Media Mensches of the Year

On the day that American bombs began dropping on Iraq in March 2003, The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins sped his S.U.V. across the Kuwait border, north toward Baghdad. Unembedded and unencumbered, Mr. Filkins became the byline New Yorkers most began looking for: His intelligent, understated reports from battle zones—“dispatches that whisper,” wrote Jack Shafer in Slate—came to define war correspondence in Iraq as it showed up on the American newsstand.

Speeding from Baghdad to Falluja, Mr. Filkins’ unflinching reports have granted renewed immediacy to the coverage in a war where street violence and carnage teeter on becoming the normal, not the news. Here he is, Dec. 18: “Surveying the bloody scene, it might be tempting to conclude that Iraq is violent and little else; that the cycle will come around again. Such a judgment would miss the heart and complexity of the place. In Iraq today, every reality seems to have its own countervailing reality, in equal measure and equal force. Less than three years ago, Iraqis lived in a state of near-permanent terror. Today, Iraqis live in a society that is free but anarchic, full of hope and full of death …. ”

Playing Butch Cassidy to Mr. Filkins’ Sundance Kid: Old Testament–looking, grizzled Times Baghdad bureau chief John F. Burns, his white beard and Anglo-fro setting him apart from the beauty boys who drop in to look around the Green Zone and depart. Mr. Burns and Mr. Filkins have focused the world on the ground in Iraq even as much of the media became distracted by sideshows, “Plan for Victory” banners, good-newsathons.

Mr. Burns’ coverage this year has been distinguished, but particularly his dispatches from Saddam Hussein’s trial: “[P]itiable he has not been. Tragic, perhaps, in the sense of a man incapable of the repentance that might lend him at least a glimmer of humanity in this, the extreme passage in his life; wildly deluded, too, in his insistence that he is Iraq’s legitimate ruler …. But of a reduction like Eichmann’s, to a figure so commonplace, so insignificant, that he seemed inadequate to his grotesque place in history, there has been no sign.”

Mr. Burns and Mr. Filkins are hardly alone: There are hundreds of American journalists working in Iraq, including some 60 reporters and local staff in the Times Baghdad bureau, and much important reporting in American newspapers, broadcast correspondents, in books and on Web sites.

But Mr. Burns and Mr. Filkins, close friends, are a real-life duo, a buddy film even William Goldman couldn’t have come up with. Mr. Burns, stately, tough, eccentric, born in England, educated at McGill; Mr. Filkins, the flak-jacketed speedster from Coco Beach, Fla., known to jog through the streets of Baghdad at night. Michael Caine and Jake Gyllenhaal!

“For us, it’s been a long journey, as it has been for the American people,” Mr. Burns said by phone from Cambridge, England, on break from Baghdad. “It’s been a journey into shades of darkness.”

As for Mr. Filkins: “It’s been hard to stay here this long,” he said from Baghdad on Jan. 2. “I’m totally burned out and exhausted. Because I’ve been here two and a half years, I’ve been able to see the whole arc of the enterprise. I have a certain perspective. I drove in in March 2003, and I’ve seen—boy, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve see this gigantic enterprise go up and down and go up again. Nobody can be entirely sure about where things are headed here. Anyone who claims to know doesn’t know what they’re talking about. There are so many things in play, and so many things beyond anyone’s control.”

“John and I will be friends forever,” Mr. Filkins said. “We’ve been through quite a bit together. I pretty much go where my curiosity takes me, and John encourages me to do that.”

“Dexter is the most energized and questing reporter I know,” Mr. Burns said. “He’s the complete foreign correspondent—he is absolutely undaunted by risk and is tireless.”

“It’s the essential question: whether this gigantic enterprise will succeed or fail,” Mr. Filkins said. “I ask myself that question every morning when I get up and when I go to bed. It’s this gigantic thing, and it’s so ambitious and the stakes are so high. So many lives are riding on it. It’s what you think of every day.”

“We have to remember we’re writing for Americans,” Mr. Burns said. “For Americans who send their sons to war, who pay their taxes. It doesn’t make us cover it more negatively; it keeps us on our toes for what Americans care about.”

Because they covered Iraq brilliantly and with great integrity, brought New Yorkers close to our national conflict on the other side of world, reminded other reporters what great print reporting looks like, Dexter Filkins and John F. Burns of The New York Times are The Observer’s Media Mensches of the Year. Their prize: Our regard, gratitude and lunch anywhere in town—less the wine, which we can get for you wholesale.