Christina Asquith on Iraq’s “Golden Period” for Reporting

Asquith discusses the trials of freelancing in Iraq (which she did in 2003 and 2004) and her new book about the challenges of being a rookie teacher in a poor public school (which she was in 1999).

Christina Asquith
Jack Fairweather
Christina Asquith, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, has 10 years of experience as an investigative journalist covering education issues and women’s rights in the U.S. and abroad. In June 2003 she reported for the New York Times from Iraq on the U.S.-led post-war rebuilding efforts in the Iraqi school system. She is currently writing a book on the women’s movement in Iraq. Her first book, “The Emergency Teacher,” an investigation of the rise of untrained teachers in poor public schools, based on her firsthand experience as a rookie teacher in Philadelphia’s toughest middle school, will be released this month.

Liz Cox Barrett: Paul McLeary, my colleague, recently wrote the following upon his return from Iraq, where he went in January to report on how the press is doing its job there: “Among reporters who have been in and out of Iraq since the beginning of the war, there seems to be a kind of consensus that the summer of 2003 and, to a much lesser extent, part of 2004, was a kind of golden period for reporting … But those days are long gone, and all that’s left are a group of hardened, somewhat frustrated reporters, angry at their inability to move around; a group, it must be said, that is becoming increasingly isolated as the once-formidable media presence in Baghdad slowly clears out.”

You freelanced in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Did you experience your time there as a “golden period for reporting” — or do you regard it that way now, with hindsight? Would you go back to Iraq now to report, knowing how constrained you would be? Would you go back as a freelancer (given what you wrote in the current issue of the American Prospect — that “ Baghdad on a budget brings only trouble, as the majority of Western reporters kidnapped or killed in Iraq have been freelance…”)

Christina Asquith: “Golden period” is definitely how I would describe reporting in Iraq in 2003 and early 2004. We could drive ourselves without security anywhere in the country, and most everyone was eager to talk with journalists. Also, because the Iraqi ministries were in nascent stages of rebuilding, most senior ministry officials didn’t even have secretaries yet, so there was no one to tell us to make an appointment or brush us off— we had great access. The situation changed after the first U.S. invasion of Falluja in April 2004. After that, Iraqis began to say: “I thought you were here to liberate us, and now you are invading us?” There was always some anti-Americanism, but it really grew after Falluja. Throughout the summer and fall of 2004, we saw increasing terrorism attacks, kidnappings and beheadings. But anti-Americanism was not the biggest problem for journalists, as most Iraqis understand the objective role of the journalist. The trouble was the creation of a black market for hostages. Terrorist groups began offering money to any Iraqi who could nab a Western hostages, so that created a financial incentive for even your former friends— your Iraqi driver, your hotel cleaning staff, anyone— to kidnap you and turn you over to the terrorist group. By the end of 2004, journalists were getting information that insurgents had lists of who was staying inside the hotel, and that they were waiting outside to kidnap us. At the same time, Iraqis grew scared of being seen with Westerners, for fear that an insurgent would accuse them of “collaborating with the enemy.” I would show up at a school, and the teachers would beg me to please leave. So, I felt as though my presence was putting my Iraqi sources in real danger— shortly after that, I left Iraq for good.

LCB: What are your thoughts on the evergreen criticism that reporters in Iraq focus on the tragic, the violent — the “bad news” — to the detriment of the more mundane “good news” stories about rebuilding and such?

CA: The journalists in Iraq have always done a tremendous job of covering the story; including the good and bad news. I think the fact that both sides of the debate criticize journalists equally means that we’re probably striking a good balance.

LCB: What news outlet/s or reporter/s are, to your mind, still managing to do great work in Iraq today in spite of all the challenges? Who do you read, follow, admire over there?

CA: I read Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor; Ellen Knickermeyer of The Washington Post; and The New York Times. The Atlantic Monthly’s 2004 article “Welcome to the Green Zone” by William Langwiesche brilliantly captured the group-think that existed inside the U.S. administration in Baghdad. Asne Seierstad’s book “101 Days” gave great insight into the Iraqi mindset preceeding the invasion. One of my favorite pieces recently was Jack Fairweather’s Mother Jones article investigating how the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi duped the U.S. media into the war. On the other side, I hated Paul Bremer’s book: “My Year in Iraq.” It was so self-congratulatory and just reinforced the sense of Republican loyalists dipping into Baghdad for a year of adventure and not realizing the tens of thousands of lives that are being ruined.

LCB: You’re currently working on a book about the women’s movement in Iraq. What drew you to this topic? And what is the state of the women’s movement in Iraq (size, goals, obstacles faced)?

CA: I was fascinated by the idea of the U.S. exporting to Iraq a women’s movement that would serve as a model for the Middle East. We women here in the U.S. can’t seem to decide on a definition of feminism anymore, and I often question whether a show like “Sex and the City” moves women forward or sets them backwards. So, what model, exactly, were we interested in pushing on Muslim women? Once on the ground in Iraq, the story took all sorts of turns: while there are almost no laws protecting battered women, Iraqi women were better off in other ways: they have lower divorce rates, and better child care, and have a much easier time balancing career and family because of shorter work days and the close proximity of extended family. When a grassroots Iraqi women’s movement started to lobby the new Iraqi government for a quota, the story just got more and more interesting.

LCB: Your first book, published in January, is about the teaching crisis in American public schools, as seen through your year teaching in a crumbling public school in Philadelphia. Prior to teaching, you were an education reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Did your experiences in the classroom cause you to look back at any of the stories you wrote for the Inquirer and cringe (specifics, please)?

CA: My first book, “The Emergency Teacher,” is about the year I spent as an urban school teacher in Philadelphia’s worst-performing middle school. I look back and cringe at the infinitesimal amount of time I spent interviewing kids and teachers compared to school board members. I also am much more interested now in the kinds of experimental high schools that Bill Gates is pioneering — the current structure of our school system is very obsolete, and I’m excited by the innovations taking place.

LCB: You’ve reported from a war zone. You’ve reported on neglected kids in a broken school system. Name a type of journalism (medium and/or subject matter) that you would never want to do (and why)?

CA: I would never engage in these sniping TV debate shows that drag discussion down to the lowest common denominator. Nor would I ever want to work for a publication that was motivated primarily by profit. I have this very romantic notion of one day being an editor of a small town newspaper, and using the paper as a forum for different voices to engage in vigorous debate. Very Norman Rockwell!

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.