BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we just heard, terrorist attacks in Iraq are excluded from the Patterns of Global Terrorism report, but they continue all the same - 30 to 40 a day, according to Pentagon figures. That's down from an average of 140 a day in the lead up to January's elections. But has the situation improved for journalists covering the story? Last week, Knight Ridder's Baghdad Bureau Chief Hannah Allam addressed the question during the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. We caught up with her in Oklahoma City, a day before she returned to Iraq, and we asked her if she's noticed a change.
HANNAH ALLAM: I can't really see any difference for foreign journalists working in Baghdad. We just lost a good friend this past weekend, Marla. She was actually there as - for a non-profit organization she had founded. She was just driving on Airport Road and became a victim of a suicide bombing, and-and died - 28 years old. She'd been in Iraq since the beginning, and a lot of journalists knew her. So that really drove home to us that the threat is still there. It hasn't changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned that she died on the road to the Baghdad Airport, which I guess is one of the most treacherous places in the whole country or, or maybe even on the planet. How do you go on that road?
HANNAH ALLAM: Very carefully. Normally, we prefer a very low profile operation in Iraq. We just go in maybe two cars, unmarked or anything. But on Airport Road, that's when we really bring a bodyguard and weapons, and it's seven miles of terror, pretty much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's the extreme. But how do you live day to day?
HANNAH ALLAM: We're still spending a lot of time inside the hotel. Even if we do go out, we don't stay in any one place for more than 20 minutes. And then we go back to the hotel. But we're doing a lot of phone interviews. We're sending our Iraqi staff members out a lot more, to gather information and to conduct interviews.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You had described this, this remarkable incident at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention last week. What was that story?
HANNAH ALLAM: There was a salon in Baghdad where I used to go after stressful days to get a manicure or just to relax, and it was run by two really funny Iraqi women. And we've become friends in the past two years. And I was in there three weeks to a month ago, and my cell phone rang, and instinctively I just picked it up and said hello - in English. And there was just this silence that fell over the room. People stared at me, and I realized what I had done. And then my friend, the Iraqi owner of the salon, came over and said - you know, it breaks my heart, I'm sorry to tell you this, but you put yourself in danger. You've put us in danger. Now they know that you're a foreigner - the other customers, and it's not safe for you to come here any more. That was the, the last refuge for me, and now it's gone as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Personally devastating, but potentially also devastating for your work? How does it affect your work?
HANNAH ALLAM: Well, I wasn't there to interview anyone, but I would still pick up these amazing story ideas, and I would just listen to them telling jokes and how they interact, and I would also see the growing tension between the Sunni Muslim and the Shia Muslim clients who came in. And I was able to ask questions, and it wasn't being written down anywhere. They were very comfortable and free to speak. And to me, it was one of my last remaining connections with ordinary Iraqis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think overall of the coverage from here. You've been here for about a month. Do you think we're getting the story that we need to get?
HANNAH ALLAM: What's really struck me since I've been back in the States - everywhere I go, when people hear that I live in Baghdad, they say - Oh, well, you're in Baghdad, but at least it's so much better there now. And that's not the case. I mean Iraqis are still dying every day by the dozens, in some cases. You know, things are still very, very dangerous on the ground. So I, I think it's important that we don't confuse a decrease in the attack on American soldiers and American interests with some sort of significant shift in the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hannah, one area of Iraq that we haven't been hearing a whole lot about is Fallujah, which seems a little odd, considering the extensive and enormously destructive operation that was carried out there half a year ago, by U.S. troops. Whose fault is this? Do journalists have any access in Fallujah?
HANNAH ALLAM: No. Actually, any Iraqi who is not from Fallujah does not have access to Fallujah. To get into Fallujah, you're subjected to all kinds of tests - I think eye scans and you have to show residence cards. For foreigners, really the only way to go down to Fallujah is to travel with the U.S. military or the U.S. embassy to look at some rebuilding projects or something like that. So journalists really aren't venturing out of Baghdad, much less to a place where there's still a lot of unrest and, you know, anger and resentment after the invasion of November.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All the trickles we get are basically accounts of officials visiting a hospital or a school, and the accompanying copy says - There's a hospital. There's a school.
HANNAH ALLAM: That's part of the frustration of being a journalist in Iraq. You know, there's all these stories out there - not just in Fallujah. The same could be said of Najaf, the holiest city in Iraq, where there was also an uprising. To get there, however, by car, we have to drive through one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. It's a place called The Triangle of Death. So we can't go and cover the rebuilding - if there's any going on - out there again unless we are on some embassy-sponsored trip or with the military or with the Iraqi government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess for the record maybe you'd like to say what the overall impact for Americans is of getting a very incomplete story from Iraq.
HANNAH ALLAM: I think a lot of readers become, or viewers, become numb to the story. Readers have told me they're tired of reading car-bombing story after car bombing story. But to get out and to get out the really meaty features that we want, or to cover the reconstruction process, we would have to have levels of security that just isn't there. So, I think we, we run the risk of boring our readers with the story, and they'll turn elsewhere, and perhaps there will be a significant troop withdrawal, and then the media will go with them, and then maybe we'll have an Afghanistan type situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean by that?
HANNAH ALLAM: What I mean by that is a place with still a lot of unrest, and no one really paying much attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hannah Allam is Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder. Hannah, safe travel back to Baghdad.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thank you. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, when radio pirates turn legit, and how religion once ruled the radio waves and may again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. [MUSIC]