Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Tales from the Press Room: Camping out with journalists in Iraq

Here I am sitting around the press room in the Green Zone, waiting to go out into Baghdad and find some STORIES. And then suddenly it occurred to me that there are about 25 really interesting stories hanging around within ten feet of me here, just waiting to get discovered. Your fearless reporter Jane is on the job!

I'm typing this from inside a room the size of a large trailer -- actually it sort of IS a large trailer. There's a table for this computer, a table for food, some hook-ups for laptops, four sets of bunk beds, two couches and eleven cots. Journalists are typing, sleeping, eating Cheerios, sorting through their dirty laundry, chatting and shrugging into their Kevlar to go out on an embed.

"Is there any coffee left?" Yes. And a box of Girl Scout cookies too.

"Where are you off to today," I asked a journalist from Finland.

"I'm gonna spend another day at the Combat Support Hospital." He and about three other journalists spend a lot of time there. Apparently, it's like Gray's Anatomy -- so many doctors, so many operations, so many stories. "You see a lot of tragedy there but the hardest to deal with are the children. Yesterday there was a four-year-old Iraqi boy with shrapnel in his abdomen. My son is that age. It really got to me."

Some journalists come rushing into the press room with blood on their khakis, muttering something about having just been missed by a mortar round or having just witnessed a firefight. And some journalists seem to be very reserved and quiet about their accomplishments -- storing up their energy between grueling assignments out in the field.

Another journalist was on his way to embed in a western province today. "I've been following this one GI all through his training in the states and now I'm going to fly out to interview him here in Iraq." That's a lot of effort to put into a story. Go you.

Most of the journalists here bring their own laptops and let me hog the only hard-drive computer. However, there was one German guy who insisted on fighting me for it and he and I would always have mock wars which usually ended with us laughing so much we forgot what we were fighting about. But then some French journalist arrived and he got really NASTY about it. "You were on that computer until midnight last night! Now it's MY turn." He's right. I've been busted. My bad.

Ten feet away from me, three Iraqi journalists and an Iraqi cameraman are sound asleep. I have so much respect for Iraqi journalists. They ask the hard questions at the press conferences, they follow the troops into the heat of battle and they risk their lives daily for stories. In the last few months, 15 of them have been killed.

Here is an example of some of their questions:

1. Is the continued use of car bombs the fault of the security forces?

2. 2000 families have moved out of Mosul because of threats. Why don't you deploy more security forces in Mosul?

3. Many ministries such as the Interior, Defense and Energy, are ineffective. What are you doing about that?

4. Americans are handing over the hot spots to Iraqi forces but the Iraqi forces are not capable of handling this....

5. Has the dialog between the [insurgent and government] parties started yet?

6. The U.S. has been waging war for four years and we still have violence and no electricity! We need more electricity!

7. There are many areas in South Baghdad that suffer terrorist attacks. Why don't you send more troops there?

8. We have noticed that the phenomenon of the militias and unidentified [groups] have come back after they have adjusted to the new security conditions....

9. What are the names of the terrorist groups?

10. After the fighting in Diwaniyah, are you going to supply rations and fuel? Compensation for damages? Clean up the city? Allow workers and students to go back to their jobs and schools? The whole city is suffering. What do you hope to achieve? And what about the female detainees?

Speaking of females, there are several lady journalists working out of this press room. They are fierce. They suit up, go out where the male journalists go and bring back the goods. And they do it all backwards and in high heels! (Just kidding -- that's a quote from Ginger Rodgers.) Some of them are really young. Would I want one of my daughters to be doing this? Not really, but boy would I be proud of her.

Speaking of daughters, I commented to one of the soldiers here the other day, "I am so impressed with the excellence of American troops. I haven't met one yet that I wouldn't want to marry one of my daughters." Or in the case of the female soldiers, marry my son. But he already has a girlfriend. Eat your hearts out, troops!

Down the corridor from the press room is the broadcasting booth for Freedom Radio FM. “We try to give the troops here a taste of home,” said the DJ. His little broadcast room was the size of a large closet but it was lined from floor to ceiling with CDs. “We don’t use those any more,” he said. “Now we use a database program.” Then we talked about the definition of “classic rock”.

“You mean Bill Haley and the Comets, right? Maybe with a little Elvis and some Little Richard and some of my hometown boy Johnny Otis thrown in?”

“No, classic rock is anything that was playing 20 years ago.” 20 years ago? Was he talking about Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Eddie Money and The Cult? Those guys were in diapers or not even born when Classic Rock was alive and well. Humph. But other than that, the DJ was a really class act.

About two days ago we had a “surge” of reporters. They all swarmed in, spent the night on cots and bunkbeds and the floor. Then in the morning, like the tide, they were gone. Reporters stay here from all over the world. When one guy from CNN said that his employers would pay to put him up at the Hotel El Racheed instead of here, boy were we jealous!

Then another reporter friend from the press room just e-mailed me a really great description of his day outside the Green Zone today. Here it is. Wish I could write like that!

"You should have seen it, Jane. It's called Haifa Street, but I call it Dodge City the day after. There are so many bullet holes in the buildings they are now on top of each other -- looks like some type of sick war matting. The only business that is thriving in the neighborhood is the grave marker business. Maybe you need to notify Haliburton about that. The Shia's ride through at night and shoot the place up even more. They call it the swiss cheese side of town. Who said these people don't have a sense of humor? They hoping the Sunni's will move on to where ever. Hey, Jane, have you thought about embedding with the Shia night cruisers? Or maybe the Sunni pilgrims? See, you have more chances to embed, don't give up yet. And please, stop this whining. We have a war to win here."

Hurray for reporters. They are the Fourth Estate, the true heroes of democracy! And they are totally "interesting" too.