In Living E-Mail: Press Makes News By Writing Home

“Baghdad is getting back on its feet,” a foreign correspondent wrote in an e-mail to friends, “with new restaurants, designer clothing and shops where you can now buy everything from Oreos to Pantene.”

Unfortunately, that assessment is 10 months old. “This one is now hilarious in its optimism,” the author wrote this week, passing the old message along.

The correspondent preferred not to be identified by name or employer. Another Baghdad reporter, The Wall Street Journal ’s Farnaz Fassihi, is in her second week of media mastication after her own personal e-mail—describing the chaotic Iraq as arguably “lost beyond salvation”—jumped into the public consciousness through the power of the FWD button.

In the clamor of competing political rhetoric these last few campaign weeks, unmuffled writing from journalists in the war zone is ringing loudly. Don Hewitt, the 60 Minutes boss, publicly hailed Ms. Fassihi’s informal dispatch as evidence the United States needed to quit Iraq; the Portland Oregonian quoted a media ethicist saying she should be reassigned for having let her opinions show.

Back home, two generations of pundits, knotted up with post-post-Vietnam syndrome, quiver and flinch at the challenge of deciding when it’s time to declare that a war has gone sour. The directness of Ms. Fassihi’s writing, by contrast, has some reporters touting it as the signature piece on the current state of Iraq.

In a statement, The Journal announced that the message had been forwarded “unfortunately,” and affirmed that Ms. Fassihi’s reporting had been untainted by her unseemly feelings. Then the paper welcomed her home from Baghdad on her regular assignment rotation, which gives her a break from Iraq reporting till after the election.

Though Editor & Publisher and the Los Angeles Times saw signs of martyrdom, there was “no discipline action taken,” a Journal spokesperson said via e-mail, and the paper has “[n]o policy for private communications.”

To Ms. Fassihi’s peers on the Iraq beat, the question is, as one put it, “Why the hell did that e-mail get her in trouble?” The facts (“there are several car bombs going off each day around the country”) and the opinions (Iraq is “a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States”) are both commonplaces for reporters on the ground, and some of them have expressed as much in their own back-channel communications in the past year.

“Partly because I don’t have the time and partly to avoid getting myself in this kind of trouble, I stopped sending out mass email updates [this past] spring,” the Baghdad-is-on-its-feet author wrote in an e-mail. Her last mass message, in March, told of the death of al Arabiya TV reporter Ali al Khateeb: “He and a camera man were shot by U.S. soldiers during confusion at a checkpoint Thursday evening in Baghdad. Arabiya is carrying nonstop coverage of the incident, the funeral procession and the protests of Arab journalists in Baghdad. My mom … said the incident was on the CNN crawl.”

Now, to keep friends and family up to date, the reporter posts digital pictures on a photo-sharing Web site, where you need the correct user ID to find them. Along with photographs of a woman playing the oud and a crowd of men at a racetrack, there’s a photo of a man hosing down the burned-out shell of a four-door sedan. The accompanying caption:

Hmm, how many car bombs have I covered? Too many to count. This one was especially nasty. A young boy shoved a severed hand in my face and a U.S. soldier fired shots into a crowd of journalists and bystanders. This was one of my most terrifying days in Iraq.

For writers surrounded by such scenes of lawlessness, carnage and free-form hostility, Ms. Fassihi’s take was more of the same. And who-fought-where-today stories don’t capture it. Last month, blogger-turned- Time correspondent Christopher Allbritton used his back-to-Iraq.com blog to highlight an excerpt from one of the Time pieces he’d contributed to. The passage touched on the official numbers: 87 attacks on U.S. forces per day, more than 1,000 dead troops, more than 7,000 wounded.

But then Mr. Allbritton added his own, non- Time-published comments:

I don’t know if I can really put into words just how bad it is here some days …. While most reports show Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra as “no-go” areas, practically the entire Western part of the country is controlled by insurgents, with pockets of U.S. power formed by the garrisons outside the towns …. I wish I could point to a solution, but I don’t see one.

Logistical details of life—armored car or no armored car?—can vary from reporter to reporter, said Annia Ciezadlo, who freelances for a variety of daily and weekly newspapers. As for Ms. Fassihi’s essential account of Baghdad life, though, Ms. Ciezadlo said: “I would say it was dead on.”

On the phone from Beirut, where she was staying between stints in Iraq, Ms. Ciezadlo said people back in the United States didn’t always grasp what reporters were embroiled in. “One thing people asked me a lot was, ‘Do you live in the Green Zone?’ Which always cracked me up,” she said.

Ms. Ciezadlo said she does not, in fact, work from the safety of the fortified district. But her regular news stories, she said, haven’t necessarily captured what life in the larger city is like. “My reporting didn’t usually touch on things that were happening around my hotel,” she said.

For that, she too has resorted to private e-mail—hoping, she said, to provide details that “conveyed an impression of what it might be like for Iraqis as well.”

Ms. Ciezadlo provided a copy of one of her informal dispatches, written in April on the anniversary of the capture of Baghdad. She had awakened, she said, to the sound of a Humvee “blasting the curfew warning in Arabic at psyops-level volume”:

The Humvee was patrolling Firdous Square, the little public square where the US pulled down Saddam’s statue exactly one year ago today. You’ve probably seen endless TV coverage of Firdous Square—whenever Jane Arraf or Ben Wedemann is standing in front of a beautiful, blue-domed mosque and talking live, that’s where they’re standing.

The Saddam statue, Ms. Ciezadlo went on, had been replaced by a modernist sculpture of a family facing a rising sun, by sculptor Basim Hamed. “Though Basim put up the statue without any help from the CPA, they immediately adopted it and used it as a symbol of how the US was helping Iraqis,” she wrote. Later, she added, the statue had been “festooned with pictures of Moqtada Sadr and Mustafa Yacoubi,” which a U.S. soldier had torn down that afternoon.

I had just returned from Sadr City, where I’d been swallowed into an angry river of hundreds of men streaming out of a mosque and chanting Forgive us Ali, forgive us Ali, Moqtada is the wali—Sadr is the wali, inheritor of the Shiite martyr Ali. Basically, they were screaming that they love him so much they’re willing to blaspheme their own religion for him. Taking down the pictures in Firdous Square seemed pointless, to say the least.

By this time, the psyops Humvee … was flatly announcing that IF WE SEE ANYONE ENTERING THIS AREA, HE WILL BE INSTANTLY SHOT. Then, in case that seemed unlikely to win hearts and minds, the hidden voice of America would add: IF YOU ARE ANGRY TODAY, YOU SHOULD BE ANGRY AT THE MEHDI ARMY, BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE IRAQI PEOPLE AT HEART.

Twelve hours later, at four in the morning, this bastard is still circling our hotel, still blaring out his warnings—doing his best to prove that here in Firdous Square, at least, America [is] in control.

“October is harvest, and so it is when a lot of people have wine on the brain,” said Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin, explaining why her magazine is currently presenting its “Wine Issue.”

So with enough wine on the brain, would the folks at Field & Stream decide to do a “Stream Issue”? Or would U.S. News & World Report offer a “World Report Issue”?

“We’re actually very devoted to the Wine Issue,” Ms. Cowin said. The magazine has been doing the theme number for eight years now, she said, to take advantage of a season that’s “sort of like New Year’s Day in the world of wine.” In the role of Baby 2004 5/6: vint-crit titan Robert Parker, who offers his predictions for the future of the industry (“11: Value will be valued”).

But even as it’s stating the obvious, the magazine seems to be misstating the obvious. The Wine Issue includes 59 food recipes, including “Duck Confit Potpie” and “Zucchini Bread French Toast with Maple-Bourbon Butter” (“[W]hisk the cream, milk, eggs, vanilla extract and confectioners’ sugar …. Add the zucchini bread slices … “). Drinks only rate two recipe entries, though both do involve wine.

Ms. Cowin conceded the point—actually, she said, the Wine Issue is the fattest issue of the year, and it contains more food recipes than usual. “We’re thinking next year, when we do the issue, we’re going to flip our logo,” she said—which would make it the Wine Issue of Wine & Food magazine.

What about doing the Food Issue, then? “I think that’s another good idea,” Ms. Cowin said brightly. “The Thanksgiving issue we kind of think of as the Food Issue. I’ll have to think about that one.”

In Living E-Mail: Press Makes News By Writing Home