In the first week of December, Roger Cohen, then foreign editor of The New York Times , visited the Baghdad bureau in hopes of quelling what had become an increasingly volatile, strife-ridden outpost. Located at the center of one of the most dangerous and the most vital reporting theaters today, the bureau, according to sources, had been rife with internal disagreements over security, and personal clashes between its bureau chief-Susan Sachs-and its star reporters Dexter Filkins and John Burns.
When, according to Times sources familiar with the situation, Mr. Cohen sat down with members of the bureau, things only got worse. As evidence of the growing mistrust among Times Baghdad staffers, the beleaguered Ms. Sachs pulled out a tape recorder, demanding that the conversation be recorded. (Mr. Cohen declined to comment for this story. Ms. Sachs did not respond to a request for comment.)
Iraq is no longer the problem of either Mr. Cohen or Ms. Sachs. In the weeks that followed, Mr. Cohen was forced from his post as foreign editor, and on Tuesday, Jan. 13, The Times announced that Susan Chira, currently the editorial director of book development, will be his replacement. In March, Mr. Cohen will begin writing a regular column for The Times ‘ Eliza Doolittle, The International Herald Tribune .
Ms. Sachs, meanwhile, was called back to New York to consult with top editors in December and is currently working on an investigative project. She had held the Baghdad bureau-chief post since October 2003.
But it remains the concern of Times executive editor Bill Keller. In recent weeks, Mr. Keller has dispatched editor Jack Cushman from Washington to look over things in Baghdad temporarily, as Times sources contacted by Off the Record questioned whether internal backbiting and ego-driven arguments have hampered The Times ‘ reporting on the most important story in the world-a story The Times should have owned.
One Times source described the situation at the Baghdad bureau as its own “war” with “major turf and ego battles, swaggering and big-footing by some and plenty of pouting, thrown elbows and bureaucratic jujitsu in return.”
“This is a huge problem we have to get hold of. This is a big story,” another source said, referring to Iraq. “This is huge. I’ve never seen it like this where we [have] operational problems of this magnitude while we try and get on top of the story itself.”
Perhaps just as significant, Baghdad represents the first big internal test of Mr. Keller’s tenure. While Mr. Keller’s predecessor, Howell Raines, at points seemed to relish the idea of Times men clawing and poking each other’s eyes out as a way of encouraging a “performance culture,” Mr. Keller rode in on a wave of good feeling. Mr. Raines’ star system-cf. Bragg, Rick-and the problems that came with it was to be dismantled. A kinder, more team-oriented Times would equal a better paper.
Speaking to Off the Record on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 13, Mr. Keller said: “I’m not going to comment on the internal dynamics of the bureau, except to say you shouldn’t melodramatize what’s gone on there.
“The bureau had some rough spots,” Mr. Keller said. “And I think we’ve got them sorted out.”
Mr. Keller did say that the bureau-chief title is “on hold.”
“We’re going to try the idea of having an editor on the premises and see how that works,” Mr. Keller explained. “This bureau is an amazingly complicated management job. There are dozens of local employees who maintain and drive the cars, translate, provide security. At a given time there are four or five and often six or seven correspondents deployed in different parts of the country.
“All of this is going on in a dangerous place that seems to be getting more dangerous for Americans as time passes,” Mr. Keller continued. “So we thought we’d try out the idea of an editor there who’ll do a lot of the coordinating, keeping track of who’s doing what, talking on a regular basis to New York and Washington and just overseeing the kind of running of this large staff and free the correspondents to do their jobs.”
Sources within The Times saw the move was meant to ease what had become an untenable situation for Ms. Sachs. According to sources, there were numerous disagreements between Ms. Sachs (who, in addition to her managerial responsibilities, was expected to write and report) and Messrs. Burns and Filkins over a variety of issues. As reported in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 29, Ms. Sachs and Mr. Filkins clashed over his carrying a weapon. According to one Times source, Ms. Sachs was extremely frustrated in dealing with the staff, most of whom were hired before her arrival in Baghdad by Mr. Burns, and who she felt remained loyal to him. (Mr.Burns and Mr. Filkins did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.)
One Times source likened Ms. Sachs’ former post to “coaching soccer for 6-year-olds.
“Everyone on the team is going for the ball,” the source said.
The presence of such strong personalities would be hard in any situation, but was exacerbated by the bureau’s tight quarters and undesirable location. Call it Real World: Baghdad . Put a bunch of reporters together to live and work together and see what happens when they stop being polite and start being real. Houses used by The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times ( The Post has a pool and a garden) are nicer than those used by The Times , where often four or five reporters live in the bureau with no locks and no privacy, while sharing one bathroom. One Times source said the conditions were reminiscent of the John Landis masterpiece Animal House . And, around Baghdad, the bureau has been nicknamed “The Jail,” because of its tall wire fence.
This, said sources, only adds pressure to what Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran said was “unlike any other bureau-chief role anywhere else in the world.”
“In addition to having cover the most important foreign story of our time,” Mr. Chandrasekaran said, “the job involves dealing with security issues and logistical matters that’s different than any operation we have in the world. It’s not pure journalism. It’s security. It’s dealing with the American bureaucracy in Iraq. It’s dealing with the local government. The Bush administration. The military. You’re working 18-hour days. It’s a hell of a lot of work to ask of someone to do.”
Recently, Mr. Keller instated a weekly conference call between New York and the Times bureaus in Washington and Baghdad to “talk about ways in which everyone can collaborate.”
“We just felt the need to know what everyone else was doing and what everyone else was planning to do so we could plug in stuff from Washington to things the bureau picks up in Baghdad, plug in things to what we’re hearing from the military on the ground to what we’re hearing from the Pentagon.”
Before his turn as managing editor under Joe Lelyveld, Mr. Keller served as the paper’s foreign editor and Johannesburg bureau chief. During his tenure as Moscow bureau chief he won his Pulitzer Prize.
The importance of the Iraq bureau to him-and to The Times -can’t be understated. It’s The Times franchise story. It’s the kind of story that is supposed to show why the paper exists, and to cement its place as the most important institution of journalism in the world. Yes, it’s swell that The Times can tell you which Nation of Islam financial adviser is whispering in Michael Jackson’s ear. But that’s dessert. Iraq and what goes on there is the meal.
“We want the bureau to keep us ahead on the story,” Mr. Keller said. “That’s its mandate. And they know it.”
But, even according to several sources within The Times , concern has grown over what’s seen as The Washington Post ‘s superior reportage from the region. While The Times has had its share of advances, it’s been The Post -with Mr. Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid-that has better answered the larger questions surrounding the occupation. Who are the factions we’re negotiating with? What are the Sunnis up to as a political force? Can the political steps taken so far win support among them?
Asked about the Post coverage, Mr. Keller said: “I certainly can’t deny that I admire a lot of the work” the paper had done.
“I think The Post has done an excellent job and they’ve got two fine correspondents on the ground who have the virtue of having been there almost continuously since the war,” Mr. Keller said. “And they also have done a really remarkable job-Bart Gellman in part-on the W.M.D. question. I think that last story he did caused everyone who competes with him a serious case of indigestion followed by admiration.
“We haven’t thrown in the towel on that and will try and find ways to get ahead on that aspect of the story.”
Still, not unexpectedly, Mr. Keller stood up for his troops, citing, among other stories, its coverage of the lack of American security surrounding weapons depots that helped armed the insurgency.
“I feel pretty proud of the bureau,” Mr. Keller said. “I think it’s done exemplary work against a lot of stiff competition and under conditions of stiff personal peril.”
From now until the end of the Presidential campaign, Philip Gourevitch, best known for his superb dispatches from Rwanda in the mid-1990′s, will write The New Yorker ‘s “Letter From Washington.”
But hold on, Matt Labash! Before you plan a year of nonstop partying at the Palm with Mr. Gourevitch, you should know that he won’t be writing from Washington. The New Yorker staff writer plans to keep Brooklyn as his home base, while traveling wherever the ’04 campaign takes him.
“This is a Washington beat that’s not happening in Washington this year at all,” Mr. Gourevitch said. “I just got married. I want to stay living at home and Brooklyn is where I will be going to the airport from. I’ll be going to the airport tomorrow to get to New Hampshire and Iowa and won’t be back for a couple of weeks. I imagine I’ll spend some time in Texas and wherever the campaign takes me. Where I’ll be is pretty much on the road.”
Mr. Gourevitch’s move fills the vacancy left when Nicholas Lemann took the deanship of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism last year, and an attempt to lure James Bennett from The New York Times to replace him was aborted. (Mr. Lemann wrote from Westchester, and didn’t need a Presidential campaign as an excuse!)
And while he’s never done time sucking down lukewarm coffee and crullers on a Gephardt campaign bus, New Yorker editor David Remnick said Mr. Gourevitch’s foreign experience is what’s needed to cover Decision 2004.
“Unlike 1992, when the campaign focused on ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and other domestic affairs, it’s pretty clear that this one will center around issues of America’s place in the world, the war in Iraq and national security,” Mr. Remnick said. “Philip is one of the most rigorous reporters and thinkers around, as his book on Rwanda makes clear. He has a fine mind and is a real writer, an important writer. I can’t wait to read him on the Presidential race.”
And now for an Off the Record special N.B.A. scouting report:
On Jan. 8, Time Inc. editorial director John Huey was one of many turned away from the Knickerbocker Club. Mr. Huey had made the mistake of wearing a turtleneck to a book party being held there for Fools Rush In , Vanity Fair contributing editor Nina Munk’s tome on the AOL–Time Warner merger, eliminating the prospect of borrowing a house tie to bring his outfit up to code.
So he did what any red-blooded, house-band guy with a screw-the-man spirit would have done: He headed to Madison Square Garden with CNN anchor Bill Hemmer to see Brooklyn high-school hero Stephon Marbury’s home debut with the Knicks.
Alas, there, too, he ran afoul of local convention, showing more interest in the visiting team than the return of New York basketball’s prodigal son.
“We were there to see Yao Ming,” Mr. Huey said, referring to the Houston Rockets center.
Sitting behind Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Messrs. Huey and Hemmer got to see the 7-foot-6 Ming score 15 points in an 111-79 win.
Asked for his professional evaluation of the second-year Chinese big man, Mr. Huey said: “He’s tall. That’s it.”
Follow Sridhar Pappu via RSS.