The First Casualty

John Burns is getting a lot of attention for his comments in a new book about media coverage of the war in Iraq. Burns notes that some journalists pulled their punches in Baghdad so that they would not be expelled by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Here’s the money graph:

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people’s stories — mine included — specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.

Burns is right to single out a journalist who went far over the edge in kowtowing to a bloody regime, but I’m not sure Burns intends to say, as some people suggest, that most journalists were guilty of these practices. I wasn’t in Baghdad during the war–I was moving toward the capital, as a “unilateral” journalist leapfrogging from one Marine unit to another–and most of the journalists I came across were doing what they could to write as much of the truth as they could find. But there are always bad apples, and as I was travelling north with several colleagues, I ran into one of them and wrote about it in a story for Outside magazine. The money graphs:

Chuck Stevenson, a producer for the CBS program 48 Hours Investigates who was embedded with one of the units preparing to cross the bridge, saw us parked at the side of the road. “These guys are not embedded,” I heard him say to an officer. “They’re not supposed to be here.” Stevenson then headed up toward the checkpoint commander and, on his way back, got into a heated discussion with my colleagues.

This was beyond annoying; it could be dangerous. The military had clarified its position on unilateral journalists, and we were allowed to stay. But the situation was fluid, and individual commanders had a lot of leeway. If we had to go back, we’d be traveling alone–there were no convoys heading all the way back to Kuwait. We huddled and agreed that Stevenson was a snitch.

Enrico was furious. “This guy is fucking us,” he said. “Let’s take care of him now.”

In view of Enrico’s previous hobbies, this was a credible threat. Wes was equally outraged.

“Let’s fuck him up right now,” Wes urged. “He’s going to get us killed.”

Enrico and Wes moved in Stevenson’s direction. Gary stepped in their way.

“Enrico, I’m getting mad,” Gary said. “And you don’t want me to get mad, because when I hit you, you stay down.”

“But this guy is an asshole,” Enrico pleaded. “He puts our lives at risk. You are too polite, Gary.”

“We have a situation that we have to deal with,” Gary replied. “Let’s not make it worse. We need to get across the bridge, and that will never happen if we deck the guy.”

Wes came around. “We’ll get him in Baghdad,” he said.

“Absolutely,” Gary said. “After you get him, I’ll finish him off.”

(Later, Stevenson acknowledged that “a hostile moment” took place, but denied that it happened at the bridgehead, or that he told any officer that our presence was unauthorized.)

Stevenson’s convoy was waved forward. We were finally allowed to move forward in darkness, without our lights, at 3 a.m.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.