James Glanz, New York Times Baghdad bureau chief
On managing the bureau
All of us live basically in walled compounds. It’s easy for us to get out in the area of Baghdad. We just go out the door and there we are in the Baghdad commercial district. Usually we’ll have some sort of missions planned the day before, so we know what we’re going to do and when we work it out with our security, we have a way we get out safely we hope on the streets. It’s kind of a beehive. At any time there can be between two and seven reporters and photographers and then we have our guards and fixers and drivers and so forth.
My function is to make sure the logistics are all worked out, all the storylines that we should be covering we are covering and then keeping track of all the multiple people there that they don’t clash and that everyone has what they need.
We always have people coming over for the first time to do reporting, and then we have some veterans. Now I have by far the longest tenure of anybody in the bureau. I don’t know if that’s good or that’s bad, so I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, and what you often find in terms of expectations by the reporters as they come in. They’re sort of expecting to be scared a lot of the time, you know, we all try to be brave but we all get scared.
On the frustrations of reporting in Iraq
But what surprises everybody who comes in is that the most difficult element of it is the frustration of trying to report there, just the sheer logistical difficulty of it and trying to draw good information from a place that is simply thickly overlain with the fog of war and a lot of self interest.
Information is elusive there. It’s hidden behind many barriers, and you know, as in any situation like this, with all the self-interest out there, people don’t always tell you the truth and so you have to spend a tremendous amount of energy getting places getting good in formation and then making sure it jives with other information you’re getting from other places.
So you’re using the military to get around, you embed with them and you go out with units and so forth and that’s an important part of what we do, a very important part of what we do and we often get great stories out of it. But at the same time, you know, they’re are laboring to show you one face of the war and to make sure you don’t see some other aspect that they prefer you didn’t report on, so you have to negotiate all that. And It’s amazingly labor intensive reporting there, and it’s frustrating, and it’s often very slow compared to what you can do here.
When you come back from a stint in Baghdad and you do a reporting stint in the city which I sometimes do or in Washington, you have this odd feeling because you call somebody on the phone and say I’ll be there in 20 minutes and then you get on a subway you don’t have anybody with guns with you. You can speak in your own language, and you just show up and maybe somebody looks at your ID as you go into the building and just waves you through.
On the role of the Iraqi staff
You want people with local knowledge and they have it. And that’s probably the biggest advantage that they bring. You know, they can get you in the door, they can talk to people whether it’s a cousin or somebody they went to school with or from their neighborhood who’s in the middle of the action that you’re trying to report on. Then second, very few of us really can function completely in Arabic in Baghdad and especially because you know the Iraqi dialect is a very specific thing, there’s really nowhere to go to learn Iraqi Arabic.
On how things have changed over the last five years
I went over the first time after the invasion, so things did change from March 2003.
The insurgency broke out in April 2004 so things were already starting to get kind of sketchy. To tell you how different things were then, my first out of Baghdad mission was the Basra in the south. I went down there, I stayed in a hotel, I had one guy with a pistol with me and I had a local fixer, Fokker Haider, who later was killed, much much later. But those were the days when I would go down and work with Fokker, and it was great.
I remember the first night I was in a hotel there, I was with a real veteran photographer, I was new in the country, and I was on about the second floor and a gun battle broke out on the street, and I lay there just thinking, it wasn’t really threatening me, I was just thinking you know wow, this is pretty Wild West, I guess I can handle that. But I got up the next morning and I said to the photographer the next morning ‘I was surprised that battle went on for two hours last night’ and he said ‘oh did it?’ He said, ‘I went to sleep after 10 minutes.”
I thought well, this is pretty crazy but it’s a level that I can deal with, OK. At the end of that mission, I flew down, I managed to fly down with a U.S. government organization, but we drove back. This was in June of 2004, we actually couldn’t find another way back so we took a couple of cars and we drove on the highway back from Basra and that is completely out of the question to do anymore because things have gotten so much more dangerous and just unpredictable. Even if you might be able get away with it once, the next time something terrible would happen, you know, a flash checkpoint.
On how to prepare for a first trip to Iraq
We’ve talked a lot about that, how should you prepare, and what should you expect. I think the first time in, what I say is, just make sure you get enough sleep before you go because you’re going to need it. You’re going to need all the sleep banks you can draw upon. And I try to emphasize that you know we’ll help you with the logistics, you know the security, because we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ll expect you to be careful, but its not as if you’re going to have to reinvent the wheel when you come in, we know how to do this, we’ve been doing this for a while, so leave that to us, you’ll get a feel for it at a certain point.
But what I tell them is that the thing that’s going to wear you out is not the threat of violence actually if you’re doing all that properly fear of violence, it’s the frustration of reporting in this place and just try to prepare them for that so they’re not shocked. And that I think is the thing that reporters coming in for the first time just underestimate, is the difficulty of reporting in this kind of environment.