NY Times Baghdad Bureau Chief Says Iraqis Would be Better off with Saddam

At the University of California Berkeley, Iraq correspondents discussed the controversy over whether or not journalists can provide an accurate picture of the situation in Iraq.

Those in attendance: Anna Badkhen of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackie Spinner of the Washington Post, John Burns of the New York Times and Mark Danner, a Berkeley journalism professor and contributor to The New York Review of Books.

UC Berkeley News reported on the event.

Jackie Spinner, Washington Post staff writer and author of "Tell Them I Didn't Cry," an account of a year spent in Baghdad starting in May 2004, disagreed that reporters in Iraq are prevented from telling both sides. "I think we're getting 90 percent of the story," she said. When disbelieving guffaws rang out from the audience, she retorted, "Excuse me, have you been there?" She went on to explain how when Washington Post reporters can't go out, "we rely on this whole cadre of Iraqi stringers and translators, who in the case of the Washington Post are Post-trained journalists."

Those skeptical of this reliance should take the time to read Spinner's book, which describes in detail the tight bond between the Post's Baghdad correspondents and the Iraqis who risk their lives to work for the bureau, often keeping their jobs a secret even from family members lest the insurgents kill them in retaliation. Before the situation in Iraq turned even more dangerous, Spinner — a UC Berkeley journalism alumna — would dress in a headscarf and full-length abaya and ride to the scene of an incident. There she would wait while her translator brought her an Iraqi who she could interview inside the tinted windows of the car. Later, she could not always go herself, but would be in constant contact with the Iraqi staff, guiding what questions they asked and pressing for details of the source's mannerisms, hesitations, and context.

In "Tell Them I Didn't Cry," Spinner faces down bloggers.
The American public, it seemed, had no idea why I was in Iraq. It is not that I wanted their praise.…I don't run from controversial stories just because bloggers or anyone else might take a crack at me. After all, the very principle of free speech that sent me to Iraq gives people the right to criticize what I write. I'm fair game.'

NY Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns said he thinks things would have been better with Saddam in power.

Meanwhile Burns, who began reporting from Iraq long before the U.S.-led invasion, said that he had at first believed that Iraqis would be better off if the violent tyrant Saddam Hussein were toppled. He had been "mesmerized by Saddam Hussein's brutality into looking through a narrow glass," he admitted, and had "missed the fractured society beneath the tyranny," a society that is now looking as if it is about to degenerate into a bloody, decades-long, unresolvable civil war.

One would think that when Burns — with his 40-year career of reporting on wars — says somberly that this war does not look as if it's going to turn out well for either Iraq or America, that would be a somewhat persuasive message across political-party lines. And yet he too hears constantly that the New York Times is not reporting the "good news" coming out of Iraq. In that morning's KQED interview, he asked rhetorically whether Americans would prefer a "good-news newspaper," like the Soviet Union's Pravda was, before explaining that journalism's nature "inclines us somewhat more to look at things that go wrong than things that go right."

The torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by U.S. soldiers was unarguably the biggest single story of the war today, Burns said, calling it "an arrow in the back of every American soldier who goes to Iraq." And yet the Abu Ghraib incidents are not representative of what the U.S. armed forces in Iraq do — building schools, repairing sewage lines, helping Iraqi victims of suicide bombings — and Americans have every reason to be deeply proud of their armed forces in Iraq, he emphasized. "Is that adequately reflected in what we write? I'm afraid to say it isn't.