BY ROBERT W. GEE – AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Ten years ago last week, I was summoned home.
I was in Iraq, having the reporting experience of a lifetime. I had driven a rental Chevy Tahoe from Kuwait to Baghdad, covering the war and its aftermath. Despite getting little sleep and losing 15 pounds, I wanted to stay.
There were still big stories to cover, after all. Among them, the discovery of those weapons of mass destruction.
That would have to be left for other reporters, my editor told me. I flew back to the metro desk in Austin, where Iraq had faded from the front pages.
I traded war reporting for stories about a proposed Travis County tax increase, a tropical storm in Port Lavaca, the Llano schools chief convicted of violating state open records laws. Life in Central Texas had returned to a normal rhythm.
The war, of course, would creep back into the headlines, in ways that in May 2003 I didn’t foresee. I missed the big stories in Iraq, and I wasn’t alone.
The American media is remembered for what we didn’t write in those early moments of war. We spent little effort, for the most part, scrutinizing the premise for war, and we (along with the Bush administration) largely ignored the warnings of Middle East experts that a U.S. invasion would be followed by an insurgency and possible civil war.
Whether it was a reluctance to question government in a time of patriotic fervor, or a reckless push for scoops no matter how flimsy the sourcing, we failed.
At the time, however, it seemed a heyday for American journalism. International reporting was suddenly a priority as media companies invested heavily to feed an insatiable appetite for news.
Weapons of mass destruction
Cox Newspapers (now part of Cox Media Group), the parent company of the American-Statesman, dispatched six reporters to the region to cover the war. My job, among other things, was to cover U.S. troops finding those weapons. In the run-up to the war, the company put me up in a seaside Hilton south of Kuwait City, packed with American journalists and the U.S. military media operation.
Just before the war began in late March, I landed on a priority roster of media members who would be ferried by U.S. military helicopter to the site of Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons. My name was there, along with reporters from the New York Times, CNN, Fox and others. My editor was proud.
I didn’t ask whether they would find the weapons, and I didn’t get the sense there was a lot of questioning among the media encampment there, as we gathered in the mornings to eat elaborate buffet brunches overlooking the languid Persian Gulf, swapping plans for crossing the desert frontier into Iraq.
Signs of trouble
After the fall of Saddam’s government, Cox, having burned through thousands of dollars, retrenched to one reporter in a Baghdad hotel room. Other news organizations likewise downsized their Iraq footprint.
We had written good stories. I’m proud of mine. I wrote about women fearing a loss of freedom following the fall of Saddam’s secular government; of families reburying the newly discovered bones of their loved ones who had long ago disappeared and been executed by Saddam’s regime; of tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala, flexing their newfound religious freedom; of the Marsh Arabs, persecuted by Saddam and hoping for a return of the waterways that could restore their ancient way of life. My last story was about the restlessness and growing discontent of ordinary Iraqis, as looting and power outages continued, and as the economy was slow to sputter back to life. Looking back, it was probably the most important story I wrote. It didn’t run on the front page.
“We don’t care if (then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon’s son is president of Iraq. As long as there is electricity, jobs and respect for human rights,” a chicken farmer in southern Iraq told me. The war, it turned out, was only beginning.
A new narrative
I remember a dinner toast among colleagues in January 2003.
We were sitting around a long table at a Thai restaurant near Fort Dix, N.J., where I had participated in a weeklong, all-expenses-paid, military-sponsored “boot camp” for journalists who were assigned to cover the expected war.
“To George W. Bush,” a reporter from an East Coast daily said, raising his glass, “for advancing all of our careers.”
The war was a great opportunity for every journalist who covered it, even if most were there only long enough to get sand in their hair and write a few dozen dispatches about the world’s strongest military crushing a much weaker foe, about a long-suffering people suddenly free, about widespread looting partly as an expression of that freedom.
Our narrative was merely the prologue.
When I returned to Iraq in 2007, the search for weapons of mass destruction had long since come up empty and the insurgency was four years old.
I interviewed American soldiers who had played key roles in the invasion back in 2003 and who were back and questioning the war. I wrote about soldiers coping with the loss of friends and comrades and preparing to return home where they would be haunted by those memories, of a promising young West Point graduate a week into his first deployment who was shot in the spine and paralyzed, of Iraqis still asking when peace and some measure of a normal life would return. The 2003 narrative had been replaced by a new one.
The media’s performance in the run-up to the war has led to soul-searching within the industry.
If there’s one thing we can and should fall back on in these uncertain times for journalism, it’s our critical role as government watchdog. Our democracy is counting on it. We abdicated that responsibility in 2003 and we’re still working to repair the damage to our reputation.