< Ain't Gonna Cover War No More

Transcript

Friday, February 24, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: Farnaz Fassihi recently left Iraq after three years of covering the war for the Wall Street Journal. In the fall of 2004, she sent an e-mail to friends about her frustrations with the conditions that limited her coverage of Iraq. That e-mail wound up being more discussed than any of her articles for the Journal, and it seems to give other journalists an opening to talk about their own issues. Upon leaving Iraq, she signed off with a long and personal piece that ran in the weekend edition of her paper. She joins me now on the phone from her new assignment in Beirut to talk about that piece, and about covering what she called "the story of her generation." Farnaz, welcome to On the Media.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, forgive me for not quoting from the Saturday piece and going to the old e-mail from two years ago, but it's so compact, and I just want to read a few sentences here. It says, "I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in anything but a fully armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't." Now, this sounds like the ultimate expression of a reporter's frustration. I gather the situation didn't improve in the intervening two years.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: I think that it's gone up and down, but generally I would say that things have not changed much from what you just quoted. I wrote that e-mail right when things were changing. It was incredibly frustrating because we had just gone from being able to fully operate within a couple of months to being almost imprisoned.

BOB GARFIELD: The piece that I read in the Journal this week begins with just the most chilling detail. You were talking about how you were preparing to - [OVERTALK]

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]

BOB GARFIELD: - say all your goodbyes in Iraq and that you've got a party scheduled and you were going to go individually and meet colleagues.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD: But in the end, your security advisors say, no, don't do it. There are rumors that insurgents want to kidnap a female American journalist.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD: And you cancelled your plans.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: So you left Iraq, and then, arriving back to the United States, you read of the abduction of Jill Carroll. Tell me about that.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: The initial report didn't say it was Jill, and I immediately called colleagues in Baghdad to find out who it was. And when I found out, it was just devastating. And I knew what my colleagues were doing. You just drop whatever you're doing and you get on the phone and you try to do anything in your ability to help your colleague. You know, I called our office manager in Baghdad and I instructed him to call all of our best sources in the Iraqi government on my behalf and ask them as a personal favor to do anything they can to help Jill.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, Jill Carroll is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. We're having this conversation on Wednesday, with her fate hanging at the whims of her captors. I want to ask you again about the obstacles.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Mm-hmm.

BOB GARFIELD: For now two years, it's been very clear that reporters simply can't go out on the field and report the way they accustomed to doing it.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: Often you're reduced to using third parties, Iraqi journalists going to do your legwork and then you work from essentially second-hand reporting.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: As you look back, is it worth it?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Bob, we're the only independent observers of this war. If it weren't for us, the world would rely on the governments to give them information of how things are going, or the military. I think it's certainly not the most gratifying way of doing our job, but I still think it's hugely important that we maintain as independent observers and try to tell the story of what's happening there, in our best ability.

BOB GARFIELD: You spent, all told, approximately three years in Iraq, from before Saddam was toppled to the present.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD: Is there a possibility that three years working under those conditions somehow colors your journalistic perceptions in a way that you lose your journalistic distance?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: I was fortunate to be there around the first year where I could travel freely and really get to know the country, so I think that really worked to my advantage. I think it was a unique war for journalists because the barrier that separates you as an independent journalist and the war and the danger dissolved in Iraq. We were just as much a target. Where we lived came under target. We were kidnapped. We had no immunity. Sometimes it felt like nobody saw value to having reporters there. So I think that part of it was difficult, to try to work around that challenge.

BOB GARFIELD: When you read criticism of the press in general, that it is somehow so fixated on bad news that it doesn't report the good, that it's essentially suppressing the good news out of Iraq, what do you all say to one another? How do you react?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: I can just say that if there were five car bombs going off in New York and 50 people kidnapped a day, I'm sure that metro reporters would be writing those stories and not talking about the school that was painted. When you're sitting in Iraq and putting your neck on the line to try to bring as balanced a story as possible, it's very frustrating to hear criticism like that, because you know, as a professional reporter, that the only reason you're there is because you want to convey the truth. And I can say that everyone is trying to go out their extra mile to find out exactly what's happening there, good or bad, to try to find progress, obstacles, frustration. And I think, considering, we've done a pretty good job. I'm proud of what my colleagues have achieved.

BOB GARFIELD: Thank you so much for talking to us.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you so much for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Farnaz Fassihi is senior Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]