When it comes to covering the war in Iraq, McClatchy Newspapers has always done things a bit differently. The third-largest newspaper company in the US, it owns thirty-one daily papers, including The Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee, The Kansas City Star, and The Charlotte Observer. (It became the owner of some of these papers after buying Knight Ridder newspapers in 2006.) McClatchy has a large bureau in Washington, but without a paper either in the capital or in New York, it operates outside the glare of the nation’s political and media elite, and this has freed it to follow its own path.
In the months leading up to the Iraq war, when most news organizations were dutifully relaying the Bush administration’s claims about the threat posed by Iraq, Knight Ridder/McClatchy ran several stories questioning their accuracy. Since the invasion, the company has run a lean but resourceful operation in Baghdad. All three of its bureau chiefs have been young Arab-American women with some fluency in Arabic. At home in the cultures of both the West and the Middle East, they have been adept at interpreting each to the other.
From the start, the McClatchy bureau has made a special point of reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis and on the impact the war has had on them. To help it do so, it has relied heavily on its Iraqi staff. It currently has five Iraqi members—former teachers, doctors, and office managers who, joining the staff as translators and “fixers,” have received on-the-job training as reporters. In this, McClatchy is not unique. As the danger to Western reporters in Iraq has mounted, US news organizations have turned to local reporters and stringers to help gather the news. (The work is even more dangerous for them than it is for Westerners; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the 124 journalists who have been killed since the start of the Iraq war, 102 have been Iraqis.)
McClatchy, though, has gone a step further. About a year ago, it set up a blog exclusively for contributions from its Iraqi staff. “Inside Iraq,” it’s called, and several times a week the Iraqi staff members post on it about their experiences and impressions (the blog can be found at washingtonbureau.typepad.com/iraq). “It’s an opportunity for Iraqis to talk directly to an American audience,” says Leila Fadel, the current bureau chief, whose father is from Lebanon and whose mother is from Michigan, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and who is all of twenty-six years old.
As such, the blog fills a major gap in the coverage. In a recent survey conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of the Pew Research Center, US journalists in Iraq were asked to grade different aspects of reporting on the occupation. Their highest marks were given to the coverage of the military operations and experiences of US troops—fully 82 percent rated this as excellent or good. Their lowest marks went to the reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis; this was rated fair or poor by 62 percent. “There are too few reports that include Iraqi citizens—not Green Zone politicians but regular folks,” one TV journalist said. “We need to hear their voices.” “The coverage has been ethnocentric,” a newspaper correspondent commented. “There is not enough attention to the plight of the Iraqis.”
The abysmal security situation is no doubt partly to blame for this. Despite the improvements in safety in Baghdad in recent months, most of Iraq, including large parts of the capital, remains too dangerous for journalists to travel in without heavy protection. When you have to travel around town in armored cars, it’s hard to interview the man on the street. But there seem to be other reasons for this neglect as well. As the Pew survey noted, American editors seem to have a “declining interest” in the Iraqi side of the story. The same is no doubt true for American readers. “There are so many stories about our troops,” Leila Fadel told me. “That’s what Americans want to read—stories about their brothers, husbands, and sisters.” This has only increased with the surge. Politically active Americans seem mainly interested in one question—is it working? To find out, American journalists have embedded with US troops, gone out with them on patrol, interviewed lieutenants, captains, and colonels. It’s a classic case of Washington setting the journalistic agenda. In the process, stories about the Iraqi people and how they see the surge, and the war in general, have been squeezed out.
“Inside Iraq” specializes in such stories. The entries on it are rarely edited, and the English is left intact. “You can hear the way they think and speak, untouched,” Fadel says. The emphasis, she notes, is on telling personal stories rather than expressing political views. Even so, the blog is full of passion, irony, bitterness, and outrage, qualities that help get across the dark realities—and unfathomable costs—of the occupation with an immediacy that Americans are rarely exposed to. It’s the occupation as seen through the eyes of the occupied.
Some of the postings deal with the daily challenges posed by a society suffering a precipitous physical decline. “I just would like to tell you that this is the 7th day that we don’t have water in our neighborhood,” observes one writer in an April 14, 2007 entry. (It, like many of the contributions, carries no byline—a security precaution.) The lack of water results from the lack of electricity, which is needed to keep the water pumps going. Fortunately, the blogger notes, he can afford the fuel for a private generator. “Yesterday,” he writes,
almost all our neighbors came to our house asking for water. We kept our water pump working for hours and we couldn’t do anything but providing people with water until 11 pm. I could see happiness and Thanks Allah, my family gained many nice prayers from our neighbors who were really thankful.
An entry from mid-June describes the “vacation” the writer was forced to take as a result of a curfew imposed on Baghdad. “I lived the daily suffering of my family for whole three days,” we’re informed. Breakfast has to be cooked for everyone at the same time in order to conserve the precious propane gas. Next comes the daily cleaning of the house—turned into an ordeal by the lack of water. There’s no electricity, and with the temperature outside 45 degrees centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit), the house is suffocating. At 2 PM the electricity comes on for three hours, and the writer takes a bath, followed by a nap with his son:
I just put him between my arms and slept trying to enjoy the moments of having cool air of my room air cooler in spite of the bad smell of the sewage system that flow over.
When the electricity goes off, he reads a book. At 8 PM, when the power returns, the family watches TV, especially the news channels in Iraq, but the blogger sits in another room because he wants to see “a comic movie or a song just to forget for a while the terrible situation of Iraq.” Around midnight, when the generator goes off, everyone heads to the roof to sleep because it’s too hot inside. “I can say that my three days vacation deserves to be No. 1 worst vacation because I experienced the typical Iraqi day,” the post concludes.
The loss of freedom of movement is frequently lamented on “Inside Iraq.” A contributor named Laith writes in mid-October about being asked by his wife if he remembers the restaurant they had lunch at during their engagement. Yes, he replies, it was Filis, in the once-upscale Mansour neighborhood. Why does she ask? “I like to have lunch there, in the same restaurant,” she tells him. With a sarcastic laugh, he asks, “Did you live enough and you want to end your life quickly?” When she expresses shock at this, he tells her that the whole area around the restaurant is now controlled by insurgents. Just the day before, he writes, he found himself in a taxi on the street of the restaurant. “I swear I wished to cry,” he observes.
It was Ghosts Street. 90 percent of the shops were closed including Filis restaurant…. One upon time this street was one of the most beautiful and full with life.
Families used to start coming to the street from sunset and stay there in the different restaurants and cafes until 2 am. Iraqi families used to spend their nights happily in that sweet street but not anymore. Now and according to a close friend who live in the same neighborhood, people who stay late in the street might be targeted by a sniper or an IED explosion….
I don’t know who can bring life back to our lovely streets after the failure of both, the US army and the Iraqi Security Forces. I don’t know when I can take my wife again to have a special launch in Filis restaurant again.
Not all the posts are so morose. Some note with satisfaction that certain parts of Baghdad are reviving as a result of the US troop surge. In a November 10 entry, for instance, a blogger tells of visiting his brother a few blocks away. For more than a year, he writes, his neighborhood, Amil, had been ripped apart by sectarian violence, with some streets abandoned to snipers. But two weeks earlier, with the start of meetings between sheiks representing Sunnis and Shiites, the violence had begun to subside, and on his way to his brother’s he walked along some streets
I wouldn’t dare to pass a week ago. I also noticed the two cafes on my way open, with great surprise, one of them filled with customers…. I was really happy to see this happens having our traditions and habits come back again.
Recently, a number of similarly hopeful entries have appeared on “Inside Iraq.” On December 14, for instance, a blogger noted how
Yesterday morning I made a tour to different areas in Baghdad which I would never think or dream to pass through a year ago…. To my surprise, I saw the highway full with traffic having cars of all kinds even trailers comparing it with the last few months which was almost deserted of all kinds of cars even the military ones. I am really happy to see and feel the security situation becomes better and better.
Such posts are greatly outweighed, however, by those expressing anger and gloom, exasperation and despair. The overwhelming sense is that of a society undergoing a catastrophic breakdown from the never-ending waves of violence, criminality, and brutality inflicted on it by insurgents, militias, jihadis, terrorists, soldiers, policemen, bodyguards, mercenaries, armed gangs, warlords, kidnappers, and everyday thugs. “Inside Iraq” suggests how the relentless and cumulative effects of these vicious crimes have degraded virtually every aspect of the nation’s social, economic, professional, and personal life.