Official Sources, Western Diplomats and Other Voices from the Mission

On the post-Cold War era, ethnic rivalry may have replaced ideology as the most likely cause of conflict, but while all else changes, one journalistic habit picked up during the past four decades will, in all likelihood, persist — the habit of relying heavily on the mission, as the U.S. embassy is known, for assessments and information. In an increasingly unfamiliar world, in fact, the temptation to do so will be even stronger.

What’s wrong with this? A close look at coverage of the last of the Cold-War conflicts — the civil war in El Salvador — shows that all too often such reliance results in distorted news.

Following the November 1989 murder of six Jesuit intellectuals, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter, U.S. embassy officials in San Salvador told Newsweek that they had intelligence information indicating that rightist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, long identified with El Salvador’s death squads, had been planning to kill the priests. The claim was based on an alleged CIA report. The officials said that, on the night before the murders, D’Aubuisson had told advisers that something had to be done about the Jesuits. Newsweek ran the story as an “exclusive” on December 11, 1989.

But it was later shown in court that D’Aubuisson had nothing to do with the murders. And except for the mission officials who spoke to Newsweek, almost every other Western diplomat in the country told reporters — from the start — that the Salvadoran military, not D’Aubuisson, was most likely responsible.

No corroboration of the alleged CIA report pointing to D’Aubuisson has ever been provided, not even to the presiding Salvadoran court or to the U.S. congressional task force investigating the Jesuit murders. In fact, the report may very well have been a fabrication designed to deflect attention from the Salvadoran military, which was then receiving nearly a quarter million dollars a day in U.S. aid.

Reporters in El Salvador frequently received information and assessments from the mission. And correspondents who have covered El Salvador say that editors in almost all U.S. media have tended to demand a far lower standard of evidence for information obtained from embassy officials than for that obtained from other sources. For example, while claims by political activists of any stripe would rarely be published without at least two additional sources of confirmation, information coming from U.S. officials was frequently run without any additional confirmation. “Don’t worry, I got it from the embassy,” was usually enough to put an editor at ease.

The assumption here is that political activists have a political agenda, while American officials do not. This ignore that fact that U.S. embassy officials in El Salvador were engaged in what they themselves called the largest and most significant American military endeavor in the period since the Vietnam war. The assumption led to inaccurate and misleading reports.

For example, on July 30, 1989, New York Times correspondent Lindsey Gruson wrote an article headlined “With Training and New Tactics, Salvador’s Army Gains on Rebels.” The story’s nut quote was from a “senior American official” who said: “The F.M.L.N. [leftist guerrillas] can still mass troops, carry out actions, and inflict casualties, but not with its previous success. . .These offensives now come at greater cost and achieve less. In contrast to the early 1980s, many guerrilla actions are now a draw or outright defeat.”

While the U.S. embassy was claiming in briefing papers that the insurgency “is now in a period of decline and frustration,” many other observers, including non-American diplomats, believed that the war was stalemated — at best. Indeed, in November, less than four months after Gruson’s piece appeared, the F.M.L.N. launched its strongest sustained offensive of the war, taking over much of the capital and other major cities for up to ten days. American officials were taken completely by surprise. So were most American readers.

Another problem for reporters in El Salvador was attribution. For example, in background briefings given in early 1991, William Walker, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, told reporters that U.N. mediator Alvaro de Soto was biased toward leftist guerrillas, unprofessional as a diplomat, and ineffective. But when speaking in San Salvador, Walker demanded that he be referred to only as an unidentified Western diplomat, giving the impression that his view of the U.N. mediator was representative of that of the diplomatic corps at large. In fact, most other major Western diplomats in San Salvador considered the veteran Peruvian mediator to be not only highly competent, professional, and fair, but the right man for the job.

The term “Western diplomat” is meant to inspire confidence in readers. It implies that the source is an experienced diplomat of some stature, is knowledgeable about the country in question, and has access to a wide boy of both public and official information. But in El Salvador, reporters sometimes allowed the term to be misused.

New York Times correspondent James LeMoyne found ways to deal with this problem, using attributions such as “a top official whose country has an active interest in El Salvador.” The reader was thus alerted that this diplomat was not a neutral observer. Another solution was to follow a debatable statement — uttered by American officials but attributed only to unidentified “Western diplomats” — with something like “But many non-American Western diplomats disagree.”

Unfortunately, reporters and editors tend to be more interested in securing access to embassy sources than in substantiating embassy claims. The El Salvador experience suggests that strict standards of evidence and uniform rules of attribution should be applied to all sources.

Out on a Limb: The Use and Abuse of Stringers in the Combat Zone

Somewhere just outside of Baghdad, I was blindfolded and led down a corridor into a room where, to judge by the sound of the voices, there were at least half a dozen men. The possibility of being beaten or tortured was on my mind. I was ordered to sit, and waited in the darkness.

The interrogator asked me what was my “real job.”

I said I was a reporter.

He said I was lying. “Tell us about your relationship with the CIA,” he said.

I denied having any relationship with the CIA or any other intelligence organization.

The interrogator, who was from Iraq’s military intelligence, then offered me a deal: “If you tell us the truth, you will go free. But if you continue to lie, you will stay here many years.”

Only twelve months before, an Iranian-born British journalist, Farzad Bazoft, had been offered the same promise: if he “confessed” to working for British intelligence, he would go free. He did, and was hanged.

This predicament demonstrates the risk faced by all journalists covering armed conflicts — a risk that is especially threatening to stringers.

The gulf war in particular proved an exceptionally difficult story to cover, due to its highly technological nature and to the logistical barriers erected by both sides: neither the allies or Iraq respected the concept of journalistic neutrality; both sides saw reporters as intruders.

Yet those barriers could be and on occasion were overcome, as journalists circumvented the allies’ press pool south of Iraq in Saudi Arabia and entered northern Iraq illegally without a visa. Reporters also paid a price: Gad Gross, a German photographer from J. B. Pictures on assignment for Newsweek, was executed by low-ranking Iraqi soldiers. Charles Maxwell and Nicholas Della Casa, a British freelance camera team on assignment for BBC Television, were also killed in northern Iraq last March, reportedly murdered by their Turkish guide. Della Casa’s wife, Rosanna, who was working with the team, has not been seen since and is believed dead.

For weeks, these four free-lance journalists, as well as several teams of staff reporters, were classified as missing. News organizations and professional associations pressured Iraqi authorities for information. But the level of concern varied greatly depending on the news organization involved, and sometimes on whether the missing reporter was a staff correspondent or a stringer.

These incidents raise the question of the obligation news organizations have to free-lancers in trouble in the field. The matter can be further complicated by the nationality of the journalist, and by the fact that the line between a legitimate journalist and an intelligence operative is — sometimes — blurred.

Every major network, newspaper, magazine, and wire service uses stringers, especially for reports from abroad. Some publications, such as The Christian Science Monitor and The Economist, rely frequently on stringers for their foreign reports. The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times, like most papers, give stringers bylines, designating them as “special” correspondents. The New York Times runs stringers’ articles, but does not give them a byline.

Leading wire services such the A.P. and Reuters rely on stringers’ copy from countries in which they do not have full-time, staff correspondents. Financially strapped U.P.I. currently has more stringers abroad than staff correspondents. Reuters and the A.P. use as many freelance photojournalists as salaried staff photographers in their foreign bureaus.

Most major news organizations use stringers to brief staff correspondents (who usually “parachute” into foreign locations for only a few days), arrange interviews, and provide background information. Television also buys footage from freelance camera crews. Magazines such as Newsweek and Time rely on a worldwide network of print stringers and buy most of their photos from agency-affiliated free-lance photographers.

Of all the media, radio is the most dependent on freelancers. All national news radio services rely predominantly on stringers for their primary international news, especially on-the-scene foreign reporting, or “spots.”

The main reason the media rely so heavily on stringers is money. While a salaried staff correspondent may draw well over $50,000 in salary and benefits, stringers are usually paid only for reports that are used. A one-minute radio spot, for example, pays about $50. A 900-word article pays an average of $150. And an average newspaper photo pays about $75. Meanwhile, as a rule, freelancers must pay their own transportation and other expenses.

And although stringers may be accredited with a major news organization and represent it in the field, they usually enjoy no benefits, such as health or life insurance. If, for example, a stringer is injured in a bus accident in a foreign country but not while pursuing an assigned report, it is unlikely that he or she would be covered. And when stringers are injured while actually reporting, compensation is usually arranged post facto on a case-by-case basis. Some stringers have their own health insurance. But they must first find a policy that does not exclude “acts of war” and they must usually pay at least $2,000 annually. With such a high premium, many work without coverage — even in war zones.

On a cost-benefit basis, freelancers are news organizations’ most productive journalists. In a recession, when both advertising revenues and operating budgets are low, stringers are in particularly great demand — especially when it comes to covering strife-torn countries. What news directors and editors are looking for, as a rule, is live combat footage or eyewitness print dispatches accompanied by dramatic still photos. Yet, the news organization rarely takes responsibility for sending the free-lancer into a conflict zone.

Take the all-too-typical case of veteran print journalist Tom Long. The Miami Herald has customarily identified Long as one of its “special correspondents.” Yet when he was recently injured in a mortar attack in northern El Salvador, the Herald identified him in its story only as a “freelance journalist.” Both the Herald and The New York Times, for which Long also reports, offered to cover some of Long’s medical costs. But both news organizations made it clear that the support was being offered only out of charity, on a one-time basis, and that Long, who did not have his own insurance, would be responsible for any long-term health care needs that might arise.

In countries like El Salvador and Chile, where the foreign press has been a frequent target of attack, members of the foreign press corps have organized press associations to lobby authorities on behalf of individual journalists in trouble. American journalists can also rely on the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists; American and non-American journalists alike rely on the independent New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The outcome of any particular confrontation may well depend on what such organizations and the news outlets involved choose to do. In Iraq, for example, captured reporters were accused of being Israeli, American, or other Western intelligence agents. My case and that of Gamma-Liaison photographer Alain Buu seemed to be caught up in a debate within the Iraqi government, the intelligence and information ministries taking different sides on whether we were spies or journalists.

Our predicament was aggravated by the fact that I was a CBS News stringer — a distinction in status that was lost on Iraqi authorities. They seemed aware only that, while CBS News had mobilized an impressive campaign for the release of staff correspondent Bob Simon, it had done considerably less for me. This difference was interpreted by the authorities as indicating that I was not a real journalist but a spy.

Unfortunately for legitimate journalists, the Iraqis may have had reason to be wary. One Western journalist who had been detained in the Middle East was approached by his country’s intelligence service soon after his release. The journalist, who requested anonymity, says he was asked to become a clandestine government agent while continuing to work as a journalist.

In the United States, the CIA’s use of journalists as intelligence agents is believed to have decreased since the practice was exposed by congressional inquiry in the mid-1970s. Whether it has been completely abandoned is impossible to ascertain. The best way for journalists to convince foreign authorities of their legitimacy is by maintaining their integrity. In other words, information gathered should appear only in published reports and not be relayed privately in background briefings given to government officials.

Veteran photographer Bill Gentile, who was the Dutch cameraman Cornel Lagrouw when Lagrouw was killed in El Salvador in March 1989, has observed that combat can be covered with reasonable safety when one is traveling with one side or another. The problem arises when battle lines swiftly change and journalists find themselves unwillingly or even unwittingly crossing sides. Lagrouw’s last words were, “Great pictures, aye,” only moments before a bullet struck him.

Journalists who take such risks are often responding to the networks’ insatiable appetite for “bang-bang.” The difference between a routine shot of Kurdish rebels posing atop a captured tank, for example, and a shot of an Iraqi helicopter attack could be — depending on demand –over $50,000. That is largely why free-lance cameramen have earned the reputation of being the loose cannons of the business.

However, the motivation may not necessarily be higher compensation but the compelling desire to document the situation at hand. Gvido Zvaigzne filmed some of the most spectacular footage of Soviet troops and tanks crushing the Latvian rebellion in January 1991. In his tape, the viewer hears the impact of the bullets and watches the landscape bob as the camera falls. The viewer sees and hears further battle, as Zvaignze, who died soon after, continues to aim his lens as he crawls away.

While news organizations are increasingly relying on freelance journalists for their primary coverage of foreign wars, they have yet to come to terms with the responsibilities this entails.

At the very least, they should offer freelancers working in war zones some kind of basic insurance coverage. Newspapers that publish stringers’ articles should not only offer them bylines, but pay them professional rates as well. And news organizations that find it both economical and convenient to buy material from free-lancers should recognize their obligation to stand behind anyone representing them — regardless of whether they are staff or stringer — in the field.