BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This was an extraordinarily violent week in Iraq, marked by a series of coordinated bombings across Baghdad. It's also the most dangerous place for a journalist to work. Among the thousand of civilians killed since March of 2003, 74 have been reporters or their staff, 15 shot by American forces according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This week, CPJ issued a statement charging the military with failing to account for the deaths. Also, this week the New York Times reports that dozens of Iraqi journalists hired by western news outlets because they can move more freely, have been detained by American forces under suspicion of being allied with insurgents. Once in custody, they lose all contact with the outside world. According to the Times, Iraqi reporters hired by western companies say they routinely receive death threats from insurgents who have killed far more reporters than the U.S. military, but many of those reporters also say that the military suspicion has made it almost impossible for them to work in some areas. The high casualty rate has driven several European news outlets out of Iraq, but major U.S. outlets feel compelled to stay, despite the unique challenges posed by this war. Loren Jenkins, senior editor of NPR's foreign desk, says he's never seen anything like it.
LOREN JENKINS: I cut my teeth in Vietnam and Middle East wars of various sorts and African wars, but this is at a magnitude of danger that we've never encountered before in journalism. Every time you move, you're threatened. You're living in sort of fortress like compounds that are guarded. When you go out to try and interview someone, you've got to watch your back; you could be kidnapped, you can be killed. Everyone is happy to do a month there and get the hell out until the next time I ask him to go for a month.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Loren, have you had to cycle all of NPR's foreign correspondents pretty much no matter where they're based through Iraq?
LOREN JENKINS: Well, we've drawn on whoever was willing to go. I mean, there are some correspondents who basically say that's not my cup of tea and I won't go, and that's fine, we respect that. We just hired someone who's going to be a permanent correspondent for the next year at Baghdad Bureau.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you foresee the day when there won't be any reporters who want to go ready to rotate through?
LOREN JENKINS: I don't think so. I think there's always going to be journalists who are willing to take risks, to cover stories that are important. Some will and some won't. And you respect those that won't. Part of being a foreign correspondent is to buy into a certain amount of risk and danger because there's always conflict to be covered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the issue of diminished resources? How does that play into this at all?
LOREN JENKINS: It's terribly expensive. I mean, we've all had to invest so much in security for where we stay at night. We have to have an armored car to drive just to the airport for people to get off of because that's the most dangerous road in the country. It's costly, but it's still the biggest story in America right now overseas. It has to be covered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Loren Jenkins is NPR's foreign editor. Because NPR is generally shielded from concerns over profit margins that bedevil other news outlets, it is able to compensate for those reporters who decline to cover the war. But Richard Gizbert, an 11 year veteran of ABC News, says that was not the case when he told ABC he would no longer report from Iraq or Afghanistan. As a 44 year old father with three wars - Somalia, Rwanda and Chechnya - under his belt, he felt he'd paid his dues. And in a lawsuit he'll bring against ABC in London this week, he maintains that for his refusal he was fired. Richard, welcome to the show.
RICHARD GIZBERT: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ABC News declined to comment on the case but they did tell us that, quote, "Everybody at ABC knows that war zone assignments are voluntary. They always have been and they always will be." Shouldn't ABC have the ability though to retain reporters who are willing to do what ABC requires of them?
RICHARD GIZBERT: Typically, there's been this pattern: You do your bit, you do your four or five years, then you step aside, and then they replenish that pool of reporters with younger people. And up until now, that has been an acceptable pattern for a network to live with. But the fact of the matter is, I mean, they talk about a voluntary war zone policy. In the United States, if you're based there for ABC it is voluntary. But if you just look at the landscape in Europe, they've got four correspondents now based in London, all four of whom go to war zones. When I was there, three of the four went to war zones, and then I was fired and replaced by somebody who would.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, then, what would you do if you were in ABC's position of needing news from a place where fewer and fewer reporters were willing to go?
RICHARD GIZBERT: Well, I'd do what NBC's done, I'd do what the BBC has done as well. I mean, NBC has hired a reporter, someone named Richard Engel, who's an Arabic speaker. They place him in Baghdad. He's there semi permanently, does six weeks in and maybe two weeks out for R&R. BBC does the same thing with a reporter named Caroline Hawley. You can find young reporters who are willing to pay the price on a story like this. They might be doing it because they feel passionately about the story. They might be doing it for career reasons, because this is the quickest way to establish them on the air. Another approach is a company like ITV News here in the U.K. It is the largest commercial broadcaster in the U.K., the second largest broadcaster in Britain behind the BBC. And they have looked at the risks associated with covering this war, which are extraordinary. And they have made the decision that it is no longer justifiable to take those risks, to spend the money, and to put that person in Baghdad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Richard, so many have complained that there's too little in depth reporting from Iraq. Would you actually support ABC or other networks pulling out of Iraq altogether?
RICHARD GIZBERT: Well, it's a difficult [SIGHS] thing for a broadcaster to contemplate. I'll give you that. But what's equally difficult is the knowledge that even though you've got someone standing on a balcony trying to speak knowledgeably back and forth to the anchor in New York, everybody in the business knows that they're not doing true reporting anyway. When I first started covering wars, Bosnia, Chechnya in the mid 90s, the danger was always crossfire, collateral damage. And what's happened since 9/11 is that we are no longer merely observers; we are seen by some of the extremists involved in the conflict as taking a side, participants in a way. I don't blame any Western journalist who doesn't want to go there. It's not their fault that people are trying to kill them with roadside bombs and kidnap them and execute them on the Internet. It's the reality of the situation. ABC, NBC, CBS, all those people, they provide real good security for their people on the ground. They're doing the best they can to protect their people. But what hasn't changed is their approach to staffing the war. We simply cannot ask typical correspondents to go in on the same kind of rotation into Baghdad as we did in Sarajevo in 1994, because it is a completely different proposition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If we were to connect the dots of everything you've told us, what you basically come down to is the fact that their budgets are too small to maintain the proper sized foreign cadre of reporters to continue coverage in a way that is humane and entirely voluntary.
RICHARD GIZBERT: I think what's happened over the years is, because of the fragmentation of the broadcast pie, the 500 channel universe, a voluntary war zone policy at a era when there were three networks carving out huge profits, is much more difficult for ABC to tolerate. It was one thing when you're covering Bosnia and Kosovo, which has a limited American involvement. That's one thing if you're covering Beirut in 1982 where the Marines go in for a few months, take a bad hit, then pull out and that's the end of the American involvement, apart from an envoy that goes in from time to time. But it's not something that a network can economically withstand when it's looking at an open ended war, 130,000 U.S. troops in theater, intense competition for the network, remember, from all kinds of news sources, not just television but also Internet. You know, that is a completely different equation for a network to deal with. Yet the network continues to have this pretense of having a voluntary war zone policy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard, thank you very much.
RICHARD GIZBERT: Nice talking to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Gizbert is a former ABC news correspondent based in London.