WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It is both sobering and saddening after the recent release of Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor freelance reporter held hostage in Iraq for 82 days, to hear the haunting war stories of other correspondents traveling to and from Baghdad.
At a forum Tuesday at Georgetown University, recipients of the 2006 Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting (named for Teddy Weintal, who spent 25 years covering foreign affairs for Newsweek magazine) spoke of the harrowing experiences of covering the war in Iraq. The picture they painted is one of chaos and near-anarchy, where there is no real front line in the war, where every street is a battle zone.
"I can't leave my bureau to go out on a story without risking my life or the lives of my Iraqi staff," said Anne Garrels of National Public Radio. Ms. Garrels is a veteran correspondent who has covered numerous hot spots, including war-ravaged Chechnya.
"The situation is becoming increasingly difficult for reporters and for the Iraqis who translate for us, drive for us, etc.," she said. "It is dangerous to go out and buy a bottle of shampoo in Baghdad."
George Packer, award-winning journalist for The New Yorker, who spent months in Iraq writing The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, described the anxiety in his spine every time he went out on the street to speak with ordinary Iraqis. "I am a risk to their safety and they are a risk to mine," he said, and yet you can't practice journalism without getting out and speaking with people.
For Christiane Amanpour of CNN, covering Iraq today is covering "the abyss."
She and the other reporters on the panel spoke about random shootings of Iraqi shopkeepers during daylight, Westerners disappearing at a moment's notice, uncertainty that an Iraqi police officer in uniform is really not an insurgent in disguise. They described lawlessness and looting in a nation in a free fall, with increasing numbers of Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire. "I pray every day for a miracle," said Ms. Amanpour.
Most troubling about these reports from the war zone is the chilling effect that conditions in Iraq are beginning to have on journalists trying to bring us the story. The inability to move freely about Iraqi cities has constrained the ability of reporters to find out what is going on beyond the perimeters of their bureaus.
The growing security risks have dissuaded some reporters from rotating into Iraq and left others confined to hotel rooms and offices. Traveling around the country with the military as an "embedded journalist" is still an option, but, as Mr. Packer conceded, from a reporting standpoint, it is "one-sided."
Absent neutral, objective, independent reporting by journalists inside Iraq, the public increasingly will be forced to rely for its information on administration statements and briefings, which often paint a rosy picture of a nation pulling itself together into a democracy. As one of the panelists said, "What I see in Iraq does not always correspond to the happy talk in Washington."
The gap between rhetoric and reality in Iraq consistently has left Americans with a confused picture about what is really taking place and how to assess the value of our role there. One is left wondering: How can Americans support a mission if we are not sure how it is going? How can we make informed choices if our information is lacking? On whom do we rely for an honest assessment of conditions in Iraq?
More worrisome, the impediments to international reporting on Iraq come at a time when space for foreign news in the nation's newspapers and the time devoted to it in television news broadcasts are shrinking. Over time, the news business has endured severe budget cuts, which has meant that fewer correspondents are based overseas.
Yes, online content has grown exponentially. But much of it is opinion, analysis, blogging, a retread of headlines and a rerunning of wire stories, and there's not much enterprise or investigative reporting from the field. In short, there's not enough "ground truth."
We are at a critical time in Iraq. A national unity government must be formed if there is even a chance of salvaging the situation. American troops and Iraqi civilians continue to lose their lives every day in places we cannot see or hear about. Our ability to judge the situation is narrowing.
The insights and experiences of these reporters are a stark reminder of what is at stake in this war - and what we, the public, are in danger of losing if the situation becomes untenable for reporting.
Tara Sonenshine, a former contributing editor at Newsweek and a producer for many years at ABC News' Nightline, is on the Weintal committee at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.