View Full Version : Iraq bombing highlights dangers journalists face

01-30-06, 08:06 AM
Iraq bombing highlights dangers journalists face
By Rick Jervis, Peter Johnson and Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were seriously injured Sunday when a bomb blew up near the Iraqi army vehicle in which they were riding.

They were flown Monday to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, and the network said their families were at the hospital Monday.

"They're both very seriously injured, but stable," Col. Bryan Gamble, commander of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in western Germany, said Monday. He said the two men were heavily sedated, and under the care of the hospital's trauma team.

Their body armor likely saved, "otherwise these would have been fatal wounds," Gamble said.

The incident was a fresh reminder of the dangerous conditions in Iraq and the risks for journalists trying to cover the war as insurgent attacks proliferate. Woodruff and co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas took over ABC's World News Tonight on Jan. 3 with a mandate to get outside the studio more on major stories. (Related: Woodruff, cameraman suffer head injuries | Video)

"There are formidable risks in trying to cover this conflict," said Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Large swaths of the country are simply too dangerous to cover." The attack on the ABC crew comes three weeks after the abduction in Iraq of American freelance journalist Jill Carroll. (Related column: Media Mix: ABC News team shaken)

In an interview two weeks ago with USA TODAY, Woodruff said he was convinced that television viewers want a "serious newscast. They want the news in one place that explains it instead of just reports it straight." That meant he and co-anchor Vargas planned to travel a great deal for news stories on such topics as the depressed auto industry in Detroit or the war in Iraq. Vargas recently returned from Iraq.

Woodruff touched on that issue last week in Los Angeles when he spoke to reporters. "The model of the presenter, I think, is gone," he said. "The model now is anchor-reporter, and I think you're going to see a lot more of that."

According to ABC, Woodruff, 44, and Vogt, 46, were taping while standing in the open hatch of the Iraqi armored vehicle when the bomb went off near Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad. Their vehicle was in the lead of an eight-vehicle convoy, mostly armored U.S. Humvees.

Both men wore body armor and helmets. Small-arms fire followed the blast. The convoy had devices to jam radio-controlled bombs, but the bomb was apparently hard-wired to a remote control, ABC said. Both men suffered head injuries, and Woodruff has broken bones, the network said. Two other ABC crewmembers in the vehicle were unhurt.

Woodruff and Vogt were listed in serious but stable condition after surgery at a U.S. military hospital near here. They were to be taken to U.S. medical facilities in Landstuhl, Germany, for further treatment. "We take this as good news, but the next few days will be critical," ABC News President David Westin said in a statement. (Related blog entry: Newsmen on way to Germany)

ABC sent Woodruff to Iraq in preparation for President Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday to report on the challenges facing U.S. troops as the administration comes under pressure to bring them home. The ABC crew, consisting of Woodruff, Vogt, a sound technician and four producers, had been embedded for two days with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. Woodruff and Vogt boarded the Iraqi vehicle to report from the perspective of the Iraqi military, which is training to provide security independent of U.S. forces.

The area where Woodruff and Vogt were attacked is near a former Iraqi weapons facility whose pilfered munitions have allowed insurgents to make powerful roadside bombs.

Woodruff and Vargas were named by ABC as co-anchors to replace Peter Jennings, who died Aug. 7 of lung cancer. Generally, networks rotate correspondents in and out of Iraq every few weeks because it is such dangerous duty.

Carroll's kidnappers haven't been heard from since they released a video of her Jan. 17 with demands for the release of all female detainees in Iraq. Since then, the U.S. military has released five Iraqi women from custody, but was careful to say the release had no link to Carroll's abduction.

"We are continuing to watch developments in Iraq, and we continue to be hopeful" about Carroll, said David Cook, Washington bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor, one of the outlets for which Carroll writes.

Reporting in the field

CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, who is to return to Iraq in a few weeks, said the ABC crew had to take risks if it was to find out how Iraqi troops are progressing.

"You can't go to Iraq and sit in a hotel all the time," she said. "There is no way to avoid this kind of risk, only minimize it. ... In the end, it comes down to whether you're going to be lucky or not."

She says when she goes to Iraq she nervously spends "the first few days watching every inch of pavement, just waiting for something to explode, looking for spotters or the flash of a muzzle just like the soldiers do." Then her instincts take hold and security concerns take a back seat to reporting.

Woodruff was among the first Western reporters to go to Pakistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He reported on the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, part of coverage that won awards for ABC, according to a network biography.

Vogt is Canadian and lives in Aix-en-Provence, France. He is an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and covered the aftermath of the Asian tsunami from Sri Lanka.

Woodruff and his family are close to the family of NBC News correspondent David Bloom, who died from a blood clot after being embedded with U.S. troops during the initial invasion of Iraq. Woodruff and Bloom "were great friends who enjoyed a friendly rivalry over the years," said Neal Shapiro, who recently stepped down as president of NBC News.

Woodruff's wife, Lee, wrote of the friendship between the families in a diary she e-mailed to friends in 2003. When her husband went to Iraq, watching his reports on television was difficult, she said.

Their son Mack "has this theory that Dad is safe because the Marines are protecting him. I happen to like that theory very much," she wrote. "Fortunately, I have great support here. One of my dearest friends, Melanie Bloom, is just a few towns away. Her husband, David, is embedded with NBC, so it helps to compare emotions."

David Bloom died two weeks after that entry. On Sunday, Melanie Bloom was to accompany Lee Woodruff on a flight to Germany.

'Like a thunderbolt'

Sunday's attack "hit us like a thunderbolt," CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer said. "We've all been there in one way or another because so many people in our business have been to war. People go to war, and then there are the ones who go to cover them, and they get injured and killed."

As a 27-year-old reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Schieffer went on missions with U.S. soldiers during four months in Vietnam. In Vietnam, there were places where reporters felt safe and didn't have to be protected by armed guards when on assignment, as they do in Iraq. "God knows where there is a safe place in Iraq," Schieffer said.

Many journalists don't travel outside of Baghdad unless embedded with a military unit, which is deemed the safest way to get around the country. Embedded journalists are typically flown to a military base in U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and stay in heavily fortified bases. The danger comes when they go out on patrol, but it's the only way to get into the cities and talk to local residents.

Liz Sly, Baghdad correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, said the latest attacks on reporters don't necessarily mean the environment in Iraq is any more dangerous than a year ago. The one exception, she said, is a recent spate of kidnappings - not only of Carroll but of other foreigners.

"Seems like kidnapping is the flavor of the day once again, and we're all being extra careful," Sly, a veteran foreign correspondent, said from Baghdad.

Most challenging to reporters in Iraq is the shifting security situation. In spring of 2004, most reporters were still driving around Iraq in pursuit of stories. By late summer of that year, as kidnappings picked up and reporters were abducted from cars on highways, travel became restricted to Baghdad.

Most journalists moved out of individual homes they were renting and into more secure hotels or compounds, which are typically ringed with blast walls, checkpoints and round-the-clock armed guards. They began employing personal armed guards to escort them around the capital and using multi-car systems, rather than traveling around in one car.

"It's like a game of dodge ball," says Sig Christenson, military writer for the San Antonio Express-News and president of Military Reporters & Editors, a professional association. He has embedded with the military three times. "It is the most dangerous place there's been for journalists to work in decades."

Paul McLeary, who writes about the life of an embedded reporter for Columbia Journalism Review's website, observed in a column last week that he had no trouble getting a room at a Baghdad hotel favored by reporters.

"While the hotel used to be full of journalists, many either left the country after the December elections or were pulled out by their publications, which have been cutting back on Baghdad staff as things have gotten progressively more dangerous," he wrote.

On Jan. 23, The Washington Post e-mailed its staff asking for volunteers either for eight-week assignments in Iraq or a longer-term reporting commitment, calling it "an extraordinarily demanding assignment" where hazards are "ever-present." The message noted that 59 Post reporters, editors, photographers and opinion writers had been to Iraq since the war started. Post Baghdad correspondent Jonathan Finer said he has noticed a steady decline in the number of reporters covering the war.

On CNN Sunday, correspondent Michael Holmes said from Iraq that he feels "less safe" than he has since the U.S. invasion of the country, and that has changed the way reporters operate. "It is difficult to get out and about," he said. "We do, but it is always with great caution. ... It is a story that needs telling, despite the risks."