In the seven months since Saddam Hussein’s statue toppled in Firdaus Square in Baghdad, the Bush administration has been busy winning the country for democracy. But to competitive reporters used to exploiting the chaos of war to get the big story, the rigid control of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and its press arm, the Office of Strategic Communications, has made winning during the peace more difficult than winning during the war.
“They’ve taken the Bush model and applied it to Baghdad,” one correspondent said.
The C.P.A., according to several reporters based in Baghdad—many of whom requested anonymity—has severely limited access to key officials in the provisional government. In an effort to stanch the flow of reporting on small-scale terrorist activity and the resulting injuries to U.S. troops, sources said, morgues and hospitals in Baghdad have become impenetrable to reporters. Reporters have found their access to police stations cut off. When access is granted, reporters said, the C.P.A. often assigns “minders” to accompany them.
But even the good-news stories the Bush administration has chastised the press for ignoring—reopening schools and hospitals, building power plants and infrastructure and factories—can be hard to get, unless you are content to rely upon a C.P.A.-engineered press junket to do your reporting. Contractors working on rebuilding projects, sources said, have been told not to speak to journalists without prior C.P.A. approval. The same is true for groups like the Army Corps of Engineers.
And the C.P.A. has bypassed the Baghdad bureaus of the major media outlets, pitching stories or interviews directly to local network affiliates stateside, and organizing junkets for editorial writers to show off how very far Iraq has come, leaving major-market newspapers to fight through a web of red tape even to get the news—good or bad—out.
Following a less-than-positive story, reporters often find their phone calls go completely unanswered. There have even been charges that reporters whose work is viewed as unfavorable or unflattering to the ongoing operations in Iraq have been blackballed at the Republican Palace.
“People joke that it’s just like the old days,” one Baghdad-based reporter said. The source was remembering what it was like before the C.P.A. started issuing sunny press releases about the minting of new, Saddam-free currency for the country, or opening schools and hospitals that reporters have had difficulty obtaining clearance to visit; before it had established its stronghold in the old Republican Palace on the Tigris, once occupied by Saddam and his sidekick press secretary, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahaf, known to Americans as Baghdad Bob.
“We saw this kind of treatment [of the press] during Saddam,” a correspondent said. “And it makes me sick that my own government is doing it now.”
Staffed mostly by young Republican campaigners and former Capitol Hill functionaries with varied levels of experience in the media, the C.P.A., reporters told The Observer, feels more like a public-relations agency for the Bush administration than a field operation for the American press in wartime.
“It’s been difficult to get consistent access to the C.P.A.,” Time’s Brian Bennett said, “in terms of getting responses to interview requests in a timely manner. It seems like they’re understaffed. They have more requests than they can handle.”
Correspondents have been frustrated with the C.P.A.’s reliance on a network of largely ineffective mobile phones (with 914 area codes!); the organization has yet to begin credentialing working reporters, meaning that a one-hour press conference can often mean a lost half-day as reporters are searched, then searched again. And even when you’re in, you’re not necessarily in.
In May, venerable Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks was in Baghdad for an 11 a.m. appointment to meet a member of the C.P.A. “I hauled my ass across Baghdad,” Mr. Ricks recalled. “We went through the checkpoint. I got searched; my driver got searched. We get in and check in with the soldier. A guy comes out, and I tell him I’m here for my 11 o’clock interview. He comes back and says he’s not here. I say I had an appointment. He says sorry. I say, ‘O.K., can I interview the deputy?’ He says, ‘We don’t do drop-ins.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, guys.’ A lot of that sort of thing goes on.”
A lot of it depends on whom you’re seeking out. As the Bush administration decries the press’ morbid fascination with stories about death and conflict, government sources that could provide information about terrorist activity and casualties are among the most tightly controlled.
“The police stations are completely shut off,” one reporter told The Observer. “You can go around to 10 police stations in Baghdad and you can’t get in the door. You have to go through the C.P.A. They’re trying to centrally control the message.”
“Places like hospital emergency rooms and the Baghdad morgue are off-limits,” another source said. “To visit, you have to file a ton of paperwork. It’s very similar to the old days. They’ve made a very conscious decision not to facilitate interviews and give access to stories that are not going to be positive. It’s just that simple.”
“Every now and then I hear that a reporter has gone to a hospital and they won’t let him through, saying you have to go through the C.P.A.,” said Charles Heatly, a spokesperson for the authority. “That’s certainly not our policy. You will have an Iraqi police officer or hospital employee who still thinks they’re working in the old days, or you’ll have an overly enthusiastic soldier who might not let someone through. That sort of thing does happen. It’s certainly not our policy.”
Washington Post foreign correspondent and Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran said the C.P.A. was in a “tough position.”
“They’re trying to do civil reconstruction of a country in the midst of a very intense conflict,” Mr. Chandrasekaran said. “It’s hard to keep the attention of journalists on reconstruction issues when you have helicopter crashes and daily ambushes of troops and multiple car bombings. These days, for better or worse, violence is driving the story. Security issues are paramount.”
It’s easy to see why they might think that way, as reporters outfit their houses-turned-bureaus with guards and sandbags and plastic to shield windows from shrapnel.
Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and former New Yorker Washington correspondent, said it was “too much to ask of the press to downplay the terrorist attacks in Iraq.
“As long as terrorists are pulling off these attacks regularly, it will be a big story,” Mr. Lemann said. “There’s no way around it. It’s news.”
But there is something else at play as well, sources said: When the dance steps required by the C.P.A. become too complex, there’s always a reserve of Iraqis in the provisional government not terribly thrilled with orders to keep silent that have been handed down by what they see as an occupying force. Interviews with them are not vetted through the C.P.A.
“It is clear the administration is being damaged,” said Marvin Kalb, a lecturer in public policy and senior fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press. “Though everyone says Iraq is not Vietnam, and I agree it isn’t, nevertheless, this kind of activity—the daily loss of life, the inability so far to contain the anti-American operation—all of this has an effect on American public opinion.”
The Bush administration has demonstrated that it’s not missing that point, appealing directly to the public to see beyond the story being written by major media outlets around the world. After all, this is the President who, before the war, stood before the White House press corps choosing questions from a pre-selected group of reporters while ignoring veteran White House correspondents. And during the war, while former Vietnam correspondent turned film writer Bernard Weinraub and New York Post movie reviewer Jonathan Foreman filed dispatches for their papers as embeds, reporters at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, openly fumed at the treatment they received at the hands of their handlers.
In past wars, the military operation may have placed side constraints on the press to ensure that its military objectives could be met. In Baghdad, another model is emerging: a political operation putting side constraints on the press to ensure its political objectives. While the C.P.A. must rebuild Iraq, it must also be a cheerleader for that rebuilding—and the current administration’s handling of it.
To do that, the C.P.A. has brought the right Republican pompoms to the Green Zone. The staff, mostly quite young, is made up largely of young Republican functionaries from Capitol Hill. Their mission is explicit.
On Aug. 9, the Tulsa World ran a story about Oklahoma native Jared Young, a spokesman for Republican Senator James Inhofe on a local Superfund site, who was headed out for Baghdad to work with C.P.A. head Paul Bremer as one of a half-dozen press contacts.
“Most of the media are covering the military side of things, but haven’t plugged into the rebuilding efforts that much,” the 25-year-old Mr. Young told the paper. “When Ambassador Bremer was back here last week, he said they have a great story to tell that hasn’t quite made it out there.”
Another C.P.A. staffer, Thomas Basile, got his chops as a young volunteer for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. Fresh out of college and working on a law degree at Fordham University, this Westchester native’s enthusiasm was such that he was entrusted with planning George and Laura Bush’s motorcades during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, before joining the Pataki administration as a press liaison.
C.P.A. chief administrator Dan Senor, a senior adviser to Mr. Bremer who also worked as the director of the Coalition Information Center in Qatar, was a press secretary and communications director for former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham.
Getting along with these guys is important for reporters in Baghdad. Mr. Heatly, who came to the C.P.A. from the British Foreign Service, said that the C.P.A. didn’t single out reporters for special treatment based on their reporting, but on their attitude.
“Some journalists are frankly better at getting access than others,” Mr. Heatly said. “If you’re loud or overly aggressive, you’re not going to be the favorite person in the compound. Having said that, we don’t try and not give access deliberately. There’s no C.P.A. plot to do that.”
But can the C.P.A. tell the difference between a loud, aggressive person and a person who’s trying to get past them to a story?
“They certainly have favorites,” one Baghdad reporter complained. “They’ll return Fox News’ call. They’ll fall over themselves for Fox.”
For their part, said Mr. Heatly, the C.P.A. has given reporters “as much access as we can. There’s somewhere in excess of 500 journalists in Iraq, and we have a small organization. We’re not talking about the kinds of numbers in government back in Washington or where I come from in London. The staff we have is small, and if we spent all our time giving interviews, we wouldn’t get any work done.
“I can understand the frustrations of journalists,” Mr. Heatly added. “But we’re doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances. The sheer pace of change is incomparable to any situation.”
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