TV News Winds Down Operations on Iraq War
Quietly, as the United States presidential election and its aftermath have dominated the news, America's three broadcast network news divisions have stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq.
"The war has gone on longer than a lot of news organizations' ability or appetite to cover it," said Jane Arraf, a former Baghdad bureau chief for CNN who has remained in Iraq as a contract reporter for The Christian Science Monitor.
Joseph Angotti, a former vice president of NBC News, said he could not recall any other time when all three major broadcast networks lacked correspondents in an active war zone that involved United States forces.
Except, of course, in Afghanistan, where about 30,000 Americans are stationed, and where until recently no American television network, broadcast or cable, maintained a full-time bureau.
At the same time that news organizations are trimming in Iraq, the television networks are trying to add newspeople in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with expectations that the Obama administration will focus on the conflict there.
Of course, the Iraq war has evolved and violence in the country has subsided. At the same time, President-elect Barack Obama and senior military strategists generally agree that tensions have risen in Afghanistan, leading to more violence and unrest.
In short, the story, certainly on television, is shifting to Afghanistan.
CNN now has a reporter assigned to the country at all times.
Michael Yon, an independent reporter who relies on contributions from Internet users to report from both areas of conflict, has already perceived a shift in both media and reader attention from Iraq to Afghanistan. "Afghanistan was the forgotten war; that's what they were calling it, actually," he said. "Now it's swapping places with Iraq."
For Mr. Yon and others who continue to cover Iraq, the cutbacks are a disheartening reminder of the war's diminishing profile at a time when about 130,000 United States service members remain on duty there. More than 4,200 Americans and an undetermined number of Iraqis have died in fighting there since 2003.
ABC, CBS and NBC declined to speak on the record about their news coverage decisions. But representatives for the networks emphasized that they would continue to cover the war and said the staff adjustments reflected the evolution of the conflict in Iraq from a story primarily about violence to one about reconstruction and politics.
In Baghdad, ABC, CBS and NBC still maintain skeleton bureaus in heavily fortified compounds. Correspondents rotate in and out when stories warrant, and with producers and Iraqi employees remaining in Baghdad, the networks can still react to breaking news. But employees who are familiar with the staffing pressures of the networks say the bureaus are a shadow of what they used to be. Some of the offices have only one Western staff member.
The staff cuts appear to be the latest evidence of budget pressures at the networks. And those pressures are not unique to television: many newspapers and magazines have also curtailed their presence in Baghdad. As a consequence, the war is gradually fading from television screens, newspapers and, some worry, the consciousness of the American public.
The TV networks have talked about sharing some resources in Iraq, although similar discussions have stalled in the past because of concerns about editorial independence. Parisa Khosravi, CNN's senior vice president for international newsgathering, said such talks among the networks were not currently under way.
But journalists in Iraq expect further cooperative agreements and other pooling of resources in the months ahead. ABC and the British Broadcasting Corporation, longtime partners on polling in Iraq, may consolidate some back office operations early in 2009, two people with knowledge of the talks said. The people spoke anonymously because they were not authorized by the networks to talk about the plans.
One result is that, as the war claims fewer American lives, Iraq is fading from TV screens. The three network evening newscasts devoted 423 minutes to Iraq this year as of Dec. 19, compared with 1,888 minutes in 2007, said Andrew Tyndall, a television news consultant.
In the early months of the war, television images out of Iraq were abundant. "But clearly, viewers' appetite for stories from Iraq waned when it turned from all-out battle into something equally important but more difficult to describe and cover," Ms. Arraf said. She recalled hearing one of her TV editors say, "I don't want to see the same old pictures of soldiers kicking down doors."
"You can imagine how much more tedious it would be to watch soldiers running meetings on irrigation," she said.
It is an expensive and dangerous operation to run at a time of diminishing resources and audience interest.
"Some news organizations just cannot afford to be there," Mr. Yon, the independent reporter, said. "And the ones who can are starting to shift resources over to Afghanistan."
CNN and the Fox News Channel, both cable news channels with 24 hours to fill, each keep one correspondent in Iraq. Among newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post continue to assign multiple reporters to the country. The Associated Press and Reuters also have significant operations in Iraq.
Stories from Iraq that are strongly visual - as when an Iraqi journalist tossed two shoes at President Bush this month - are still covered by the networks, though often with footage from freelance crews and video agencies.
"But these other stories - ones that require knowledge of Iraq, like the political struggles that are going on - are going uncovered," Mr. Angotti said.
Mike Boettcher, a Baghdad correspondent for NBC News from 2005 to 2007, said nightly news segments and embed assignments with military units occurred less frequently as the war continued.
"Americans like their wars movie length and with a happy ending," Mr. Boettcher said. "If the war drags on and there is no happy ending, Americans start to squirm in their seats. In the case of television news, they began changing the channel when a story from Iraq appeared."
A year ago, Mr. Boettcher left NBC after the network rejected his proposal for a "permanent embed" in Iraq and he started the project on his own. In August, he and his son Carlos, 22, started a 15-month embed assignment with American forces in Iraq. His reporting appears online at NoIgnoring.com.
Iraq has been, according to some executives, the most expensive war ever for TV news organizations.
Most of the costs go for the security teams that protect each bureau and travel with reporters. Iraq remains the deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to a report compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. On Nov. 30, a National Public Radio correspondent and three local staff members survived an apparent assassination attempt in Baghdad when a bomb detonated under their armored vehicle.
Keeping fewer people stationed in Iraq and traveling on assignment often cuts costs for the news organizations. In an unrelated interview this month, Alexandra Wallace, an NBC News vice president, said the network had correspondents in Iraq "most of the time."
"If a bomb blew up in the green zone and Richard Engel wasn't there, we do have an option," she said. Mr. Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, rotates in and out of Baghdad.
Mr. Boettcher is not convinced. "Like it or not, the country is at war and there is not a correspondent to cover it," he said. "Sad."