ReportIing Iraq


ReportIing Iraq: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE WAR BY THE JOURNALISTS WHO COVERED IT. Edited by Mike Hoyt, John Palattella, and the staff of the Columbia Journalism Review. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2007. 187 pp. Softbound, $21.95.

Reporters like to talk. In Reporting Iraq, the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review gave forty-four journalists a chance to tell their stories, not in seedy, dimly-lit bars but in extensive oral history interviews CJR originally published in the November/December 2006 issue, commemorating the magazine’s forty-fifth anniversary. This full-color book is an expansion of the magazine piece, which itself came about in part as a CJR response to a Time Books’ 21 Days to Baghdad: The Inside Story of How America Won the War Against Iraq, published shortly after May 2003 when President George W. Bush famously declared that “ major combat operations in Iraq have ended. ” As Hoyt and Palattella say in Reporting Iraq’s introduction, the Time Books account “is an oddly sanitized thing, a slick postcard from a short and tightly scripted war.” Soon, of course, the reality of news from Iraq put the lie to the patriotic version of events in 21 Days to Baghdad.
To compile Reporting Iraq, with its highly unsanitized, unscripted eyewitness accounts, the magazine hired three experienced war correspondents — Vivienne Walt, Judith Matloff, and Christopher Allbritton — to interview a total of forty six reporters, photographers, translators, and stringers about their behind-the-scenes experiences in Iraq. Those interviews became first the magazine piece and then, in expanded format, Reporting Iraq.
The interviews focus on the time period between the March 19, 2003, U.S. invasion of Iraq and the late summer of 2006, a period in which “Iraq itself has been torn apart, as seen through the eyes of journalists on the ground as they lived through it” (9). This clear focus and limited time frame illustrate an important oral history practice: articulate the parameters of your project and pursue it in depth within those parameters. Many books based on oral history interviews could also take a lesson from the editors of Reporting Iraq, who included an excellent, detailed chronology of the period the book covers. The book also lists the names of the journalists whose interviews are excerpted, along with the news organizations for which they worked and the dates they were in Iraq.
Using interviews from freelance writers, translators, wire service correspondents, photographers, and reporters, the editors group the excerpts thematically, starting with “In the Beginning,” in which the interviewees recall their observations of the first days of the invasion and the toppling of Saddam’s statue. Anne Garrels of National Public Radio observed: “The toppling of the statue — yes, there were people celebrating, but there were as many people standing in shock. It was not just one big party, as I think the cameras tried to make it out to be.... Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they were not joyous; there was a very mixed feeling about seeing American soldiers in their midst” (24 – 26). Larry Kaplow of Cox Newspapers recalled: “You were coming across American soldiers who looked like they’d just beamed down from a spacecraft, and had no idea which way was which and what they were doing and who they should be looking out for, and at the same time were mingling with Iraqis on foot, and stopping in juice shops for drinks” (27).
But whatever impressions of victory there might have been quickly unraveled. The interviewees describe how the Coalition Provisional Authority became increasingly isolated inside the Green Zone from the growing insurgency that the journalists knew firsthand, and some describe the nightmares they still experience after going on foot patrols as embedded journalists, presumably not unlike the nightmares the soldiers still experience, too.
The interviewees also talked at length about the challenges of being a Westerner in Iraq and the decided advantages that came with being able to speak Arabic —or at least look Arabic. James Hider of The Times of London recalled that in early 2005 he dyed his hair from brown to black (although once turning his hair blue), with the aim of appearing more Arabic. Eventually he was successful: “It really worked quite well. I mean, some people actually spoke to me in Arabic when I had black hair. I felt like I looked like Roy Orbison’s ghost, but people would ask me stuff in Arabic” (128).
Alongside the sometimes light-hearted recollections, though, are previously unpublished photos, many of which would never appear in a general circulation newspaper because they vividly depict the blood of war.
The book’s thematic and chronologic organizational scheme is not unlike the approach Studs Terkel popularized in numerous books. But, like Terkel’s books, the excerpts sometimes lack suffi cient context, and oral historians may rightly wonder: What questions were asked? To what extent are these transcripts edited? What prior experiences did these journalists have and how did that affect their take on reporting from Iraq? And where are these interviews archived?
While Reporting Iraq may fall short of a scholarly approach to oral history, it nonetheless makes an important contribution to the growing literature on matters connecting history and current events. Indeed, a sequel based on new interviews with the shrinking pool of correspondents that have covered Iraq since 2006 would add an important new dimension for anyone interested in how reporters do their work and why understanding foreign conflicts is so difficult.
Reading this book is like eavesdropping on one of those after-deadline gatherings at the journalists’ favorite watering hole, at which they share with one another what they know to be so, even if they cannot always report it. As Hoyt and Palattella note: “The journalists who appear in this book have covered what is still the most significant story of our time, and have done so under circumstances that nearly defy belief .... Many of them have been in Iraq longer than a fair number of soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers. They know things. This is their story” (10).

Mary Kay Quinlan
University of Nebraska – Lincoln

Source: The Oral History Review, Volume 37 Issue 2 Summer-Fall 2010, pp: 304-306



 
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