Journalists in Iraq face an increasingly dangerous situation every time they step outside their hotels. On Monday, what little sense of refuge remained inside their hotels was shattered when suicide bombers attacked the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels, home to many foreign correspondents. Reporter Mark Danner joins Brooke to discuss the insurgents and their new "media strategy."
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Usually, the more time foreign correspondents spend in the country they're reporting on, the deeper their coverage. But for news about Iraq, they have to rely on Iraqi stringers, as it's become increasingly risky for foreigners to step outside the barricaded walls of their hotels. This past Monday, what little sense of refuge remained inside the hotel walls was shattered as three suicide bombers drove into the Baghdad compound housing the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels, home to many foreign correspondents. Guards stopped them before they could hit the actual buildings, but the vehicles did explode, killing at least 17 people. Abu Masab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility in a website posting. Reporter Mark Danner was at the hotel compound just last week, and he says the attacks showed tremendous audacity.
MARK DANNER: It is probably, with the exception of the Green Zone itself, the most highly guarded site in Baghdad. And there's no way you can attack the Palestine and the Sheraton without knowing that you're attacking a key point of the foreign press. So it seems to me that one of the things they were probably trying to do is get maximum amount of attention by bombing this particular target. And, of course, it did get enormous coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, since journalists in Iraq can't physically get to the attack scene, insurgents were bringing those attacks to the journalists' front door?
MARK DANNER: [LAUGHS] Well, that's a good way to put it. You know, you actually had film footage of these attacks shot from the hotel, some of the most dramatic footage that we've had out of Iraq in quite some time. And it's mainly because there were people in the hotel shooting what was going on from the windows. If I had to speculate, I would say that Zarqawi was using this attack to say, “I am still here. I can get through the most dogged, most elaborate security procedures and precautions, and this interim government, this puppet of the Americans, cannot protect you.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if getting the world's attention was their goal, isn't threatening the messenger an odd method of going about that?
MARK DANNER: Well, I think one thing is that the insurgency, though we like to talk about it as a single phenomenon, is actually a number of different groups that do not necessarily coordinate very closely between themselves. And that's one of the most dangerous parts about covering Iraq, that there isn't one disciplined leadership that is able to say, “Look, this is a dumb idea, we shouldn't hit journalists, we want them to cover what we're doing. If one of our goals is to affect—in the words of, of an American officer there—‘the will of the American public,’ then it's foolish for us to attack journalists because they are the tools by which we can get these images of destruction, chaos, the attacks, etcetera, before the American public and lessen their support for the war.” Having said that, the numbers supporting the war are now in the low 30's in the United States, so it seems that one of the insurgents' goals is being achieved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In most modern wars, journalists seem to have had a sort of immunity because both sides had some interest in getting the truth out. That immunity seems to wear thin in civil conflicts like Bosnia. In this case, in Iraq, it seems that any given journalist could be perceived as being aligned with one side or the other, depending on who they work for or depending on their ethnicity. And there seems to be no effort to use them to get out the truth.
MARK DANNER: Well, it seems to me that in the last year, in particular, Zarqawi's group, for example, has decided that it's more useful to use Westerners and, to some degree, use journalists to get publicity with violence than it is necessary to use them to convey a message, or that at least directing violence against them, they seem to believe, will not end their function as message deliverers. I have to say also, though, that even journalists perceived, perhaps, to be more sympathetic to the cause of the insurgency, like Al Jazeera, for example, it's not as if these people are given carte blanche to walk around the country either. Everybody risks being kidnapped or killed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder if the importance of journalists as message bearers is diminished simply because of technology? The insurgents in Iraq can communicate with others, recruit others directly through the Internet.
MARK DANNER: Well, that is true that various groups in the insurgency do have direct access to the Internet. And the press itself, as the direct access that they have on the ground has become increasingly constrained, has relied on the Internet to get news of what's happening, to see the announcements that Zarqawi and other groups make claiming responsibility, and also, in some cases, to use videotapes of attacks, which are very frequently put up on the Internet by these groups. So it's true that the monopoly on information that the traditional press has had has now been broken.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK DANNER: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Danner teaches journalism and politics at both the University of California at Berkeley and Bard College. He's the author of, most recently, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror.