Alicia C. Shepard
In an eerie chain of coincidences, insurgents' mortar attacks were launched at the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad at exactly the same time that NPR's Dina Temple-Raston had gone there recently on reporting assignments.
"It's happened four or five times," said Temple-Raston, who is on a voluntary, five-week temporary assignment in Iraq. "I've been in crazy war zones before but I've never had mortar shot at me before. They are incredibly scary because if you have a war soundtrack in your head, what you hear is mortars."
Temple-Raston is working in NPR's Baghdad bureau located outside the Green Zone. She's joined by NPR correspondents Anne Garrels and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, producer Jack Zahora, six translators and four drivers. Covering the war costs the non-profit, largely listener supported public radio network at least $1 million a year.
NPR has maintained a Baghdad news bureau around-the-clock for more than five years, since Garrels went there six months before the war started in March 2003. Because of the dangers and difficulties of working in Iraq, only volunteers are assigned to report from Iraq and Afghanistan, where that conflict is in its seventh year. NPR's reporters and producers rotate in and out of Baghdad on a regular basis.
Yet it is being reported that Americans in general, and some U.S. media are no longer as interested in the war as they once were. War coverage in the first three months of 2008 is about one-sixth of what it was in the first three months of 2007, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a non-profit, independent group that analyzes news media coverage and trends.
Even The New York Times, which reports extensively on the Iraq war, ran a story on its business section front this week that began: "Five years later, the United States remains at war in Iraq, but there are days when it would be hard to tell from a quick look at television news, newspapers and the Internet."
Missing in that evaluation is NPR. "NPR has more correspondents covering this story than we've ever had," said Garcia-Navarro, who has been regularly been reporting from Iraq since 2004. "I feel we have not dropped off our coverage. I am very tired of seeing us painted with the same brush as the (U.S. TV) networks."
"Our basic rule now is two reporters and a producer and a local staff there permanently," said NPR foreign editor Loren Jenkins. "We also have Iraqi stringers in a lot of cities that tell us what is happening. It's a rare day that we don't have something on the air. Newscasts every day deal with Iraq. Tuesday we had something on Morning Edition and on All Things Considered. We often will have two-to-three pieces a day."
On Wednesday, there were three stories totaling 14 minutes on All Things Considered.
Coverage for the media overall may be down, but NPR's Iraq coverage has not wavered, according to Jenkins. While NPR is one of the 48 news outlets that PEJ monitors on a weekly basis, the research center only looks at a half-hour of Morning Edition, so it's not possible to measure NPR against the one-sixth decline in war coverage PEJ noted.
Between March 1 and March 25, NPR listeners got 2 hours and 12 minutes in 31 stories out of Iraq , according to a search by an NPR librarian.
That figure does not include nine news segments on NPR's new morning show, The Bryant Park Project or when Garrels appeared on Talk of the Nation for an hour with two other journalists to talk about the war's five-year anniversary. Nor does it include 80 news spots from Iraq between March 1 and March 23— averaging 26 a week, nearly four a day.
This week PEJ released another survey asserting that the key reason the Iraq war story has disappeared from headlines and talk shows is the reduction in violence. "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," according to Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ.
For NPR correspondents, however, the Iraq assignment provides varied reporting opportunities. Temple-Raston, who normally covers the FBI in Washington, was embedded with FBI agents who set up a special investigative unit in Baghdad. She just produced a three-part series on the rule of law in Iraq. She also did a piece on the challenges of driving for Iraqi women.
Garcia-Navarro did a story on the war's cruel impact on Iraqi lives and Garrels reported on Iraqi painters beautifying hundreds of concrete blast walls that have sprung up throughout Baghdad to protect neighborhoods, roads and individual buildings from suicide bomber attacks.
"The networks are struggling to get their content on the air," said Garcia-Navarro. "NPR has a real commitment to covering this story. We can't give them enough. We call it the maw. You come up with a story and it immediately goes on the air. There are three of us here and we are running full-tilt. Very few news organizations have full-time bureaus any more. We are now a relatively small group."
Jenkins recently submitted his budget for NPR's foreign desk — which has 18 bureaus including Baghdad and Kabul — and asked for two more. When Jenkins joined NPR in 1996, there were six foreign bureaus.
"Our commitment isn't to just what the listeners want or don't want," said Jenkins. "We've made a commitment as a media company that we have a social responsibility to inform the public about the world they live in a time where a lot of news organizations are giving up because it's too expensive."
In the past, the common wisdom among news execs was that if you offered a range of great stories, the audience would grow. NPR is proof that model can work. As it increased its foreign and domestic coverage in the last decade, its audience has doubled from 13 million in 1998 to 28 million today.
Most other news organizations are cutting back their coverage, and their audiences are shrinking. Even in these difficult economic times, maybe the old conventional wisdom is worth another look.