Bobby Ghosh, Time magazine, world editor
On Iraqi staff
The journalists arriving in Iraq after that period–let’s say between the spring of 2006 and today–only get to see little slivers of the country, you can see the Green Zone which is not really Iraq, its this sort of strange artificial construct, and you can maybe go to one or two neighborhoods in Iraq, but you don’t get to see Baghdad much less the larger country. That’s a problem. That means you depend on secondhand information too much without any context, without any feeling for the place. You can do a lot of reading and that prepares you to some degree, but you don’t have a feel for the place and that makes it very hard to do journalism now if you weren’t there before.
Every day that I am in Baghdad I sit down with members of the staff and ask them what’s going on in your neighborhood? Since they come from almost every neighborhood in the city they serve as reporters without meaning to. They are just sitting there and telling me what’s happening on their street, their neighborhood, their marketplace, and that helps me learn a little bit about what’s going on. Working for a news organization for a long time now, they know what to look out for; just instinctively they’ve all become reporters. So when they are just hanging out with their family in their own they are watching out for what is going on with a little more, with an expert eye if you like. They are gathering little pieces of information, little quotes, little anecdotes, little scenes, that they can come back and tell the correspondents, which are very handy, which we take and use when the opportunity arises.
The only times when we use our Iraqi staffers to do considerable reporting is when there is no correspondent in country, or maybe there is no correspondent in Baghdad, is on a embed somewhere, or a story requires several bodies to go in separate directions and we don’t have that many correspondents available. Apart from those circumstances we won’t use Iraqi staffers to do journalism because they are much more vulnerable than we are.
On whether journalists have lost their neutral observer status
Almost from the beginning we didn’t have neutral observer status. For several reasons, one being Iraqis, having lived in this Stalinist state for several generations, didn’t understand what neutrality was. Old media such as it was–couple of newspapers, couple of TV channels–were purely and without any pretense propaganda tools for the Saddam regime. So that’s what they thought journalists did. So when we came along and we were neutral, it didn’t compute.
On flying into Baghdad
By this point, I must have made 30, 35 flights. The first couple years we couldn’t fly, there was no service, so we’d drive from Jordan to Baghdad which is about a 12-hour drive. It’s gotten a little better again, but it is a bit hair-raising. You can’t come in for a conventional landing because of the fear that insurgents around the airport have SAM missiles. We don’t know if they really do, but we have to assume that they do. So what pilots will do is they will fly at 25, 30,000 feet over Baghdad airport and then they do this sort of spiraling dive to the airstrip, and if you haven’t done that before, the first time is very scary. People throw up, people scream, cry, people get religion; it’s very harrowing. And if you look out the window you see yourself in this dive and you ask yourself, can we really pull out of it? Even if you’ve done it many times there are moments of doubt and moments of sheer terror.
The takeoff is the same, you take off and go into a straight climb. I imagine it must be like a space shuttle, but you don’t mind that so much because you know you’re leaving. You’re so relieved when you’ve taken off and the wheels have left the ground–you’re sort of relieved to be leaving Baghdad that you’re willing to put up with the inconvenience, or the anxiety of that strange climb up.
On why he goes back
[Iraq] is the biggest story of our generation. It is the biggest story in the world even though parts of the world don’t seem interested in it. I don’t think we’ll be done telling the story for years. There’s a curiosity, having been there at the start, wanting to know how it turns out, but truth be told, the real reason why I’m going back, why I’m flying out in a couple of days, is I feel heavily invested in the lives of my friends and colleagues there. When I’m not there, and other journalists will tell you the same, I feel a sense of survival guilt.
I fully expect to be writing about it for the rest of my working life. This is, we’re still covering Palestine all these years later, but Iraq is Palestine multiplied by another Palestine. It’s just so much bigger in scale and relevance and importance to the whole world. I think the story will ebb and flow, there will be troughs and swells, and the violence right now has been controlled to some degree in some parts of the country. That is deceptive because all of that has been accomplished by American arms and that can’t be sustained over a long time. The important changes that need to take place in government and politics and society to sustain these gains, those important changes aren’t taking place. There is still a lot of resentment.
On the ever-changing reporting conditions
The circumstances have to improve before we can go out and do more stories, so on this trip that I go out, my mission is to apply some personal litmus tests. I’ve been hearing and seeing for months that the surge is working, I’ve seen the statistics and they are very compelling, the number of Iraqis killed, the number of Americans killed, down. I want to apply some tests to that, I want to see, can I go to my favorite restaurants? Can I go to the market where I used to shop, can I take a trip down the Tigris on a boat? Can I go and visit my friends in their home and will they receive me without fear of being seen by neighbors as hanging out with a foreigner? The friends who left, who are now stuck in Jordan and Syria, are they thinking of going back?
There’s no lack of desire on the part of the journalists, there is no lack of desire on the part of Iraqis to talk to us, except when it endangers themselves and their families, frankly there is no lack of desire among the American military to allow us to tell their story. We are constrained by the security environment.