Fixers, interpreters, and reporting from Iraq
A British colleague of mine was sent by his newspaper to Iraq in 2005, just before the July 7 bombings in London. After that attack, his editor asked him to canvass “ordinary Iraqis” for their reaction. The resulting article reported that all but one of the twelve Baghdadis my colleague spoke to were delighted that Londoners had been blown up. This seemed a surprisingly high proportion, so I asked him a few days later just who these interviewees were and how he’d found them.
With slight sheepishness, he admitted that all the Iraqis he’d canvassed were Sunni Arabs. In other words, his straw poll had been confined to members of a minority that makes up less than 25 percent of the Iraqi population — the same minority that dominated the country for 80 years, that feels humiliated by the empowerment of the Shiite-Kurd majority, and that forms the basis of the anti-coalition insurgency.
How had the British reporter come to meet these interviewees? It turned out that they had been selected by his interpreter and his “fixer.” I asked him to tell me about these persons — good interpreters and fixers being costly and hard to find. Well, my colleague said with an enthusiastic smile, “Ahmed,” his excellent fixer, had done sterling work for him since 2003 and before, when he had been employed by Saddam’s ministry of information. As for his interpreter, “Muhammad” — also terrific — he’d been a colonel in the Republican Guard. Both, it hardly need be said, are Sunnis and former members of the Baath party.
That this journalist — otherwise honest and relatively unbiased — relied entirely on Sunni Arabs is bad enough. For a journalist to rely on Iraqis with such backgrounds is arguably like going to Germany in 1945 and hiring a former employee of Josef Goebbels as your fixer and a recently retired SS officer as your translator. Yet it had never occurred to my colleague that his choices were problematic, or that his employees might have an agenda of their own.
This is a pattern all too common among Western news organizations in Iraq. Sunni Arabs are vastly overrepresented among the employees of such organizations, which are becoming more and more dependent on local hires for actual shoe-leather reporting. Ask any producer or correspondent who has worked in Iraq what community his interpreter or fixer is from, and the answer will almost certainly be the Sunni Arabs.
One reason for this is that, long after 2003, major news organizations continued to rely on the fixers and translators they had hired in Iraq before the war began — including some staffers whose links with Saddam’s regime, and its secret police, brought access. (At the height of the invasion, Western-media reliance on Saddam’s flacks — official or not — sometimes led to embarrassing incidents, such as the insistence of the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan that American forces had not reached Baghdad Airport even as Fox News was showing footage of U.S. tanks on the runway.)
Of course, one benefit of reliance on Iraqis with strong links to the old regime is access to insurgent spokesmen. Another is safety: You are less likely to be kidnapped or ambushed if you’re paying more than $100 a day to an insurgent’s brother.
One might ask how much this reliance on Sunnis affects media objectivity. Allow me to relate my own experience. My first driver-interpreter in Baghdad, in the spring of 2003, was a Christian — a former U.N. employee who took me to visit his large and delightful family in a tidy, very pro-coalition Christian enclave. Getting to know them was an emotionally powerful experience, and probably did influence my perspective, even though I knew they weren’t necessarily “typical” Baghdadis. Most honest foreign reporters would admit that it’s hard not to assimilate the point of view of the local driver/interpreter/fixer who gets you your scoops and on whom your life may depend.
I would argue that the reliance on Sunni Arabs has had a powerful if subtle effect on war reporting. Certainly it’s not hard to find circumstantial evidence of pro-Sunni and anti-Shiite bias in the mainstream Western media. Most people who watch network news or read the major papers have no idea that almost every marketplace and mosque bomb that goes off in Iraq is an attack on Shiite civilians by Sunni terrorists. That is because the sectarian nature of these attacks generally goes unmentioned — they are presented as nondenominational “insurgent” bombs going off in crowded public places.
But when, after the destruction of Samarra’s Golden Mosque in February 2006, Ayatollah Sistani could no longer hold back a people enraged by three years of violence against them and Shiite militias began to target Sunnis, sectarian identity suddenly became important in much of the reporting from Iraq. Now the stories were about “Shiite death squads” and incipient civil war. In other words, it was only when Shiites began to fight back that the bloodshed was deemed sectarian. Even now, if you look at the stories about ethnic cleansing, the victims profiled by the New York Times and the Washington Post tend to be Sunnis. The car bombs that slaughter scores or even hundreds of Shiite civilians are still just “insurgent” attacks, not attacks by Sunni death squads.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the Times and other papers frequently stereotype the Shiite majority as primitive, misogynist, cinema-torching tribals — unlike those nice, well-educated, secular Baathists so foolishly overthrown by the Bush administration. The pro-Sunni, anti-Shiite tilt is also evident in a reluctance to give voice to members of the majority populations (unless of course they are Sadrist extremists) or to the many brave Iraqis who are struggling to make a go of democratic government. Elected Iraqi leaders such as President Jalal Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih (both Kurds) are all too often rejected when they want to place op-eds in major newspapers.
Another factor reinforcing the pro-Sunni bias may be the widespread employment of Palestinians by foreign news organizations in Iraq. Some of these are Iraqi-born Palestinians such as Khalid Hassan, the young New York Times reporter tragically murdered in July. Others are professional newsmen imported by U.S. and European organizations from elsewhere in the Middle East, including the West Bank (where many cameramen have been trained by Western media). It happens that all Muslim Palestinians are Sunni. Moreover, no group in Iraq was more loyal to Saddam Hussein than the Palestinians — and vice versa. The Palestinians were rewarded for their loyalty with privileges such as high-rise housing on and near Baghdad’s then-prosperous Haifa Street — and with the hatred of much of the Iraqi people. Indeed, xenophobic Iraqis — most Iraqis, that is — generally hate Palestinians even more than they hate Kuwaitis and Egyptians.
This certainly does not mean that all Palestinians in the employ of Western news organizations in Iraq are hostile to the aspirations of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurd majority, or regret the passing of the Saddam regime, or support the insurgency. Or that, if they do have such leanings, it necessarily distorts their work. But it is interesting that so many media organizations rely heavily on the one ethnic group that arguably has the most reason to resent the coalition and sympathize with the insurgents. As one Iraqi friend said to me bitterly, “Why don’t they just go to Saudi and hire their reporters from the most extreme madrassas, or go to Damascus and get their reporters from Syrian intelligence?”
The great irony is that the same organizations and professionals that don’t look too hard at the backgrounds of their fixers and interpreters tend to wring their hands over the supposed bias-inducing effects of embedding reporters with the U.S. military. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a mainstream-media editor worry that an embed’s “dependence” on his hosts might compromise his “objectivity” — as if all foreign journalists didn’t develop potentially unhealthy relationships, not just with translators and fixers, but with local journalists, government spokesmen, and other key sources.
The willingness of so many experienced Western reporters to be guided and gulled by the most anti-coalition and anti-democratic elements of Iraqi society is hard to forgive. In conjunction with other institutional failings, it may have influenced the progress of a war in which perceptions and morale are the key to victory and defeat.