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News Pools as Iraq Heats Up

Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The mounting violence in Iraq against American and coalition military forces and foreign civilians has created a dangerous situation for journalists who need to move about the embattled region. The city of Fallujah in particular has become so unsafe that network news divisions have set aside their usual competitiveness to create a pool arrangement for sharing TV images.
“It is about as tense as it’s been since I’ve been coming here,” said ABC News correspondent David Wright, who has been reporting from Iraq off and on since before the United States launched the war in March 2003.
With fiercely fought rebellion spreading swiftly from Fallujah throughout southern Iraq and insurgent militias snatching foreigners-including journalists-in broad daylight, Mr. Wright, in a phone call from Baghdad, Iraq, last week, described the situation confronting journalists as “the most dangerous” since the war began. American TV news organizations ratcheted up their security and other precautionary measures accordingly.
ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC news operations agreed to share video obtained from besieged Fallujah by a network pool that last week consisted of a CBS News crew, a Fox News producer and an ABC News uplink. The pool travels and operates under the protection of U.S. Marines who are trying to regain control of the central Iraqi city. Lourdes Navarro, a broadcast correspondent for the Associated Press, has been phoning reports of the Marines’ battle for Fallujah to a number of TV outlets in the States.
The news organizations agreed to share information and recommendations from the private security forces that each employs.
In Baghdad last Friday, U.S. troops locked down and guarded the Palestine Hotel, which houses numerous foreign journalists. An anti-U.S. demonstration was to take place in the nearby square, where Iraqis just a year ago celebrated the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship by pulling down his statue with the help of freshly arrived American troops. No one could get in or out of the hotel during the lockdow n period, a source said. During the lockdown, the adjacent Sheraton Hotel was hit by rocket fire.
Earlier in the week, some network news correspondents’ reports from Baghdad included mentions that the situation was so volatile that journalists were better off not leaving their hotels.
“We’re now pretty much prisoners here. We go around town only as much as is feasible,” Mr. Wright said. “Knock on wood, I don’t think I have been on the verge of being kidnapped or killed. There have been situations when it seemed we’d better jump in our car.”
TV news executives are reluctant to divulge specifics about the protective measures being taken in Iraq-which is a voluntary assignment for the correspondents. The measures include reducing the number of people in the country, relocating correspondents and staff frequently, advising crew to never venture out unless accompanied by armed security teams, and painting armored four-wheel-drive vehicles used by media in colors so they won’t be mistaken for the military or provisional authority.
Last week a photographer and a driver for the AP were detained and released in Kut and a stringer was banned from Karbala.
“Security is the most important thing we do,” NBC News President Neal Shapiro said last week from NBC News headquarters in New York. He spoke the day after a memorial to correspondent David Bloom, who died just outside Baghdad a year ago, and the day before a memorial for all NBC journalists who have fallen over the years.
“We all talk to our people every day and tell them, `You have to make the call. There’s no penalty at all if you say you don’t think you should leave the hotel. You shouldn’t think you should go this place or that place,”’ said Mr. Shapiro, who described the internetwork cooperation as “tremendous.”
What sets the war in Iraq apart from some other international conflicts in recent history is that the U.S.-led war is a major political issue at home. And the journalists who choose to be in Iraq now must cope with the knowledge that, as Mr. Wright said, “Our ability to tell the whole story is really limited
Pool pictures coming out of Fallujah last week were “very dramatic,” Mr. Wright said. But “It’s very much `Fog of War’ stuff,” He said, referring to the Academy Award-winning documentary.
The images of Iraqis cheering as the bodies of Americans who had been ambushed and shot were burned, mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah were so shocking and powerful, American newsrooms held long discussions about how much to show. Despite the care taken by most broadcast news organizations, the images still sparked polarized reactions from the public.
Even as editors and producers were debating how to treat the images, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was saying during a press briefing, “We hope everybody acts responsibly in their coverage of it.”
All network news executives were adamant that was the closest the White House came to attempting to influence use of the pictures.
“We all made our decisions independently,” said Marcy McGinnis, senior VP of news coverage for CBS News. “We’ve made those kind of decisions in the past, and we will continue to make them on a case-by-case basis.”
“The images will come out in this electronic age in a way which nobody can control,” said Mr. Shapiro. “We’ll decide what to do with them.”