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Lessons Learned From Covering Iraq

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
September 10, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Mohamad Bazzi looks back to his early coverage of the Iraq war and what it taught him about the importance of having many different news outlets covering the same story. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

At Newsday, I was the lead writer on the Iraq war and its aftermath. In July 2003, I interviewed two Arab fighters operating in Iraq. But the story I wrote was not just about these men. It predicted that Iraq would turn into something of a new Afghanistan, drawing jihadists from all over the Muslim world and bogging down U.S. troops in a guerrilla war for years to come. This was at a point when the Bush Administration was still denying that U.S. forces were facing an organized insurgency in Iraq. This is one example of why it is so important for the American public to have many different outlets covering international stories. The more journalists there are operating on the ground, the more likely that they will produce stories that challenge the accepted wisdom and reveal new information. Soon after the U.S. invasion, many journalists took significant risks in Iraq to paint a portrait of the insurgency's rising threat-at a time when government officials tried to obscure the extent of this threat.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind that you believe has had a significant impact? This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

There are many examples, and it's difficult to choose one. I think of the work of my Newsday colleague Roy Gutman, who revealed the extent of ethnic cleansing committed by Serb forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. Gutman was the first Western journalist to document the concentration camps where Serb forces tortured and killed their prisoners. His fearless reporting helped free thousands of people who were held in these camps. Perhaps more than anything else, Gutman's work shows the importance of sustaining consistent foreign coverage.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else's--for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

This is the most difficult and painful question to answer. There are some interesting efforts to nurture international coverage beyond the established news outlets, such as GlobalPost and the International Reporting Project. Ultimately, I think there will be a role for foundations, think tanks, and other non-profit groups to play in developing models that help sustain international reporting. These groups might work with individual journalists and news organizations to produce a new type of content that is not partisan and that explains the underlying causes of events with insight and nuance.

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