The Digital Journalist
All Columns Lead to Iraq
October 2003

by Ron Steinman

I feel I should be writing something about the war in Iraq every day, though any editor might have a different idea. He would blanch at the prospect. I know I would. Not enough space, he might say. Not enough news, he would say. I might agree. Then, I might not agree. There is more than enough to write about, yet the editor may be right. Is it always relevant and does everyone care the same? Iraq is the one subject we should write more about, not less.

Recently I wrote a column on Iraq and the quagmire it had become, compared to Vietnam and even Great Britain in Northern Ireland but I threw it out, fearing other writers would think the same and thus, I would repeat them, and they me. Not being privy to everything in print, old and new, I am sure, someone else had already written of America's newest quagmire. I have no problem with that. It is a deserving story.

Everyone who can writes about Iraq, especially those not there. It is open season for the story. I ask myself, what should I write that is different?

Is there anything left to say? The story changes too many times a day, probably by the minute to be current. It is perfect for a wire service and all-news radio and TV. And there is the rub. Iraq is the easiest story to write, especially from Rockville Centre, from Washington, New York, even Iowa, perched in a safe seat, not there, anywhere but there, where we can at least find half the story, all the danger and all it's heart.

Look at some recent headlines I thought would make a good column.

"US Troops Kill 8 Civilians." "No Combat Deaths For Seven Days." "Wounded Count Steadily Increases." "American Officials Say Iran Had It Worse Under Hussein."

Paul Bremer, clad in suit, tie and yellow Timberland boots, says, "The government of Iraq was a terrorist government. A terrorist government which terrorized it's own people." On the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says, "There are 15 to 20 incidents a day, some initiated by us, some by them, many lasting only a few seconds."

The BBC reports on "Baghdad, the lawless city. Hospitals are unable to handle the huge increase of gunshot wounds. Many die in the street." Then there is this, perhaps my favorite. "Pitfalls Emerge in Iraq." That should be a headline every day.

I could go on. It seems to have no end. Each day brings new headlines about death, hunger, horror, deceit, dread, failure, and disappointment. There are new American death tolls. The number of wounded increase daily. We see angry mobs. We see troops in full regalia. At home, we see President Bush at a podium, any podium, walking across the White House lawn, at a Republican fundraiser, meeting with a foreign dignitary, and at the UN. Secretary of State Colin Powell appears on David Letterman. We see Condoleezza Rice dressed in black emerge from a black SUV, wave at the press, and then enter a TV studio in Washington for the obligatory Sunday morning interview promoting White House policy. She does not carry a brief case, a purse, or notes of any kind.

At home, meaning mostly Washington, through no fault of the photographers, pictures about Iraq, are dull and the same. Journalists have no control over what appears in front of them. It is an easy story to cover because very little new happens, until a columnist recklessly reveals the name of a CIA agent. Then Iraq takes on a different political tone and it becomes a decidedly ugly story.

In Iraq, proportionately, there are fewer reporters, and they, too, have no control over events. Considering the size of the country, we need more journalists to cover this volatile story. Home offices do not want to spend the money to transport, house and feed the number of people needed. They have to cover what they can, and find the action when it takes place, but that is always the case in war. It is a gamble to decide which card to play for each day's photograph, each day's story. Do you go with this unit or that? How do you decide where you might get the best story for your newspaper, wire service, magazine, print or online, and TV network? As an editor, you have to decide how much space to give the story. More often than not, too many stories from the front find their way to the back where the sports pages finish and the stock quotes begin. Problem is that most people find the story boring and disturbing. It took years to get people energized about ending the Vietnam War. It seems we are at that stage now with this war in Iraq, and its run up, is less than a year old.

The piece started with me wondering what I should write about Iraq. The idea is compelling. The need is great. It is necessary. So here it is, my column about nothing, which is really that everything about Iraq deserves our attention. Its subtext is how Iraq will be with us longer than we want, affecting our lives in ways we are only beginning to feel, and understand.

George Bush and his administration wanted a legacy, their place in the sun. From me -- a few ideas on paper out here in the ether where they will have some effect, or too little, which should not be the case.

© Ron Steinman

Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War