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Media | World

February 16, 2010

Iraq's (and Journalism's) Cloudy Future

Former Newsweek foreign correspondent Larry Kaplow tells Gelf what it's like to cover Baghdad from inside and outside the Green Zone.

Vincent Valk

In the years Larry Kaplow has covered Iraq as a foreign correspondent—first for Cox Newspapers and later for Newsweek—he's seen a lot of changes to the country. Since 1997, he's reported as Iraq has gone from a dictatorship to all-out chaos to a tenuous sort-of-peace that he says is called the "Iraqi good enough." In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Kaplow discusses the evolution of the Iraq war, the decline of the foreign bureau, and some of the unusual things he's seen in his years abroad.

Larry Kaplow
"Iraq is sort of in this track where it's very violent and corrupt but holding together as a nation."

Larry Kaplow

Gelf Magazine: How did you first become a foreign correspondent?

Larry Kaplow: Sort of a traditional route that I don't know exists any more. I was a metro reporter working the state capitol beat at the Palm Beach Post, which was owned by Cox Newspapers. Cox hired people out of those papers to staff foreign desks, and that's how I got started.

Gelf Magazine: Is it a problem that news organizations are cutting foreign bureaus? Or is there less of a need for every paper to have one, considering how easy it is to get news online?

Larry Kaplow: I think that you can see that a lot of world events are more thinly covered now. Sure everyone can read AP and the papers that have bureaus but in something like a war there are so many different things going on at the same time and there is no substitute for people on the ground setting out in different directions and picking up on different things. For stuff like the Israel incursion in Gaza and even the Iran elections, there were a lot fewer people on the ground for those events than there would have been in the past. Even when multiple reporters go to the same event they tend to see different things, so there are many different views on a single event, let alone a war. And in a war like Iraq, you had very vigorous official propaganda from several governments.

Gelf Magazine: Well, couldn't real-time coverage from something like Twitter, which happened during the Iran demonstrations, fill the gap?

Larry Kaplow: Stuff like Twitter covering the Iran demonstrations is great and does substitute for original reporting to some extent, but [the tweets] are not necessarily coming from disinterested parties. It's valuable but it is supplemental and not a replacement for having disinterested reporters.

Gelf Magazine: Describe the situation in Iraq now as compared to 2006 and when Saddam was in power.

Larry Kaplow: I left in September 2009, and I also did go to Iraq a few times before the regime fell. During the peak of the violence, around late 2006, there was just complete broad daylight mayhem going on. We were already mindful about kidnappings but by 2006 our staff was really under threat. Most of us had mixed staff of Sunnis and Shia, meaning they were all in the wrong part of Baghdad at one time or another. There were these huge violent acts taking place that you could get caught up in randomly, like a fleet of SUVs showing up to kidnap the entire Iraqi Olympic Committee. It was happening so much and on such a scale that you could not sort out how or why it was happening. Sometimes you couldn't quite tell who was taken in kidnappings. At the time there was an Iraqi comedian doing a news parody show, and one of his jokes was "today in Baghdad unknown men kidnapped unknown people and took them to an unknown location." Compared to that, things are much better now; you can drive all over the country and get out and walk around and talk to people. In Baghdad last year you still couldn't go out to restaurants and speak English, but in other cities you could do that. But you still have a few explosions every week, what you have a place that by normal standards is still very violent but compared to the mayhem in the past it's more manageable. There were some weeks in 2007 when the Army was counting 1,500 attacks per week and now it's down to about 100 to 200. When Saddam was in power, it was very safe on the streets because everything was controlled to the last detail, but nobody would talk. They gave us minders to make sure that nobody told us anything that was not party line, but they barely needed to bother. Everyone was afraid that all the people around were informants so nobody spoke their mind. It's also more religious now and religious fundamentalists have more say in everyday affairs.

Gelf Magazine: Were you working in the Green Zone?

Larry Kaplow: Cox was in the Hamra Hotel and Newsweek was in the media house in the Green Zone. Hamra Hotel was a hotel with a perimeter in a pretty nice neighborhood. Newsweek was in the green zone but that was a big anomaly; the only ones who were in there were Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal.

Gelf Magazine: What was reporting from the Green Zone like?

Larry Kaplow: Being in the Green Zone it gave you better access to officials. That was beneficial, but the trade-off was you had to be careful that you didn't become captive of the green zone perception of reality. Even Iraqi officials would lose touch if they stayed there all the time. They didn't realize how bad it was.

Gelf Magazine: What measures did Newsweek and Cox take to keep its reporters safe?

Larry Kaplow: Starting in late 2004, the kidnapping threat got very aggressive. They even chased a few people coming out of the Hamra. At that point, I would move in two cars. I'd be in one car with a driver and translator and in the other car there would be an Iraqi driver and Iraqi guard, sometimes armed, sometimes not. The second car is there to make sure you are not being followed and to help with problems from a breakdown to being randomly disabled. It costs quite a lot of money and you also have to have a couple of extra guys. You are usually also paying a security firm to be around for consultations and that sort of thing. War coverage is very expensive.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think is the biggest misconception that Americans have about Iraq?

Larry Kaplow: I think the biggest misconception is that it was a really backward place. It was very developed and had lots of oil money to build things like great universities and superhighways. That’s important because Iraqis have that in their image and they are unwilling to settle for anything more primitive than that. It started to fall apart around the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s and the sanctions in the 90s. It's different from Afghanistan because things there really are primitive. Iraq was a modern society and they still think of themselves that way. So the way it's gone downhill has been very distressing.

Gelf Magazine: What's the craziest thing you saw in your years as a foreign correspondent?

Larry Kaplow: One of the craziest things I saw was in Tel Aviv, where a bunch of Israelis who were basically relaxing at the beach started stoning a mosque nearby in retaliation for a very bad suicide bombing a couple of nights earlier. It was just a very surreal thing to see in a modern Mediterranean city. There were some crazy things with the U.S. military in Iraq. In the early years a lot of regular soldiers didn't understand what was going on around them. I was with a group of soldiers who were going out to tell people in their neighborhood about a new curfew and I could tell that their translator was not talking about the curfew. I know a little Arabic and I could tell something wasn't connecting; I asked the translator what he was saying and it turned out he didn't know the word curfew. In the surge they focused more on translators, which is important. I also remember one day going out to do a good news story about people enjoying a park there. We just went up to people randomly and one was a teenager who had a huge scar down her face from being shot by US troops. She spoke about it with us in a friendly way.

Gelf Magazine: It seems there is less coverage from Iraq now. Is this a problem? Is it due more to declining violence in the country or declining interest amongst the American public?

Larry Kaplow: There are fewer reporters there which I think initially was due to the financial situation in the industry. The violence has gone down greatly. In particular, there have been 29 U.S. casualties in the last four months. That number could get as high as 140 in the past. It's sort of in this track where it's very violent and corrupt but holding together as a nation.

Gelf Magazine: One of your last pieces from Iraq said that our new exit strategy amounted to an 'Iraqi good enough.' Is that, well, good enough?

Larry Kaplow: I won't get too opinionated about it. It's related to whether it was worth it initially. Some people think the US should be out there taking down dictators, even if the price is high and it causes mayhem. I don't buy that. They could have gotten Iraq to something like where we are now without going to war. We've been there seven years at this point and the country has a lot of corruption and human rights abuses, but it's not quite as bad as when Saddam was in power. Yet, there's more random violence now than when Saddam was in. It's not good enough to be a model for the Middle East. There are a lot of people there who think that if Iraq is a democracy they don't want it. It's not good enough to encourage people to take down dictators. But it is good enough maybe for the US to get out of there and let it run on its own.

Gelf Magazine: You told the Hill that news organizations are not covering Afghanistan the way they covered Iraq. Is this largely related to the general scaling back in the news business, or are there other reasons?

Larry Kaplow: I think it's due to the business situation. My point was that even though everyone is shifting from Baghdad to Kabul, there are far fewer reporters in Kabul than there were in Baghdad. There are some who are not there but were in Baghdad, like the Boston Globe or Cox and others who had four or five reporters in Baghdad but have one or two in Kabul. And that's because of the shrinking industry.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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