From Saigon to Baghdad
The event consisted of a panel discussion led by former copyboy, reporter, editor, and President and CEO of the Chicago Tribune Jack Fuller. A Pulitzer Prize winner himself, Fuller presided over a prestigious panel of distinguished reporters including George Esper (retired, professor at West Virginia University), Steve Komarow (editor, AP), and Colin McMahon (editor, Chicago Tribune). The panel focused on reporting during times of war, specifically in the combat zone. The context was the parallels and distinct differences between the Vietnam War and the current conflict in Iraq.
Esper spoke of complete access to combat zones as a reporter in Vietnam. Komarow said that current journalists are less dependent on the military for information nowadays given technological breakthroughs. Access itself is now more limited. For instance, reporters in Iraq must undergo biometric exams in order to obtain a press pass! McMahon even recognized a changing landscape during the course of the current war. As Iraq became more dangerous, reporters need to engage in advance planning to travel anywhere, and access is therefore perpetually threatened.
The panel drifted to the topic of embedding reporters within combat units. Fuller suggested that the practice is controversial because it is difficult to see outside the perspective of the unit. Komarow echoed this concern, claiming the practice is useful from the standpoint of seeing what is actually happening on the ground, but masks the larger picture. McMahon claims that embedded coverage must be balanced with multiple perspectives, a difficult proposition for medium to small newspapers.
The panel also assessed the impact of the Internet on war coverage. McMahon said that the 24-hour news cycle makes all reporters more conscious of what's happening around them and this spurs better coverage by individual reporters. Komarow is concerned about the ease of posting stories in the Digitial Age, and as an editor, is constantly attempting to slow down the process to ensure accuracy. Esper contends that bloggers are not journalists given the number of unverified stories, and lamented about the fact that mainstream journalists are forced to the react to their claims, true or false.
The program ended with audience questions, from the media's responsibility for the lead-up to the Iraq War to reporters' concerns for the lives of American soldiers in the field, and concluding with assessing the impact of media consolidation on war coverage. I left with greater respect for the AP and reporters on the battlefield in general. At a time when most papers are cutting back or discarding international reporting altogether, the AP has actually bulked up their foreign bureaus and is filling the void. Moreover, reporters continually enter hostile environments to inform Americans back home about the international exploits of our nation. Every day, the AP, and these foreign correspondents, do all of us a great service.