Major media outlets say they won’t pull out of Baghdad when Obama does

Soldiers and local police in Baghdad. (U.S. Army.)
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Despite Barack Obama's announcement last Friday that the remaining 39,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq would be pulled out by year's end, major American media outlets that have been covering the conflict told Capital in interviews they're not ready to pull out yet themselves.

"When you take America out of the equation, what kind of country does it become?" asked The New York Times' foreign editor Joe Kahn. "We're not going to stop covering the country because the American military has pulled out. We'll continue to watch the story."

He said the Times would, for the foreseeable future, maintain the current rotation of three full-time correspondents in addition to a "large network" of local stringers to cover the country after withdrawal.

Tim Arango just arrived after leaving the Business section in March, and he'll keep on in the role of Baghdad bureau chief; there are no immediate plans to change out Baghdad reporters Jack Healy or Michael Schmidt.

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"I don't sense that we would make any radical changes," said Kahn.

(To make the continuing effort possible, though, there are some practical moves to be made. Kahn said they were in the process of ironing out a deal with the B.B.C. to split the bill on security, living space, utilities and other expenses.)

The Wall Street Journal's footprint in Iraq is somewhat smaller than the Times', but the paper does still keep a bureau there with one reporter (down from two as of 2006) and "has no immediate plans for a change in coverage," a spokeswoman, Ashley Huston, said. "We bring others in and out as the news demands."

A Washington Post spokeswoman could not confirm the paper's post-withdrawal Iraq plans, but said: "Our staffing levels vary." The Post's website lists a single correspondent, Liz Sly, under its Baghdad bureau. (Foreign editor Douglas Jehl was traveling when we asked him over email to tell us about the Post's plans.)

“We are not pulling out of Baghdad, nor do we have plans to reduce staffing because of the U.S. withdrawal," said Caroline Drees, general manager for Middle East and Africa coverage for Reuters. The international newswires always have more fluid staffing in places like Baghdad, in part because the war is not their only interest in the oil-rich country, where the geopolitical situation has always made it important to readers outside the U.S. anyway.

"Reuters covers a broad range of topics from Iraq, including politics, diplomacy, security, commodities and energy, investment, infrastructure news and trade," said Drees. "We will continue to cover all of them with the same vigor we’ve brought to Iraq with our resident reporters since long before the U.S. invasion.”

One of the few places where the question seemed to still be under discussion was the Associated Press.

"We're still assessing the situation," said Paul Colford, a spokesman for the A.P. He noted that three A.P. staffers have died covering the Iraq war since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2003. (It's also worth noting that the A.P.'s Baghdad bureau chief and Baghdad correspondent broke the news of the planned withdrawal days ahead of the president himself.)

Nor do the television networks seem ready to pull up stakes.

"We do a steady rotation of reporters," said Bridget Leininger, a spokeswoman for CNN, where Arwa Damon, Nic Robertson and Fred Pleitgen are stationed and, Leininger said, will continue to be after the withdrawal. "We have maintained our newsgathering presence in Iraq for over two decades and will continue to do so."

Even outlets that have had fewer boots on the ground in Iraq during the war don't see themselves changing their plans in either direction after the withdrawal. Lauren Kapp, a spokeswoman for NBC News, said the network keeps "a staff of local employees stationed in our Baghdad bureau," though she declined to give a head count. Additional talent parachutes in when the time is right.

"We beef up when news happens or traveling anchors or correspondents are in the city," she said. "We don’t foresee any of this changing in the near future."

"ABC News has had a bureau in Iraq for years," said Alison Bridgman, a network spokeswoman, "and will continue to maintain the same editorial presence."

But what are the stories after American withdrawal? The sentiment seems to be that if the media follows the American military out of the country there will be no real way of assessing the war in Iraq, which was meant to remove a threat, or to create a stable, friendly democracy in the region, depending on whom you ask.

Kahn said the stories would continue to be of vital interest to his readers.

"To what extent does [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki consolidate his control?" he continued. "To what extent is there a realized threat of increased Iranian influence? Can they successfully operate and increase the output of the oil industry? What kind of response does Iraq have to the changes of the Arab Spring around it?"

There have been times in the past decade when Iraq occupied some of the news cycle's most valuable real estate. The ongoing story of United Nations investigations into charges Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction picked up steam in the aftermath of Sept. 11, fueled heavily by the Bush administration's insistence that creating security post-9/11 meant being aggressive with Arab dictators like Hussein.

After the invasion the story picked up again in 2007, when the administration ordered a "surge" of tens of thousands of additional troops to curtail increasing sectarian violence in the war-torn country.

Even then, four years after the first American tanks charged into the desert, major news outlets were staffing their Iraq bureaus generously.  

The Times had a core rotation of seven reporters on the Baghdad beat through 2007.

"Not all there at once," said Susan Chira, who was foreign editor at the time, "but we were able to have five there at once when need be, exploring the implications of the surge or the 2005 [elections] and so on."

But as the weeks and months wore on, monotony set in: Another day, another insurgent attack. More explosions, more casualties. (Members of the press themselves were sometimes counted among the dead: nearly 230 journalists and media workers, the vast majority of them native to the region, have been killed in Iraq since 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

As Americans perceived that the violence was beginning to taper off, the headlines tapered off too, according to at least one study.

Between May of 2007, when Congress voted in favor of funding the war without a timetable for withdrawal, and the fifth anniversary of the conflct in March 2008, coverage of Iraq "plunged" by about 50 percent, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found.

"The reduction in violence on the ground that began late last year has coincided with a significant decrease in coverage from the war zone as well," P.E.J.'s Mark Jurkowitz wrote at the time. "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."

Our attention was diverted elsewhere—to growing security threats that had begun to simmer in neighboring countries; to a game-changing presidential election that would transform the way we conduct foreign policy; and to an escalating economic crisis at home that for some publications would render the very concept of a foreign bureau an untenable expense.

Later on came the Arab Spring, which has generated more front-page headlines than any other news emanating from the Middle East this year.

Perhaps that "richer portrait of life" is what editors and producers hope will draw us in again, post-occupation.

"It's a major Middle Eastern country," Kahn said, "that has extensive oil resources, a strategic position, and is now closing a period of fraught and close association with the U.S.

"There will be a good story in post-withdrawal Iraq. I think there's going to be a fascinating story."