly. That assumption is that all journalists are armed and all journalists are carrying weapons. It’s my sense; it’s not necessarily the right sense, and a lot of colleagues in Baghdad disagree with me strongly. But rather than serving as a deterrent, it seems to me [that being armed or being protected with armed guards] just attracts more firepower.
Adrian Fortescue, 2004 Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Fellow and special adviser within the European Commission: Did you say you’re worried about Western journalists? Do reporters for other non-Western news organizations such as Al Jazeera face the same concerns?
Shadid: When I come back to the United States, I realize what a different kind of perception there is of Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. As somebody who’s been in the Middle East for a long time and who is used to state broadcasting in the Middle East—a pretty dreadful thing to watch—I found it refreshing to see networks that are extremely competitive with each other trying to get the news out. They are very suspect in Baghdad. There is almost a conviction within the U.S. military that they do have foreknowledge of attacks that are carried out on U.S. soldiers. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. They have an ability to get very deep into Iraqi society, but they’re also not welcomed in Iraq, in some ways less so than Western correspondents. So while they do have the cultural flexibility, they carry a lot of baggage with them. They take a lot more risks. They come [in] for a lot more harassment than probably anybody else in that country.
Tom Regan, 1992 Nieman Fellow, The Christian Science Monitor, associate editor: When you were shot [covering a story in Ramallah, West Bank], there was some question about who it was who actually shot you— which side. You talked a little bit about some of the incidents involved when the U.S. military actually accidentally shot a journalist. Are we reaching a point where if you’re not an embedded journalist or [if] either side thinks you’re not on their side, you become the target?
Shadid: That’s my fear. I don’t think it’s gone down that path yet, but I think there is a deep fear on my part that what we are seeing is the creation of two classifications of journalists—a kind of a looser distinction between journalists who are embedded and nonembedded and that they have the certain protections that follow. The bigger picture that we’re looking at is that in places like Iraq and in the West Bank, journalists aren’t off limits anymore. The U.S. military is not trying to shoot journalists, but there have been some really tragic accidents. I think journalists have been targeted in the West Bank. It worries me in the bigger sense of what we do as reporters. We’re losing this independent status already. Operating in Baghdad as armed combatants I’m not sure is the way to necessarily preserve that status.
Alan Cullison, 2004 Nieman Fellow: Are reporters responding effectively to hostilities?
Shadid: In Baghdad right now, what’s struck me is how paranoid the place is. That’s a strong word, and I hesitate to use it, but there is an incredible sense of conspiracy going on. You can try to explain the conspiracy theories that circulate in the city as just a disillusionment and a disenchantment with the way the past year has gone, but it’s directed at foreigners. When we were in Karbala two weeks ago, I was with a photographer from The Washington Post. We went to the scene right afterwards [of violence by insurgent suicide bombers], and the anger was unbelievable. Men yelling at us: “It’s your fault. You guys are responsible for this, and you should pay for this, too.” Can they be dealt with in any way other than trying to just stay out of it? I don’t know. I still think the West Bank remains the most dangerous place on earth, but Baghdad is becoming an incredibly tricky place because you’re dealing with suspicion, you’re dealing with paranoia, you’re dealing with incredible violence. You’re not dealing with trust from any side. Reporters basically don’t have any friends in Baghdad right now.
Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, 2004 Nieman Fellow: What are you reporting on now?
Shadid: There were three families that I met and spent time with during the war. I’ve spent time with them in the year since. I finished doing very long pieces about what their experiences were like and what their lives were like. They’re all using their names. They didn’t use their names during the war. I’m being very specific about what I was going to use in the story, what I wanted to use from it and, in a way, it makes me uncomfortable. I almost don’t like the person that I’m interviewing being that involved in the process. Given the risks that are going on in Baghdad, you almost have a responsibility to engage those people more in exactly what’s going to be coming out. When we talk about those three stories, I don’t know if I would have done them differently. I just don’t know the answer to that. I’ve been able to get back to two of the people and talk to them about it. Sgt. Pollard wasn’t angry. He felt like he was saying something he wanted to say. Pickard was a different story.
Alex Jones, 1982 Nieman Fellow and director of The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy: Did The Washington Post discourage you from changing identities or not specifically attributing information in your stories?
Shadid: They have a different sense of it from Washington than we do on the ground. I understand the suspicion and skepticism of readers right now about what we write, especially when the person doesn’t use their name. I understand the importance of it. One of the families that I mentioned did not want to use their name initially, and it was a very long process. It went on over a week and probably a dozen emails: “What you guys are saying is important and people will not believe what you’re saying without your name being attached to it.” But what can you say without taking great risk? It was a long process of negotiation. I think the Post still defers to the people on the ground on this, but they made it very clear that they wanted their name as part of that story we were just mentioning.
Bill Delaney, WBUR-FM radio news: Will this Iraq become a model of democracy for the Middle East in five to 10 years, or not?
Shadid: I have no idea. The longer I’m there, the less I understand it. There’s one character—and not that he’s necessarily a representative—but it was a very striking conversation I had that took place over a year. This guy was a doctor, a Shiite doctor in Baghdad. I visited him during the war. I went to see him alone. We sat in his house. It was dark. The electricity had been cut, and he would just kind of smile the whole time. This guy’s finished. Everybody hates him. The Iraqi Army hates him. It’s a matter of time. I remember the last part of the conversation with him just sitting there silent with a smile on his face. I guess it was kind of a smile of satisfaction. When I went back to see him in July, he was jubilant. His hands were in the air. He was like: “Victory! Victory! Bush is my President. America is my country. I like Bush more than most Americans.” It was this incredible conversation. There was a very interesting exchange between him and his wife, because his wife was much less optimistic. But he kept insisting to her: “You’ve just got to wait. You’ve got to see how things happen.”
I went back and saw him again in October, and his mood had changed a little bit. Then I saw him again in February. It was disturbing because he gave a very angry quote to me. He said: “Don’t tell me this is Russia. Don’t tell me this is Germany. Don’t tell me this is England. This is America. America can do everything, and why haven’t they done it?” He said: “I try to understand why they haven’t done it, and I wonder … what’s going on?” He’d gone from this incredible excitement over what was ahead to actually believing that the United States military was behind the bombings that were going on in Baghdad. And this isn’t somebody who had a grudge, by any means, against the government. It was somebody who was so disillusioned and disenchanted that he almost lost touch with what was going on. It was jarring. It was a vivid example of the way sentiments have gone in the city and how bleak it is in Baghdad.
Melinda Patterson Grenier, Nieman Foundation senior Web editor: There are a lot of misconceptions in the United States about the Middle East. Which ones do you think are the most dangerous, in terms of long-term relationships between the United States and the Middle East? What can journalists do to help people in America get a better understanding about the people and situation there?
Shadid: I have spent so much more time over there than I have here that it’s hard to say what the misperceptions are here. One thing that strikes me, as a reporter in the Middle East, is that it’s very easy to hear what you want to hear. Sometimes it’s a little harder to let people say what they want to say. There was a story that I did on Mutanabi Street, which is a storied thoroughfare in Baghdad. It’s where the intellectuals hung out. It’s where the bookstores are. It’s had very much a revival since the collapse of Saddam. It just struck me in the conversations there that they were chaotic. They were all over the map. They were confusing. The only way you could report that story, basically, was to let people talk and write it that way. We often wonder, how do Iraqis feel? How do Baghdadis feel about something? I often think back—what they’re going through is something along the lines of what the United States went through after September 11th, this incredible cataclysm. They’re trying to come to grips with it. Just as sentiments here were chaotic, confused and conflicted, the same reactions are going on in Baghdad.
Indira Lakshmanan, 2004 Nieman Fellow: How do you feel about the matter of bodyguards for journalists? What kind of position do you feel that puts you in? Do you have conversations with other journalists about it, or do you just go your own way? …
Shadid: The talk among reporters in Baghdad is to go with armed guards. That’s definitely the way things are headed. My sense has been leave it up to everybody. You have to make decisions on your own, and nobody should impose this kind of rule on other journalists. I do worry about the precedent I mentioned earlier: If many are being armed, then are we all suspected of being armed? What does that mean for us? Again, it’s a question. I understand somebody who wants to carry an armed guard, but it does put you at risk. I don’t see that it necessarily makes them safer. In fact, I think it makes them less safe.
Ulla Morris Carter, widow of Joe Alex Morris, Jr.: How many stories do you think you could not have covered if you had not been of Lebanese origin and speaking Arabic?
Shadid: I think the war would have been the most difficult thing, because my goal during the war was to try to get people talking as much as possible without the presence of a minder or an escort. I was able to do that. But I couldn’t have done it without Arabic.