N.Y. Post Froths: Times Quagmires On War Coverage

For many years, The New York Times has been pummeled by conservatives. But two weeks into the war in Iraq, the Post has gone frontal, trying to tug The Times off its pedestal of objectivity and claiming that the paper of record is, in its own way, as ideological as the pro-war Murdoch tabloid.

It began its assault on the most important 270 square inches in journalism, the front page of The Times .

Following its mandate to either propagate or deprogram (depending on your world view), the Rupert Murdoch–run tabloid deconstructed The Times ‘ March 28 front page on Saturday, March 29: ripping the front page apart and labeling it “News by Saddam,” circling headlines, claiming the paper of record was trying to put “the darkest possible spin on Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It was the kind of scathing textual analysis that would have been used on Pravda or Izvestia during the peak of the Cold War. The Post challenged The Times ‘ use of the phrase “DESERT SKIRMISHES STRETCH 350 MILES,” telling its readers that “The Times wants you to think: Iraq is ablaze with fighting. All hell has broken out.” On the headline phrase “‘No Timetable,’ Says Bush,” the Post warned its readers: “If the war ‘stretches’ into a whole second week, watch for talk of a ‘quagmire.’” And on a smaller headline that read “A Gulf Commander Sees a Longer Road,” it wrote “What the Times Wants You to Think: Quagmire! Quagmire! Quagmire!”

The Post was particularly infuriated by an “upbeat” photograph of Iraqi troops-looking startlingly indistinguishable from G.I.’s-flashing smiles. It called a Times headline-”A Tough Fight, a Retreat, and a Look Ahead”-an attempt to “say U.S. and British forces are in trouble.” It declared that another headline-”War to Keep Going Until Regime Ends, Bush and Blair Say”-suggested that “the war may never end-indeed, it may be unwinnable. Echoes of Vietnam? (Please.)”

It was like Fox News. Only in print.

“A lot of people have forgotten what has been achieved,” said Post managing editor Colin Myler. “This was highlighting the use of language, the use of pictorial images that could give the reader a wrong sense of the reality of what we believe the situation to be …. There’s a great deal of pessimism that we believe is not valid or reasonable.”

For his part, Times executive editor Howell Raines called his paper’s war coverage “non-ideological …. I get up every morning trying to break stories that other people have to follow,” he said, and added: “I understand there are other people who approach these tasks with different kinds of agendas. And we live in a time when there’s a lot of ideological journalism going on. I think it’s interesting, but it has nothing to do with what we do, which is make our journalism as straight and as energetic and competitive as we can.”

To that end, Mr. Raines has summoned the kind of resources last seen in the days and months after Sept. 11, when, in his first weeks as executive editor, The Times created its “A Nation Challenged” special section, which later earned the paper a record seven Pulitzer Prizes in 2002. This time the section is called “A Nation at War,” and the sports section is once again upside-down. Despite the expeditionary force of reporters sent into the area by The Times alone, four journalists have shaped the Iraq story for the paper: John F. Burns writing from Baghdad, Patrick E. Tyler and Michael Gordon in Kuwait, and R.W. (Johnny) Apple in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Raines said that the biggest difference for the paper between this war and Afghanistan was the amount of pre-emptive placing the paper was able to do. Because of Afghanistan’s porous borders, Times reporters were able to skirt U.S. military restrictions, slipping into locations without the help of the Pentagon. In Iraq, in addition to unilateral reporting by David Rohde, C.J. Chivers and Mr. Burns , The Times has had to rely heavily on embeds. Mr. Raines called the program thus far a “pleasant surprise” and “predictably problematic but workable.”

Mr. Raines continued, “I think it’s important to realize that … in this war and every war I know of dating back to the Civil War, the War Department, and now the Defense Department, has always been trying to exert control and offering the press a ride on their conditions. And their conditions are always non-negotiable. For an editor, my strategy was to take advantage of the embeds on the theory that, in the worst-case scenario, it was irresponsible to turn down a ringside seat. The fact they’ve been able to file without restriction has been good.”

By allowing reporters to the front, the Pentagon has opened up stories and images it perhaps would prefer not be written or seen. In the war’s first days, the media showed images of rapidly advancing troops who might be able to take the country in days. But it also has shown the conflict’s darker side, leading Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to say that the media had only captured “slices” and not the whole story of Iraq.

“Of course, you can plan as much as you like on the drawing board,” Mr. Myler said, echoing Mr. Rumsfeld’s sentiments. “But on the front line, things change. Attitudes change. I think it’s ludicrous to start suggesting that the progress of American forces, coalition forces, has failed.”

Mr. Raines said he felt The Times had tried its best to avoid a myopic view of the day’s events. “We’re not prejudging any outcome,” he said. “On the other hand, it is a lively debate in military science and amongst military historians whether the level of force in the field is adequate. That’s a story. The debate over that question will unfold over weeks and months. I cannot predict how it’ll come out.”

However, National Review editor Rich Lowry, a contributor to the Post ‘s op-ed pages, saw only pessimism in the Times coverage. “It feels like a continuation of the coverage through the whole debate and now the actual war, which is to accentuate the negative,” he said. “It’s been a little over a week, and you have Maureen Dowd saying this might be another Vietnam. It took three weeks for Johnny Apple to call Afghanistan a ‘quagmire.’ This is 12 days.”

John Stacks, the veteran reporter for Time and author of Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism , disagreed. “I wouldn’t take any press criticism that a Murdoch newspaper wrote in any way seriously,” Mr. Stacks said. “It’s like Fox News criticizing CNN-it’s ludicrous. Even if one newspaper that Murdoch owned had a contrary opinion-and you’d think that there might be some oddball son of a bitch somewhere who thought this was a bad idea-the uniformity of it takes away any credibility they have in criticizing The Times .”

Around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1, an editorial aide in Newsday ‘s Long Island newsroom, told associate managing editor Les Payne and other editors that “Matt was on the line.”

“Matt who?” Mr. Payne asked.

“Matt McAllester,” the aide replied.

Mr. McAllester, along with Newsday photographer Moises Saman and two freelance journalists, photographers Molly Bingham and Johan Rydeng Spanner, had been missing for a week-ever since members of the Iraqi government forced them from their rooms in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad in the early hours of Tuesday, March 24. Despite rumors of their whereabouts, no one had heard from any of the four since that evening.

As it turned out, all four were safe after being held in an Iraqi prison on the suspicion of being American spies until Monday, March 31.

Mr. Payne said that Newsday reached out to anyone who could help. The Committee to Protect Journalists. The Red Crescent. The Red Cross. The United Nations. The governments of Great Britain and Spain. Private citizens and anyone who “might have a history with Iraq.”

“The idea was to keep their names out there,” Mr. Payne said, “to say these are two distinguished journalists, albeit two very young ones.”

Vickie Elmer, Newsday ‘s deputy business editor, said the uncertainty over the two’s whereabouts made for a difficult time in the newsroom.

“I think people felt it intensely,” Ms. Elmer said. “At every meeting, at every opportunity when people came together, they were looking for some news or some semblance of news.

“You had to engage a war on two fronts,” Ms. Elmer added, “both as a journalist and as someone who cares about the people who are missing.”

When the good news reached Newsday , Mr. Payne described the newsroom sentiment as “electric.”

“I can’t say it was like we won six Pulitzers today,” he said. “But the place was electric, and still is. And that’s not just because of the champagne.”

During the first Gulf War, Michael Kelly-then a correspondent writing for The New Republic -became the Michael Kelly: the singular, informed voice reporting with depth and understanding in a quick but under-covered war. Twelve years later, in a more gruesome but also more reporter-accessible campaign-where everyone short of Carson Daly seems to have an embed assignment-it’s been Anthony Shadid, reporting from Baghdad for The Washington Post , who’s provided the sharpest, most elucidating work among the thousands of reporters funneling millions of inches of copy.

Since the dawn of the conflict, the 34-year-old Arabic-speaking reporter has followed the war on its most human level in a city under siege. He spent an evening with a middle-class family who hated Saddam Hussein but had grown to hate the U.S. more because of the bombings, and wrote of an anguishing moment in a hospital where a young boy who’d lost his mother was outraged at the sight of his injured siblings. He’s attended the funeral of a 14-year-old boy killed in the U.S. attacks, and also visited with a mother a week after she said goodbye to her 20-year-old son, who was heading off to fight for the Iraqi regime.

On March 30, reporting from Saddam City, a slum controlled by the Sunni minority and home to most of Baghdad’s Shiite Muslims-people whom the Bush administration expected would cheer the coming of coalition troops-one man told Mr. Shadid: “Sanctions are a slow death. War brings a quick death, and death is preferable.”

What Mr. Shadid has written is the complex portrait of a populace whose way of life has been whittled away by war and foreign action and now is exploding-literally-all around them now. As such, he reminds one of the correspondents from the pre-”Scud stud” age: Martha Gellhorn in the first days after the Allied victory in Germany, or David Halberstam writing for The New York Times at the outset of the Vietnam War.

“Without Anthony, we would have no authentic Iraqi voices in a paper that’s covered the war extensively,” said Philip Bennett, The Post ‘s assistant managing editor for foreign news. “He’s been able to give voice to individual Iraqi people, and that’s something which has been invaluable.”

And despite the great level of candor his subjects have shown with him, Mr. Shadid-whose wife and daughter remained in Washington-said there are many things still unknown to him. For example: How will the U.S. troops really be welcomed when they enter Baghdad? Will anyone see this as an act of liberation?

“I don’t think Baghdad’s going to be a liberated city,” Mr. Shadid said. “I think it’s going to be a defeated city, and I think there’s going to be a lot of baggage. No one I’ve spoken to-even in the most private moments-has depicted this in terms of liberation.

“But even when I’m alone talking to people who trust me,” Mr. Shadid continued, “you’re still going to be an outsider. To be honest, I think it’s going to be years before people talk about this honestly.”

Such work has not come without risks. One of the few Arabic speakers among the foreign press corps left in Baghdad, the Oklahoma-raised Mr. Shadid has reported without a translator, and often without an escort in the city. Now on his third tour in Baghdad (he came first as a reporter for the Associated Press, and later while working for the Boston Globe ), he’s made it a point to go off on his own, despite the Iraqi government’s best attempts to limit such enterprise reporting.

“I’m scared. I’m really scared,” admitted Mr. Shadid, who was shot in the shoulder last year while reporting on the Israeli move into Ramallah for the Globe . “This is not a cowboy thing for me. I think this story’s going to define this country for years and years-and will define this region for years. I’m very uneasy how this thing will play out.”

Starting with the April 21-28 issue, The New Yorker ‘s Tad Friend will write a semiregular “Letter from California.” And while one can expect environmental and political stories, with the occasional bounty-hunter profile thrown in, don’t wait around for Mr. Latte’s dispatches about the perils of Malibu townhouse living.

“It’ll be a letter from California via Brooklyn Heights,” Mr. Friend explained.

New Yorker editor David Remnick said Mr. Friend’s new gig came out of his desire to give Mr. Friend a regular subject to address rather than a series of “scattershot” assignments. He added that he had no problem about Mr. Friend keeping his 718 area code.

“Richard Revere, who’s probably the most famous ‘Letter from Washington’ writer The New Yorker ever, had his Washington home in Rhinebeck, N.Y.,” Mr. Remnick said, then added that Mr. Friend has “spent a lot of time out there in the past and will spend a lot of time there now. The proof will be in the pieces. It’ll be terrific.”

Almost since its inception, people have been forecasting the demise of Gear , the cash-strapped attempt at a men’s fashion magazine by Penthouse spawn and former Spin publisher and editor in chief Bob Guccione Jr.

Well, it’s finally happened. Mr. Guccione was unavailable for comment at deadline, but on Tuesday, April 1, Roberta Greene, a spokeswoman for the magazine, confirmed that Gear would be shutting down “temporarily.”

“He’s stopping production now, with the hope of relaunching it later in the year,” Ms. Greene said. “I suspect the fall.”

When asked about the magazine’s remaining employees, Ms. Greene said: “Some of the staff will remain and some of them are going.”