War and Peace

War News Radio brings Iraq home.


According to President Bush the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq. Democrats contend that Iraq is in chaos. Who should Americans believe? The mainstream media either can’t or won’t answer the question—reduced to issuing daily casualty reports and serving as a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration and its critics. Lost in all this political posturing is the war’s impact on people in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. 

Into the void comes War News Radio (WNR). For the past 12 months a group of ambitious students from Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College have been quietly working towards filling this gap in the mainstream’s coverage of the war. Relying largely on Internet phone technology, WNR’s student correspondents conduct interviews with individuals on the ground in the Middle East, producing diverse human-interest stories that shed light on the challenges of daily life in Iraq. In the process, WNR has not only developed into a valuable source for news about the war, it may also serve as a new model for student journalism.

According to founding member, Amelia Templeton, a senior history major who regularly interviews Iraqi citizens, WNR’s mission is “to bring depth to the coverage of the Iraq War that has been missing from the mainstream media. Americans will start turning off the news if it’s just car bomb after car bomb. We’re interested in keeping people engaged and thinking about what’s going on.” 

That’s easier said than done, especially for students constrained by both resources and geography. Working out of a small on-campus studio, WNR correspondents face the same challenges as any radio journalist—and then some. 

Like most news stories a WNR segment comes into existence when a reporter develops an idea and conducts research to find interviewees who can address the issue. Sometimes the desired subject is easily accessible; a U.S. military officer home from Iraq, for example. But if prospective sources happen to be in Baghdad or Basra or Mosul—as is usually the case—numerous obstacles emerge.{pagebreak} 

The first hurdle is simply getting the subject’s phone number, which can sometimes be obtained by searching the Iraqi equivalent of the White Pages. “There are a number of Iraqi phone directories online,” begins Templeton. “In addition we're using Skype™ [a computer program that enables users to conduct telephone conversations over the Internet], which allows you to search people by both country and language.” 

Some Americans might be surprised at how wired Iraqis are, even in the midst of war. “There are a good number of Iraqis who have Internet access, a microphone hookup, and the speed to make voice-over-IP technologically feasible, so we can Instant Message™ users and see who is willing to talk,” notes fellow founding member Wren Elhai, a sophomore studying foreign languages and political science. 

Elhai concedes, however, that because WNR is largely limited to interviewing English-speaking citizens with Internet access (only one staff member is fluent in Arabic), its Iraqi perspective tends to be limited to well-educated, urban professionals. “For months we've been trying to get in touch with an Iraqi farmer,” begins Elhai, “but it’s a lot tougher to find a farmer than it is to find businessmen, contractors, pharmacists or doctors.” 

Moreover, even when a chosen subject is located, it’s not a foregone conclusion that he or she will talk to the media—even a low-profile outfit like WNR. With the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein still fresh in everyone’s mind and a violent insurgency self-evident, “people are sometimes quite concerned about their own safety,” notes Templeton. 

WNR correspondents also must overcome the practical challenges of communicating with people on the other side of the world. For one thing, making an overseas phone call to Iraq isn't as seamless and reliable as, say, making a call within the United States. “Half the time all the circuits to Iraq are busy. Or you don’t know why but you just can't get through,” says Templeton. 

As if that weren't enough, there’s also an eight-hour time difference between Baghdad and Swarthmore, which often forces WNR reporters to conduct interviews at all hours of the day. For his part, Elhai once stayed up all night to interview the C.E.O. of the Iraqi Stock Exchange from three to five o’ clock in the morning.

However, when all obstacles are overcome the result can be a very revealing interview. “Many of the people I speak with have very strong opinions about the war and the opportunity to share them with an American is exciting,” begins Templeton. “At the very least, they are thrilled to be practicing their English.” 

In fact, once a connection has been made the biggest challenge is to keep the interview focused. “Politics,” as Elhai puts it, “is just under the surface of everything. No matter what you try to talk about, sooner or later they will voice their opinion on whether the U.S. should be in Iraq. They also ask what the American people think of President Bush,” he says. 

The other thing WNR reporters hear a lot of is complaints, the most common of which concerns power—or lack thereof. “Pretty much everyone complains that the electricity doesn’t work,” advises Templeton, who reports that some Iraqis are compensating by poaching from neighbors who own generators. “One person told me that a significant portion of the family budget goes towards buying electricity from their next-door neighbor,” she says.

This is not to say that Iraqis are totally preoccupied with matters of life and death. Another topic of interest is America’s most popular export—entertainment. “A lot of them want to tell you about their favorite American TV shows,” says Templeton, who cites ER and 60 Minutes as being a few of the oft-mentioned programs. 

But while Elhai and Templeton are more than happy to chat about pop culture it’s the Iraqi perspective on the war that is of most interest. When it comes to the occupation there is no consensus of opinion among Iraqis—not even close. “What you find is that there are as many different opinions over there as there are over here,” advises Elhai. 

“I have spoken to Iraqis who don’t want the American troops to leave because they feel that even if things are bad, they are terrified of sectarian reprisals,” elaborates Templeton. “Another story I hear a lot is, ‘When the Americans first came we were happy to see them. But then they stuck around and started shooting us at checkpoints. Now everything has gotten so much worse. We hate them and wish they’d leave.’”

In the interest of balance, WNR devotes significant airtime to the U.S. military’s perspective on the occupation. According to Elhai, American troops invariably stress how difficult it is to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people while trying to stay out of harm’s way. 

“In one piece I talked to an Army lieutenant who had been stationed in the Sunni Triangle,” begins Elhai. “He started a program—of his own volition—to collect school supplies from [American] donors, which his battalion would deliver to teachers at Iraqi schools. Later he found out that one of the teachers at a school they were visiting was actually coordinating the insurgency in that particular area.”

Stories like this underscore why WNR is dedicated to introducing new perspectives into the debate about the war. “I don't want to pin a lot of blame on American soldiers for bad behavior because after speaking with several of them I have some understanding of how scary a position they are in,” begins Templeton. “The reality of this—how hard it is to sustain an occupation—has been difficult for everyone involved.”

Of course, the kinds of stories and interviews that WNR has already delivered makes one wonder why major media outlets don’t do a more thorough job of covering the war. While both Templeton and Elhai make it clear that they don’t profess to be media experts, they have identified issues that may explain the media’s lack of willingness to do more than just scrape the surface. 

“Iraq is the world’s most dangerous place for journalists to work," begins Elhai, reminded of a Skype-enabled conversation with a member of a Basra-based film crew that had been working in conjunction with a Western news organization. “When we spoke he was in Amman [Jordan] looking for work because his life had been threatened. He e-mailed me a Web link that showed him standing next to an Iraqi cameraman who had turned up dead back in August [of 2005]. The two of them had been covering stories that were unflattering to the Shiite militia groups that are active in Basra. He was fairly confident he was next on the [hit] list and he was looking for a job outside of Iraq to avoid being kidnapped and murdered. I e-mailed him later to see how everything turned out but I never heard back from him.”

For her part, Templeton cites the language and cultural barriers that limit direct interaction between Americans and Iraqis as being most problematic. “The major issue that I would identify is that few American reporters speak Arabic,” she says. “There hasn’t been enough of a focus in this country on pushing for a better understanding of the Arabic speaking world.”

Yet, WNR has already proved that it can do almost as much by phone as it could in person. “Farris Hassan [the 16-year-old Iraqi-American high-school student who flew to Iraq over Christmas vacation to try his hand at immersion journalism] proved our model to a certain extent,” says Elhai. “He spoke no Arabic and ended up getting shipped home rather quickly with a warning that he was lucky to be alive.” 

So for the moment, WNR correspondents content themselves with providing differentiated war coverage from here at home, where listenership is clearly on the rise. Since December traffic to warnewsradio.org has increased to approximately 3,000 unique visitors a week. 

More importantly, WNR was recently picked up by ten community stations scattered around the United States and plans to open a new “bureau” at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. There’s even an FM station in Canberra, Australia, that has requested permission to broadcast the program. Most ambitious of all, WNR’s Swarthmore crew plans to work in conjunction with the new team at Carleton to create a radio network that will broadcast substantive student-produced pieces on campus stations all over the country. 

At the moment, however, WNR correspondents are investing all their free time and energy working on Iraq, even developing emotional attachments to their contacts. Templeton relates a story about one of her regular sources, a medical student who lives in a mixed neighborhood where relations have been a little tense. 

“I have an e-mail address and two phone numbers for him,” she begins. “At one point I called to get his reaction to some recent news and couldn’t get a hold of him for two weeks. I got worried because I didn’t know if there was a problem with his phone or if something had happened to him,” an understandable concern considering that his car had recently been sideswiped by an American tank. 

“I finally tried a new number—a landline for someone else in his family—and got through. He said, ‘Amelia, it’s so good to talk to you. I failed my chemistry exams for a second time and my father has taken away my phone and Internet access.’ So it turned out to be nothing. But now I know how an Iraqi feels when someone doesn't show up and you don't know if something went horribly wrong.”