Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek
Byline: Daniel Klaidman
Few days before the start of the Iraq War, I was summoned to the Pentagon, along with other senior editors for major U.S. news organizations. The message from Victoria Clarke, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's spokesperson, was severe and unequivocal: the bombing of Baghdad would soon begin and our correspondents on the scene would be in grave danger unless we pulled them out.
Leaving the meeting, I felt both manipulated and uncertain. The Pentagon surely had its own reasons for not wanting reporters on the scene. At the same time, how could we judge the real risks from our offices in Washington and New York? And was any story important enough to risk the death of one of our reporters? For Newsweek, the reporter in question was Melinda Liu, one of our most experienced foreign correspondents. Melinda had covered conflicts and coups around the world and had even been shot while on assignment for Newsweek in Manila. While we had pulled out another correspondent in the run-up to the war, we'd agreed to let Melinda ride it out. But now we faced a difficult choice.
As Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, I delivered the Pentagon's message to Melinda. Not surprisingly, she was adamant about staying. She felt safe enough in the Palestine Hotel, which was removed from the government ministries and major military installations that were the primary U.S. targets. But the orders for her to leave Iraq were coming from on high. Donald Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Co., which at the time owned Newsweek, called me to say he hoped we were pulling Melinda out. It fell to Richard Smith, Newsweek's chairman and editor in chief, to give the order. Melinda was furious. What had she been doing living under one of the world's deadliest regimes for the past two months if not preparing to cover the war? She agreed to leave--but not before sitting down at her laptop and writing a letter of resignation.
In the end, it didn't come to that. In the chaos and confusion of the war, Melinda was unable to get an exit visa from the Information Ministry. It quickly became clear that it would be too dangerous to try to flee Iraq overland without the proper papers. She had to stay. Back home we were all concerned about Melinda's safety. At the same time, there was something comforting about having Melinda, pro that she was, on such a big and important story. Instead of resigning, Melinda, the only newsmagazine correspondent still in Baghdad, got to work.
The next evening the bombs began to fall. Watching the spectacle unfold from the balcony of her hotel was like having a front-row seat at an IMAX war movie. As she described the scene in Newsweek, "The night sky pulsed with crimson fireballs and Iraqi tracer fire, the concussion had knocked the plaster from my hotel's ceilings and an entire riverbank of government buildings had disintegrated as I watched from an upper floor." That night, Melinda filed in short bursts as a precautionary measure in case they were hit or lost power. In New York, her editors weaved together her dispatches into a brilliant diary that vividly captured the surreal quality of Saddam's final days, as well as the spreading chaos and fear as war gripped the city.
War is the most extreme circumstance journalists face. It imposes especially difficult choices because the stakes are so high. Reporters have to balance their own safety--and the safety of their sources--against the imperatives of covering a crucial news event. They have to avoid manipulation by their government in the most charged of settings and when the truth is most elusive. They have to navigate the thin line between their responsibilities as citizens of a country and their mission as truth-seeking journalists. The choices are often far from clear.
One of the most important choices journalists faced was how to cover the ground invasion as American forces pushed north from Kuwait. …