In late June, a suicide bomber breached security at the Baghdad hotel where the CBS News bureau is housed. The bomber's target: Sunni sheiks meeting in the lobby. The bomb decimated the lobby and tore through the first floor. The bomber and 12 others were killed; many more were injured, including a CBS employee.
Lara Logan, CBS News' chief foreign correspondent, was on the second floor of the hotel at the time. The bomb, she recalls, “blew up underneath me.” It also blew a hole in the psyche of the foreign news community in Baghdad. At least one news organization moved out of the hotel.
“When your office gets blown up it's a reminder that you're not immune,” says Logan.
After more than four years into the war in Iraq, television news organizations have awakened to their own grim reality: They're spending millions of dollars a year to operate in a country where security costs them thousands of dollars a day. Even with extreme security measures, photographers and correspondents are in constant danger of getting maimed and killed—even in their own bureaus.
And despite the fact that Iraq remains the largest single news story in the world and an obligation for U.S. news organizations, coverage has devolved into a tired drumbeat of insurgent mayhem—and viewers are tuning out. Not only are ratings stagnating, but Iraq reports are not bringing in the new viewers that the declining genre so desperately needs.
News directors, producers and correspondents echo a lingering question in the minds of all: How much is too much? “The fact that we're in the year 2007 and have a pretty steady stream of cash flow going out to cover this story, it's constantly up for discussion,” says Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, foreign editor at CBS News.
At least 112 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That's substantially more than Vietnam, Korea or World War II. There have been 19 confirmed journalist deaths in Iraq this year alone. In May, cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz, 33, and sound engineer Saif Laith Yousuf, 26, were ambushed on their way home from work at ABC's Baghdad bureau.
Last month, Khalid W. Hassan, a 23-year-old reporter and interpreter who had worked for the New York Times since 2003, was shot and killed while driving to work. “Any man driving around in a car with a camera is immediately suspect and is in danger of being pulled out of the vehicle and executed,” says Richard Engel, NBC's Middle East bureau chief.
Unable to travel around the way he did when the war began, Engel relies on a diminishing list of Iraqi contacts from earlier and better days. “I go through contacts at a disturbing rate,” he says. “They've either left the country or they're dead.”
His web of Iraqi informants and reporters are able to gather information from the provinces Engel dares not enter. Nearly all of the photography and filming at news organizations is done by local Iraqi hires.
“We continue to operate like bandits and thieves moving around the city stealthily, going in, doing our interviews and getting out hopefully before anyone hits us,” he says. “You have to plan it like a little military operation. It's like pulling off a heist.”
Engel's reporter in Mosul was recently ambushed while in his car. Holding an AK-47 in one hand, a gunman aimed at his chest, but the would-be murderer missed, clipping his target in the shoulder. The man's son was in the seat next to him—covered in his father's blood.
“These people don't recognize the concept of journalistic neutrality,” says Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director, CNN International.
Kidnappings are another fear. Last month, AP photographer Talal Mohammed was abducted by masked gunmen from a public bus near Baghdad. He remains missing. The danger makes the kind of boots-on-the-ground reporting that brought Vietnam home for so many American viewers almost impossible for western correspondents in Iraq who don't go anywhere without armed security and an exhaustively researched itinerary.
Many western media bureaus are based in Baghdad's red zone, outside the protected green zone where the Iraqi government and American embassy are located. Some are housed in hotels that once counted oil-rich businessmen and foreign dignitaries among their guests. Now they are battered fortresses patrolled by dozens of armed security specialists.
Hot spots such as Nasiriya, Najaf, Amara and Mosul are virtually off-limits to western journalists. “If a bomb goes off in Amara you can't get in the car and go there,” says Engel. “You won't live to tell the tale.”
Security agents: $1,200 a day
Embedding with the US military presents obvious risks, as the grievous injuries suffered by ABC's Bob Woodruff and CBS' Kimberly Dozier attest. But embedding—which can mean a reporter is out of reach and unable to react to breaking news elsewhere—has become increasingly untenable as staffing has been reduced, often with only one correspondent in-country at a time. Logan had to scrap a recent trip to the southern town of Basra when disaster struck in Baghdad.
“By the time I stepped off the plane (in Basra) and drove into town, one thousand people were killed in a bridge stampede back in Baghdad,” she says. “I turned around and got right back on the plane.”
The devastating personal cost comes with a heavy financial burden, as news organizations spend millions of dollars a year on security to protect their bureaus and personnel. While Iraq remains a top priority for TV news bureaus, the cost of covering the war is cutting into news budgets and depleting the bottom line. One veteran news executive called Iraq a financial “black hole,” siphoning resources from other foreign bureaus.
News organizations spend anywhere from $3 million a year for cable networks to $10 million for broadcast to operate in Iraq, with a large percentage of that going to security personnel. Most TV news divisions employ from three to seven UK-based security agents who are each paid $1,000 to $1,200 a day. They oversee as many as 100 Iraqi guards.
“It's a severe impact on the rest of our foreign coverage around the world because so much money is going into Baghdad,” says Terry McCarthy, ABC's Iraq correspondent.
As the war wears on, so too does the internal debate about the amount of money going to the Iraq coverage. No news organization is exempt; even CNN and the BBC, which have global infrastructures with bureaus in more foreign outposts than many western news organizations, continue to earmark a disproportionate amount of their budget to Iraq.
“The actual number of people that we have in Baghdad is relatively small,” says Jeremy Hillman, editor of BBC World. “The amount of logistical support, of security that they need around them and even just getting them in and out [of the country] safely, it's a massive investment and a significant percentage of what we spend on foreign news. It's completely out of proportion with what we spend to send foreign correspondents to other places.”
To curb costs, competing news organizations coordinate on security issues and share expenses.
The financial hemorrhage from a story like Iraq—where there is unlikely to be a significant reduction in American forces anytime soon—could not come at a worse time for network news divisions desperate to invest in growing their digital platforms. “There are internal discussions almost on a daily basis; how we cover Iraq, the news gathering aspects as well as the diminishing returns,” says Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news for ABC.
Last month ABC released veteran correspondents Bob Jamieson, Bill Redeker and Mark Litke around the same time that three lesser known reporters were hired for its affiliate service News One, a kind of minor league for ABC. There also have been new hires and promotions at ABCNEWS.com. These are the kind of moves that follow suit with earlier downsizing efforts at CBS and NBC in which experience is sacrificed in cutting costs.
NBC Universal's recent restructuring—which slashed $750 million and 700 jobs from the company budget—cut the deepest across the news division. The initiative, dubbed NBC 2.0, was necessary, said executives, to better position NBC in the digital realm. (CNN and Fox News, with their 24/7 news content are inherently better positioned to amortize the costs of Iraq, but the expenses remain significant.)
Despite the costs, editors are fighting to stay in the game. Says David Verdi, vice president of newsgathering at NBC: “The truth of the matter is our editorial process has remained honest. We make our decisions based on the editorial merit of the stories. Are we on a budget? Of course we are. Is there accountability? Of course there is. But it's up to us to manage within our budgetary constraints and we base our decisions on the editorial merit and then have to manage around the financial issues.”
The network evening newscasts continue to devote more time to Iraq—about a quarter of the 22-minute broadcast—than any other single story, according to analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). (For the first quarter of 2007, ABC's Iraq coverage made up 27% of the newscast, followed by NBC at 26% and CBS at 24%, according to PEJ.)
But the hard truth for networks is that, while overall viewing is up, evening newscasts (where the bulk of the war coverage is placed) have been losing about a million viewers a year, according to PEJ. Season to date, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric is down about 6% compared to a year ago, while NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams has dropped approximately 7%. (ABC's World News has bucked that trend this year, gaining about 3% with Charles Gibson in the anchor chair.)
After years of growth, the 24-hour cable networks are also experiencing ratings stagnation.
Abandoning Iraq is not an option. With over 160,000 American troops trying to prop up the weak Iraqi government and contain a bloody civil war, they have little option but to continue to try to report from the field.
But Iraq remains the biggest story by default. Since the invasion in March 2003, the dynamic global stories that television news organizations rely on to demonstrate their relevance and attract new viewers have been scarce. The tsunami that decimated coastal communities across Southeast Asia in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 were the last big events to unite viewers around their television sets.
“We're in a period of prolonged news doldrums,” says Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes newscasts in the online “Tyndall Report.” “Iraq is no longer a headline news story. There are no new things happening there; it's just more of the same. That would be a true thing to say even if the security conditions were better. It's stuck, militarily and diplomatically.”
For news organizations, it's a game of diminishing returns: The more dangerous the country becomes, the more money they must spend to keep their people safe and the harder it becomes for correspondents to unearth the kind of enterprising stories that will resonate with viewers, and have an afterlife beyond their broadcast.
Lara Logan's exclusive report of an abandoned orphanage in Baghdad and the bittersweet victory of the Iraqi soccer team were the few recent exceptions.
“You don't abandon the American soldiers who are on the streets of this country because people are tired of hearing about it,” says Logan. “You don't abandon the Iraqi people. You don't abandon people like that because back home people are tired of hearing about the war. Our job is to find a way through that.”
For now, U.S. news organizations say ratings will not affect their focus on the Iraq story. But they do question their resolve.
“Every time something happens, whether it's the murder of a local Iraqi journalist or the hostage taking of a journalist or a large scale attack against a ministry building, all of those things cause us to yet again have a discussion,” says ABC's Lustig. “Should we continue to operate in the country? Are our people safe?”