Three network anchors, dozens of cable news personalities and hundreds of producers, camera operators and support personnel have poured into Iraq over the past week to cover the nation’s elections scheduled for Sunday.
But don’t expect to see many pictures of Iraqis voting. The staple of elections reporting — the report from the ballot boxes — is turning into the most dangerous assignment in Iraq since the war began.
“The dangerous shot will be of people lining up outside,” said CBS News senior vice president Marcy McGinnis. “Every day we will be assessing with our security people whether it’s safe to go to a polling station.”
The U.S. military is prohibiting some pictures of voters entering the polls, to avoid making them targets of reprisals. It’s also keeping many of the 6,000 polling stations a secret until the last minute to avoid making them targets for attacks by insurgents.
“There is confusion over what is rule and what is protocol,” said NBC “Nightly News” executive producer Steve Capus. “Honestly, we’re sorting it out. We’re not going to be putting our cameras in the face of anyone who doesn’t want to be identified. Others will probably want to hold their heads up high.”
“We’re not sure yet on the polling places,” said CNN U.S. prexy Jon Klein. “The situation is fluid and murky.”
The networks are preparing for the likelihood that the U.S. military will jam communications that day or restrict travel, hampering their attempts to get to polling stations.
Hypercompetitive in newsgathering, the networks nonetheless have set up an elaborate system to share security information. This has taken on additional urgency in recent weeks as the networks geared up to cover the elections.
In a weekly conference call Thursday network execs and their private security personnel discussed which streets are safe, which aren’t and what types of cars are likely to be used by suicide bombers.
“Obviously, we’re competitive, but not on safety and security,” said David Rhode, Fox News’ director of newsgathering. “We’re trying to make sure everybody is safe there.”
Network executives expect the Iraqi elections to be a landmark news event on par with the fall of Baghdad or the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. The elections are a referendum on the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq, and many view their success or failure as an indication of when a military pullout could begin.
But the insurgency doesn’t need journalists to get its message out; a $1,000 bounty is reported to be the going rate for killing one in the Sunni Triangle.
“They put out their videos of attacks and hostages pleading for their lives,” said ABC “World News Tonight” executive producer John Banner. “They want the world to know what they’re doing, but they don’t care how the world finds out.”
In a bid to get closer to the Iraqi people on election day, ABC, with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, dispatched 10 pairs of Iraqi journalists with cameras into the countryside who’ve conducted 1,300 interviews so far in 40 cities. The first report, from an Iraq meat market in the south, aired Thursday. All the news nets are vying for interviews with candidates for the Iraqi parliament, but those have been tough to land, as some candidates don’t want to appear on camera and others want to spend their time communicating with Iraqis, not Americans.
Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera landed an interview with U.S.-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on Saturday. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour did interviews with several women running for office.
The dangers for journalists become apparent even before they arrive. CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s plane attempted to land in Baghdad twice and was diverted back to Amman, Jordan, both times with jet fighter escort. Once on the infamous Baghdad airport road, he said, “You drive fast and you’re very aware of any car that comes near you.”