NPR'S IRAQ COVERAGE

In an eerie chain of coincidences, insurgents' mortar attacks were launched at the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad at exactly the same time that NPR's Dina Temple-Raston had gone there recently on reporting assignments.

"It's happened four or five times," said Temple-Raston, who is on a voluntary, five-week temporary assignment in Iraq. "I've been in crazy war zones before but I've never had mortar shot at me before. They are incredibly scary because if you have a war soundtrack in your head, what you hear is mortars."

Temple-Raston is working in NPR's Baghdad bureau located outside the Green Zone. She's joined by NPR correspondents Anne Garrels and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, producer Jack Zahora, six translators and four drivers. Covering the war costs the non-profit, largely listener supported public radio network at least $1 million a year.

NPR has maintained a Baghdad news bureau around-the-clock for more than five years, since Garrels went there six months before the war started in March 2003. Because of the dangers and difficulties of working in Iraq, only volunteers are assigned to report from Iraq and Afghanistan, where that conflict is in its seventh year. NPR's reporters and producers rotate in and out of Baghdad on a regular basis.

Yet it is being reported that Americans in general, and some U.S. media are no longer as interested in the war as they once were. War coverage in the first three months of 2008 is about one-sixth of what it was in the first three months of 2007, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a non-profit, independent group that analyzes news media coverage and trends.

Even The New York Times, which reports extensively on the Iraq war, ran a story on its business section front this week that began: "Five years later, the United States remains at war in Iraq, but there are days when it would be hard to tell from a quick look at television news, newspapers and the Internet."

Missing in that evaluation is NPR. "NPR has more correspondents covering this story than we've ever had," said Garcia-Navarro, who has been regularly been reporting from Iraq since 2004. "I feel we have not dropped off our coverage. I am very tired of seeing us painted with the same brush as the (U.S. TV) networks."

"Our basic rule now is two reporters and a producer and a local staff there permanently," said NPR foreign editor Loren Jenkins. "We also have Iraqi stringers in a lot of cities that tell us what is happening. It's a rare day that we don't have something on the air. Newscasts every day deal with Iraq. Tuesday we had something on Morning Edition and on All Things Considered. We often will have two-to-three pieces a day."

On Wednesday, there were three stories totaling 14 minutes on All Things Considered.

Coverage for the media overall may be down, but NPR's Iraq coverage has not wavered, according to Jenkins. While NPR is one of the 48 news outlets that PEJ monitors on a weekly basis, the research center only looks at a half-hour of Morning Edition, so it's not possible to measure NPR against the one-sixth decline in war coverage PEJ noted.

Between March 1 and March 25, NPR listeners got 2 hours and 12 minutes in 31 stories out of Iraq , according to a search by an NPR librarian.

That figure does not include nine news segments on NPR's new morning show, The Bryant Park Project or when Garrels appeared on Talk of the Nation for an hour with two other journalists to talk about the war's five-year anniversary. Nor does it include 80 news spots from Iraq between March 1 and March 23— averaging 26 a week, nearly four a day.

This week PEJ released another survey asserting that the key reason the Iraq war story has disappeared from headlines and talk shows is the reduction in violence. "With the violence down, some have criticized journalists for not producing other stories that would paint a richer portrait of life, and perhaps progress, in Iraq," according to Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ.

For NPR correspondents, however, the Iraq assignment provides varied reporting opportunities. Temple-Raston, who normally covers the FBI in Washington, was embedded with FBI agents who set up a special investigative unit in Baghdad. She just produced a three-part series on the rule of law in Iraq. She also did a piece on the challenges of driving for Iraqi women.

Garcia-Navarro did a story on the war's cruel impact on Iraqi lives and Garrels reported on Iraqi painters beautifying hundreds of concrete blast walls that have sprung up throughout Baghdad to protect neighborhoods, roads and individual buildings from suicide bomber attacks.

"The networks are struggling to get their content on the air," said Garcia-Navarro. "NPR has a real commitment to covering this story. We can't give them enough. We call it the maw. You come up with a story and it immediately goes on the air. There are three of us here and we are running full-tilt. Very few news organizations have full-time bureaus any more. We are now a relatively small group."

Jenkins recently submitted his budget for NPR's foreign desk — which has 18 bureaus including Baghdad and Kabul — and asked for two more. When Jenkins joined NPR in 1996, there were six foreign bureaus.

"Our commitment isn't to just what the listeners want or don't want," said Jenkins. "We've made a commitment as a media company that we have a social responsibility to inform the public about the world they live in a time where a lot of news organizations are giving up because it's too expensive."

In the past, the common wisdom among news execs was that if you offered a range of great stories, the audience would grow. NPR is proof that model can work. As it increased its foreign and domestic coverage in the last decade, its audience has doubled from 13 million in 1998 to 28 million today.

Most other news organizations are cutting back their coverage, and their audiences are shrinking. Even in these difficult economic times, maybe the old conventional wisdom is worth another look.

Comments

 

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We try. There are both better and lesser examples.

When Admiral Fallon was resigned Morning Edition covered it: (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88132241). Your host asked about Fallon's opinions "dancing along constitutional lines." There is also Talk/Blog of the Nation asking about the constitutional issue (http://www.npr.org/blogs/talk/2008/03/is_there_room_for_disagreement_1.html).

Free speech is only of issue when it disagrees with policy. It is not uncommon to hear U.S. military commanders on NPR testifying about their impressions of Iraq and war. Does NPR think those commanders are objective and speaking their mind? If not, why are they on NPR? "We do what the commanders on the ground tell us to" is not said some days?

I agree that we should place a critical eye on PEJ's definitions. I think it is good to ask questions. What about NPR's five-year war anniversary coverage of deaths in Iraq? How did NPR pick and choose which organizations, numbers mattered and who could be excluded?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 10:10 AM | 3-29-2008

yesterday dina-temple raston reported that al-maliki had to be evacuated from the presidential compound in basra by american forces. why have i not heard any further commentary on this report? it seems a vital piece of information because it reveals the weakness of al-maliki at a time president Bush called a "defining moment". the fact that the prime minister had to be carted away under american protection surely would not look favorable to iraqis, many of whom seem to favor the return of some type of strongman. what memory hole has this bit of information been dropped down?

Sent by ken dickerson | 4:29 PM | 3-30-2008

I don't believe the problem with NPR coverage has been the quantity - total time - of the Iraq reporting. It's the quality. I've heard too many segments when NPR reporters (and hosts) have fawned over military spoke-persons giving their spin on the benefits of the surge (not the payments to Sunni men) or 'al-Queda' attacks (rather than the secular resistance to the US occupation). I believe it's disgraceful that reporters do not ask the difficult questions. If the current reporters don't have the 'whatever it takes' to ask the difficult questions, you need to get reporters in country who do. At this point, however, to me it looks like NPR has morphed into 'National Pentagon Radio' and I just can't support that.

Sent by J Albers | 6:32 PM | 4-3-2008

I agree with J. Albers's comment on NPR's affection for the Pentagon spin on everything related to Iraq. The Basra assault is the most recent example, spun by NPR as a "crackdown" on militias, despite the fact that only one of three major militia groups in southern Iraq was being attacked, which happened to be the Sadrists, who recently split from the government -- raising an obvious question about political motives that NPR failed to cover until well after other sources, e.g., Reuters, had. What's up with NPR's fawning over the Bush-military-politico spin? They've lied to NPR and the American public so many times, yet NPR continues to take its cues directly from them without so much as a teaspoon of skepticism. I just don't get it.

Sent by Dean Littlepage | 5:57 PM | 4-4-2008

Sure, NPR may have more reporters in iraq than any other news outlet but when they're not reporting the action , they're shilliing for the Bush administration. They seldom ,if ever talk to independent voices like say, Naomi Klein or Tariq Ali. Nosiree, on "indpepndent" "objective' "public" radio ,the news comes strictly from the State dept. ,the Pentagon ,and the Bush administration. Oh but ocassionally,in all fairness, the American Enterprise Institute,and the Heritage Foundation.

Sent by Dana Franchitto | 3:25 PM | 4-8-2008

This is the first year in about 30 years that I have not contributed to my local public radio station, and the reason is your coverage of the Iraq war. I find that your reporters don't ask the hard questions and tend to glorify the military. Back in the USA, your reporters frequently focus on families grieving the loss of soldiers and use these families to support the Bush policy, while the families who have lost soldiers and have become outspoken critics of the Bush policy are never heard from. I have yet to hear a single story on NPR about soldiers who go AWOL and the involvement of military families AGAINST this horrific unnecessary war.

Sent by Allen Young | 3:28 PM | 4-8-2008

NPR's news coverage of the Iraq war is so slanted that I've begun to look for your daily "pro-war minute" where an NPR reporter fawns over some aspects of the troops lives or uncritically hands listeners the latest Bush administration propoganda. Considering the lack of balance in the coverage I'd say the Iraqi resistence is correct in assuming that western reporters are working in concert with occupation forces. I have yet to hear a significant interview with an unabashed anti-war voice; a voice that calls for immediate pull out. Those voices are heard on the streets of the US every day; never on NPR.

Sent by John Yaya | 12:42 AM | 4-10-2008

Speaking of Iraq war coverage, I was extremely disappointed that NPR chose to bury the story of the Winter Soldier Hearings in Silver Springs, MD in March. There was one 3-minute story on "All Things Considered" on a Sunday, when fewer people are listening; and it was rather tepid coverage (we got to hear very little of the soldier's actual accounts). Hearings where returning Iraq war soldiers give unvarnished accounts of the atrocities they've seen and participated in, was surely more newsworthy than the coverage NPR gave it. NPR blew it.

Sent by Dairl Helmer | 11:59 AM | 4-10-2008

I'm a bit disappointed by NPR's lack of recent coverage of the war in Iraq. Even this morning's coverage of the news neglected all mention of news in Basra in favor of repetitive stories about PA politics.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7362509.stm

The public may view the war unfavorably but this doesn't mean we don't want or need to hear about good and bad news about our troops in harm's way. Having listeners go to foreign web sites to get our news seems incomplete on the part of NPR.

It appears NPR has modelled itself after the other networks that chase news stories easy and less expensive than international war stories. I understand the expense argument but with a journalist in Iraq already, why not tell the story instead of feeding the hype of politics here.

While our troops are in country, there should at least be one report daily on Morning Edition, ATC, and Day2Day.

Thank you,

Sent by Phil Roettcher | 9:36 AM | 4-23-2008

Reporters who constantly ignore even the minor successes and obsessively reporting all the doom and gloom negatives in Iraq doesn't serve the public radio listeners at all.

The media, and NPR in particular is what makes the Afghan conflict the "forgotten war". That war is largely ignored altogether. And NPR wonders why they're labeled liberal, because it's reporters and anchors take a decidedly liberal point of view on about every topic it covers.

Sent by Stacey Hanrahan | 10:40 AM | 6-28-2008