Paying the price for Iraq War coverage


NEW YORK -- When the Iraq War began in March 2003, few anticipated that journalists would pay so high a price in blood and money to cover the conflict that has stretched five years and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

Coverage of the war has cost the lives of 180 Iraqi and foreign journalists and cost the world's news organizations tens of millions of dollars a year to keep bureaus open in Baghdad and turn out war news that is, surveys suggest, at a low ebb in terms of public interest.

But even with all that, the networks say they're not willing or inclined to cut back on what they say is one of the biggest stories in American history.

"We've got 160,000 men and women who are stationed over there and in harm's way every single day of the year," said ABC News president David Westin, who returned in February from a trip to Iraq. "This is obviously a major strategic initiative for the United States, and how it will go will affect the entire region. That makes it a very important story."

ABC's correspondent in the region, Terry McCarthy, who has seen the ups and downs since the war's early days, agreed. "It's an extremely compelling story. I think the most important foreign story in the world right now, bar none," he said last week from Baghdad.

Still, the worsening economy and the presidential election have taken up the lion's share of the headlines and airtime since Jan. 1. There's much less coverage of the war than even a year ago, when it was the most closely followed news story in the first six months of 2007, according to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. It isn't anywhere near that now, as evidenced by Tyndall Report research that said Iraq coverage totaled 61 minutes on the Big Three evening newscasts in January and February. That compared with 932 minutes for the presidential campaign on the same networks.

NBC News president Steve Capus, who spent twice as many minutes (32) on Iraq as its rivals, said the network takes seriously its commitment to covering the war and isn't cutting back resources.

"It's a commitment we owe the nation," Capus said.

The news division presidents -- all of whom but Westin took over in the years since the invasion -- say they're not discouraged by the apparent lack of interest.

"It's the No. 2 issue among the electorate, so I'm not quite buying the notion that it's of diminished importance," CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein said.

In an interview last week, Klein reeled off several stories that CNN reporters had done in recent days from Iraq, including Kyra Phillips breaking the news of Adm. William Fallon's resignation and Michael Ware's story about former Sunni insurgents who have been enlisted in the fight against al-Qaida.

"There's a fierce commitment to tell the story," Klein said.

NBC News took heat in late 2006 for its decision to call the situation in Iraq a "civil war," something from which the network never backed down but which comes up less often now since the surge was implemented.

"It was absolutely the way to describe what was taking place there," Capus said. "And most of the world agreed with us. There was no question in my mind that it was an accurate description."

But today, Capus said that coverage has become more nuanced.

"The issues are moving forward at a different pace now, and what you're seeing is the incremental movement of the story," he said. "You get a lot more issues that can only be judged in the long run, not hour by hour or day by day."

But it's a commitment for which expenses run into the millions of dollars every year. It's not only the cost of keeping each network's bureau open and staffed with a rotating roster of correspondents and producers who serve one- or two-month stints. It's also hiring the private security forces who, well-armed and secretive, protect the journalists and often tell them whether they are allowed to cover any given story.

"It's the world's most dangerous backdrop for journalists," Capus said.

Unlike Vietnam to an earlier generation of journalists that made stars out of such reporters as Dan Rather and Morley Safer, Iraq isn't necessarily a career-maker. After the deaths and serious injuries of so many journalists -- and the still-present threat of kidnappings -- there just aren't as many willing to risk their lives for a story that doesn't top the news. An assignment to Iraq is strictly volunteer; it's the policy of the networks not to punish anyone who won't go.

"If anybody says to us they don't want to go to Iraq, whether a correspondent or a technician, we would certainly not force them," CBS News president Sean McManus said. "It doesn't affect their careers."

The Iraq War has been extraordinarily costly in human terms. The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 127 journalists have been killed along with another 50 Iraqi support workers; most of the dead have been Iraqis. The most recent came Friday, when a reporter for the local al-Muwatin was shot to death in Baghdad. Two journalists for CBS News remain kidnapped in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

The watershed year for American journalists was 2006, when in January ABC's Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt were severely injured by a roadside bomb that exploded near their convoy. Four months later, another critically hurt CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier and killed her two crew members, James Brolan and Paul Douglas, along with an American officer.

After the CBS crew deaths and the wounding of Woodruff and Vogt, it sent a chill through the halls of the network news divisions. Already cautious, ABC News for instance became even more so. Westin said the network's "rules of engagement" tightened after the IED blast to the point where correspondents' plans to leave the secure zone have to be cleared by New York.

"Quite understandably, the reporters get a little inpatient with us," said Westin, whose major focus on his recent trip was security and getting a better look at what's working and what's not. "We're awfully conservative."

But if it saves what Westin and McManus already have had to deal with -- the early-morning phone calls about something going wrong in Iraq -- then they're not apologizing.

"Every time the phone rings late at night, you're afraid that it's one of our journalists who have had an issue in Iraq," McManus said. "It's scary and a fact of life and one that every family who has a son, daughter, father or mother in Iraq deals with every day, more so than CBS."

Sticker shock and safety concerns have led the U.S. networks to consider at various times drastically curtailing individual operations and pool resources. But the issue has been taken off the front burner because of logistics.

"We all at this point believe that unilateral coverage that is unique to ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox is an important part of our identity," McManus said. "Whether that changes in the future, I don't know."