Hard Target


Amid the furor over the incident in which U.S. troops wounded an Italian reporter and killed an Italian intelligence agent, the Pentagon has appointed a brigadier general to head an investigation and says the Italians can participate in it. The results are expected in three to four weeks. Not all run-ins between the military and the press get that kind of attention.

On April 8, 2003, a U.S. tank shell hit Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, where many reporters were staying. Two cameramen were killed. In the immediate aftermath, the military said insurgents had been firing from the hotel. The story changed in the official investigation four months later, which said troops fired at an enemy spotter seen at the hotel. “They fired a single round in self-defense in full accordance with the rules of engagement,” the report found, adding, “Baghdad was a high-intensity combat area, and some journalists had elected to remain there despite repeated warnings of the extreme danger of doing so.”

But studies of the incident by both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists found that the military failed to alert troops to who was in the hotel. The CPJ report wonders how the tank crew managed to see the glint of binoculars—which the troops suspected were being used to spot them—but not the numerous TV cameras set up on the hotel’s balconies.

Both groups conclude that the military did not intend to hit the hotel. Javier Couso, however, is not convinced it was an accident. Couso, younger brother of Spain’s Telecinco cameraman José Couso, one of the men slain at the Palestine, says that according to U.S. military guidelines on urban combat, “they have to get authorization from the head of division” to fire.

“There was an order that came down from above to silence, to blind, to take out those cameras,” Couso tells the Voice. The reason for such an action might have been to prevent any broadcast of U.S. troop movements.

Couso says he’s willing to believe the shelling was a mistake but not the Pentagon version that it was self-defense. “This has direct consequences for reporters—colleagues and friends of my brother—who are afraid that if they go to report on another war, the U.S. military will attack them,” Couso says. He is touring the U.S. to urge an independent investigation and the prosecution of five soldiers involved in the incident, including General Buford Blount, the division commander.

Recent news gives Couso little hope. Even as it OK’d the Sgrena investigation, the Pentagon said it has decided not to reopen the case of three Iraqis working for Reuters who claim they were detained and abused by U.S. troops in January 2004.

The three men, and a fourth working for NBC, claimed they were beaten and subjected to sexual humiliation. A military investigation found no basis to their claims. Reuters asked for a deeper probe but was turned down last week. A Reuters spokesman, Stephen Naru, tells the Voice that the Pentagon didn’t even talk to the Reuters staff involved, settling instead for written answers to 25 questions. “It was no investigation,” says Naru.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says, “Our determination was that the allegations were thoroughly investigated.” In a remarkable twist, the Pentagon has suggested that while U.S. troops released the four men without charges, there were “inconsistencies” in the Reuters staffers’ stories, and camera equipment was found among the guns that had fired at U.S. troops.

Whitman won’t say whether the Pentagon actually suspects the news workers of firing at American soldiers. He says he doesn’t know whether the military ever talked to the men who lodged abuse charges. “I think that [military investigators] believed they had sufficient information from the statements that they made,” he says.

According to Naru, Reuters intends to press the issue: “We’re going to consider further steps.”

And the winner is . . .

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have won 65 Pulitzers in the past 10 years—46 percent of the total awards. So as the April 4 announcement of Pulitzer winners draws near, the question isn’t whether the big papers are going to win one, but which of the giants will take home the most.

It wasn’t always like this. From 1955 to 1964, The New York Times won seven Pulitzers, but over that decade the Times‘ share of the honors was still smaller than during the past 10 years. Never did the Times win more than one award in a year, or repeat in the same category in consecutive years. Meanwhile, the other prizes went to such papers as the Alice (Texas) Daily Echo and The San Juan Star.

The Pulitzer panel still throws in a few new faces each year, like The Toledo Blade last year, the Rutland (Vermont) Herald in 2001, and the Voice, for international reporting, in 2000. But shockers like that are rare. If you were laying bets for the 2005 awards based on what’s happened since 1995, the Times would be a 7-1 shot. The Asbury Park Press? Try 140-1.

It’s tempting to chalk this up to favoritism by the Pulitzer board. But the panel last year included reps from smaller papers like the Concord Monitor, Austin American-Statesman, and New Orleans Times-Picayune. Here’s a more frightening possibility: The awards are accurate, and the best print journalism—on major stories—is increasingly confined to the few massive newspapers with budgets big enough to afford great reporting.

“The big national issue is not necessarily going to be something that a small paper will take on other than through wire stories,” says the Rutland Herald‘s winner, David Moats. “Also, the big papers have a lot of resources. I was on the Pulitzer jury [in 2002] , and The New York Times walked away with a truckload of awards—and rightfully so. I mean, they had the resources for dealing with September 11.”

Too bad, because a big story demands more—not fewer—newspapers on the case.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 22, 2005

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