It would have been a familiar-looking segment, if ABC had been able to air it: brand-new World News Tonight co-anchor Bob Woodruff standing in the hatch of a Soviet-made Iraqi personnel carrier, dressed in a flak jacket, motoring through hostile territory.
Instead, as Mr. Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt filmed their Jan. 29 stand-up in Taji, Iraq, an improvised explosive device went off by the roadside, followed by small-arms fire. After emergency surgery, both men were flown to Maryland on Jan. 31, with Mr. Vogt in good condition and Mr. Woodruff’s fate less certain.
The incident was a shock, but it wasn’t a real surprise. A week before, the stand-up position near the CBS compound in Baghdad was showered by shrapnel after a car bomb exploded nearby, CBS Evening News executive producer Rome Hartman said. No one happened to be filming at the time. Three months ago, a truck bomb was detonated near the Fox News Channel compound, forcing the network to relocate its 40-odd bureau staff for several weeks, said John Stack, Fox’s vice president of newsgathering.
“It’s virtually suicidal to cover this from a television perspective,” said Jon Alpert, a documentary filmmaker and former broadcast-network war correspondent.
Reporting from Iraq has been hazardous—and deadly—for broadcast and print journalists alike. More than 60 journalists have died in the three years since the start of the war, and reporters from all media face the threat of shootings, bombings and kidnappings. Christian Science Monitor freelance reporter Jill Carroll remained in captivity as of Jan. 31.
Still, the wounding of Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Vogt captured the specific perils that television news faces in the battle zone.
Traditionally, anchors and reporters have enjoyed a sort of shield of invincibility: the ability to stand up and address the camera amid bomb strikes, hurricane winds and other forms of manmade or natural wrath. But the chaos of Iraq—where there are no front lines, reporters are targets and attacks are unpredictable—is more than the shield can handle.
Regular Fox viewers are used to seeing images from the network’s stand-up site: A correspondent reports from a sunny spot with a mosque visible in the distance, over one shoulder.
But if the camera were to pan back, the audience would see some other fixtures of the landscape: bodyguards, armored vehicles and reinforced concrete walls. Those are the surroundings the network has to add so that it can show the scene from Iraq without having small-arms fire or shrapnel penetrate the sphere of the camera.
“The live component is so much a part of the cable-news structure,” Mr. Stack said, “that we are compelled to go live more often. And of course we wonder, ‘Is that more of a temptation to the enemy?’”
Western print reporters at least have the option of laying low or trying to blend in—and of sending Iraqi stringers when they can’t go out themselves. Television demands wide shots and stand-ups and images from the field. And it needs correspondents to stand in front of those shots, looking rugged, reporting live.
“There’s no doubt if you’re a television reporter, you’re more identifiable when you are doing your newsgathering,” said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. “You have a camera, sometimes you have lights, sometimes your activity is more distinguishable than if you’re a print reporter.”
And the TV operation is slower-moving. For a live shot, it takes 12 minutes to set up a video phone, and “less to tear it down, if you’re afraid,” said CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, former chief of the network’s Baghdad bureau. “But it’s basically a case where, if you’re doing television, it does present risks that if you’re a newspaper reporter with a pen and a notebook, you don’t necessarily have to take.”
“It’s something we think about all the time,” said CBS’s Mr. Hartman. “We do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people, and it’s never far from our minds that they’re covering a tough story. Having said that, this is a dangerous assignment, and everybody knows it. Everybody does the very best they can to be safe.”
“Journalism in a war zone carries great risks, and covering the war in Iraq, and the dangers faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces, brings with it its own unique hazards,” said NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams in an official statement. “There is no way to cover the story in Iraq without exposure to danger.”
Said Mark Seddon, a correspondent for Al Jazeera International and a veteran war reporter: “The networks must be asking themselves, ‘Can we really afford to keep putting our people in such a dangerous place?’”
Some reports suggested that Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Vogt might have avoided the blast by staying with more heavily armored American vehicles, or by not venturing out of the hatch when they did. But then, they could also have avoided it by staying home.
“Look, there is no way to guarantee absolute safety in a country in which there are people who are trying to kill innocent civilians, to attack security forces that are there, to attack coalition forces and to attack the media also,” said Mr. Whitman.
So the news operations are left with little to do but wait and see how the injured ABC team fares. None of the networks have announced any changes to their Baghdad security operations or any new shipments of bulletproof vests. The extra precautions have already been taken, the armored cars hired, the rules re-evaluated, the personnel trimmed. “We just hope and pray,” said Mr. Hartman.
With embedding the only way to safely travel around the country, the number of embeds has fallen from some 700 reporters in the early days of the war down to 24 as of Jan. 31.
“What may change because of this—and we’re still going through the information about what actually occurred when Bob and Doug went out on that shoot—but the only thing I can see happening is journalists staying even closer to our headquarters and not venturing out so much,” said Mr. Stack. “It’s a heck of a dilemma that journalists face.”