Wracked Newsmen Split On Choice to Flee Baghdad

Should they stay or should they go?

That’s been the question facing newsrooms around the world for months as they considered their correspondents in Iraq’s targeted capital, Baghdad. And those deliberations reached a fever pitch on March 18, a day after George W. Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his stern warning to journalists and U.N. weapons inspectors to leave the city immediately.

Many news organizations were already pulling out by the weekend, sensing the acceleration of the American invasion. The New York Times has left, as has ABC News, NBC News, US News & World Report , Time and numerous others. But as of late Tuesday, a handful of U.S. media operations still had staff in Baghdad, among them MSNBC, CBS, News-week and CNN.

The remaining journalists include seasoned veterans. MSNBC and NBC will be relying on Peter Arnett, one of CNN’s correspondents during the bombing of Baghdad 12 years ago who is in Iraq on assignment from National Geographic Explorer. ABC will use the services of freelancer Richard Engel. CNN’s correspondents are Rym Brahimi and Nic Robertson, the latter of whom was in the capital in 1991.

“It’s our intention to keep them there,” CNN spokeswoman Krista Robinson said. “We’re committed to our journalists and committed to covering the story so long as we feel it’s safe.”

Given that the U.S. attack upon Baghdad is expected to be exponentially more powerful than the first, no news organization with people there was taking decisions about its correspondents lightly. Cross-continent phone conversations about staying or going were continuous throughout Tuesday, with the possibility that any remaining correspondent could evacuate at any minute.

As of late Tuesday, CBS had correspondent Lara Longan and four other staffers in Baghdad. “Lara is in Baghdad at the moment,” said CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. “But the conversations are continuous about the near future.”

But Newsweek seemed anxious to pull its correspondent, Melinda Liu.

“We have asked her to leave as long as it’s safe to leave,” said a spokesman for the magazine.

Among the organizations that had already pulled out, there was some understandable competitive angst over whether competitors who’d stayed behind would get an important story. But those who made the decision to pull people out felt it was the prudent move, and not a hard one to make.

“Given what we’ve seen the past few months,” said U.S. News & World Report editor Brian Duffy, “Baghdad will be a dangerous place to be.”

Time managing editor Jim Kelly, agreed, “Saddam Hussein sees this as a war for his very survival.” Mr. Kelly said, “That wasn’t clear in 1991. I have to assume Saddam Hussein will fight more fiercely than he did in 1991. Some reporters might be willing, but I can’t afford to take that chance. Had we had the opportunity in 1991, we might have done it then. Now it seems too dangerous.”

Mr. Kelly added that Time ‘s publication schedule played some role in his decision to keep staff out.

“We are a weekly newsmagazine,” he said. “We’re not a television network or a daily newspaper. People aren’t looking to us for minute-by-minute updates.”

Some magazines will be working with freelance contributors who have chosen to remain. Mr. Kelly said that Time has no staff in Baghdad, but does have access to an individual who plants to take photographs and deliver some reporting for the magazine.

There is the possibility, of course, that some reporters may eventually find their way into a Baghdad conflict-alongside U.S. troops. There are hundreds of print and television correspondents “embedded” within the U.S. military, and it’s likely that at least some of them will see action.

But even those who don’t make it to Baghdad have a responsibility to provide objective insight into the military’s actions.

“They’ve been welcomed inside the tent,” said Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Barney Calame. “But we have to make sure they’re objective in their reporting.”

Mr. Calame went on to say that he envisioned a day when The Journal , which has no reporters in Baghdad, would report from the Iraqi capital city.

“Eventually, stability will come back to the city and to the region,” Mr. Calame said. “Whether it is three weeks or nine weeks-who knows? But like Hanoi or Saigon or Beirut, no matter what type of government it has in the future, we would like to be there.”

But that still seems a far way off. For editors and reporters, the next few days will see them put into practice what’s been rehearsed and theorized in newsrooms and training camps for several months.

“It’s something we’ve prepared for for so long,” New York Times reporter David Sanger said. As President Bush gave his ultimatum, Mr. Sanger said, “You almost couldn’t detect the shifting of gears.”

Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham said the mood in his office was “quite somber.”

“There’s no bloodlust around here,” Mr. Meacham said. “People are much more concerned than they are viewing this as a great adventure. That’s just not happening. That’s out of the movies; this is real life.”

“There’s no more important story for a news organization than the debate about going to war, going to war and the aftermath of that war,” Mr. Meacham continued. “You bring all the assets you can bring in a story like this.”

Said Mr. Kelly: “I feel like we’ve been living in this historic moment now for months.”

In a stunning February 2002 editor’s note, The New York Times revealed that the young African laborer profiled in a Times Magazine piece by contributor Michael Finkel didn’t really exist, and was instead a composite of several young men the author met on the Ivory Coast.

While this kind of fabrication usually leads one to the professional gulag with Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, Mr. Finkel has managed to find new work-this time on a book whose treatment reads like a cross between In Cold Blood and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind . Purchased by HarperCollins and called True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa , Mr. Finkel interweaves the story of his Times Magazine deception with the story of Christian Longo, an Oregon man who’s been accused of murdering his wife and three children and then fleeing to Mexico, where he assumed the identity of one “Michael Finkel of The New York Times .”

Mr. Finkel learned of the identity theft the night before Mr. Raines’ note was published in The Times , and his proposal outlines a book that alternates between the two men’s stories. Eventually, the two come together after they start corresponding and Mr. Finkel visits Mr. Longo in jail.

“The two stories will start to twine together in the latter chapters,” Mr. Finkel told Off the Record from Oregon, where he’s attending Mr. Longo’s trial. “I’m envisioning a shape [like] a martini glass, where two things start out far apart … on either end and then end up together.

“I definitely do not want to compare the two crimes , for lack of a better word-a murder and a piece of failed journalism,” Mr. Finkel added. “But events in our lives, on some level, are parallel. The situations were extremely pressure-filled. That’s not to say I pity him, but I think I have more empathy for him having gotten thrown out of The New York Times .”

In his proposal, Mr. Finkel describes an earnest attempt to get a factual story for The Times Magazine , the amphetamine habit he developed while working on the piece, and the “unhealthy relationship” he had with his editor, Ilena Silverman, who he said pushed him to tell the story through the experiences of one boy. Ms. Silverman did not return a call seeking comment, and Times Magazine editor Adam Moss declined to comment.

When asked about the irony of fabricating a piece of journalism and using the story of that fabrication as the basis for another piece of journalism, Mr. Finkel said: “Listen, I made a very big mistake, and I was punished. It wasn’t my intention to write a book. It was a story I felt like writing for myself, but ended up turning into a book.”

Mr. Finkel added that The Times and others had checked through his previous stories and found them free of factual indiscretions.

“I’m still a working journalist,” Mr. Finkel said. “I just happen to be one who made a big mistake.”