Interview With Jane Arraf, Senior Baghdad Correspondent, CNN

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This interview was conducted as part of "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio.

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Jane Arraf is senior Baghdad correspondent for CNN. She has spent much of the last two decades covering war and conflict, particularly in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Arraf is currently on sabbatical serving as the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She spoke with Kristin McHugh and Keith Porter at a Stanley Foundation conference in Washington, DC, in February 2006 for the public radio documentary "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media."

Q: You've covered the Middle East and Iraq primarily for the last decade or so. Have you seen changes in the Arab media in that decade?

Jane Arraf: Enormous changes, particularly in Iraq, where I've spent most of my time. It started off know, under Saddam you really were only allowed to operate as an Iraqi journalist if you worked for the government media or if you worked under enormous constraints for some of the Western media, as we had Iraqis working with us. People didn't have satellite dishes. Some of the officials had them. But if you were an ordinary Iraqi, you really ran the risk of quite severe punishment—depending on the period in time—if you had a satellite dish and were caught with it.

So you go from that to the end of major combat when, all of a sudden, I was going to press conferences by American authorities, and there would be Iraqi journalists I used to see working for Iraqi government media who were attending. And for the longest time, they didn't really ask questions. But then a remarkable thing happened. They got the confidence to actually stand up and not only comment and rant and rave, as one would expect, but actually ask journalistic questions to which they expected an answer. And it was really a phenomenal thing.

Now, of course, you go out in the streets of Baghdad and you walk to the corner newsstand and you will have more than 100 newspapers to choose from, all sorts of satellite TV stations, access to radio. That doesn't mean that they're much better served, but it just really means that there's more access to information there.

Q: Have you seen any changes in the Arab perception of the United States, as well, in this past decade?

Arraf: I think we have to separate it—as I would hope most of us do—to the Arab perception of the American government and the Arab perception of Americans [by] Iraqis. And again, Iraq is a place that I know best, although I've traveled extensively in the rest of the Middle East. People generally have not had a problem with Americans. That, perhaps, may be changing a bit. The more enraged that people get in that region, the less difference they are beginning to see, I think. I see burning signs of this between Americans and the American government.

In Iraq, Iraqis knew that for the most part, they themselves had no connection with their government, so they didn't hold individual Americans responsible for American policies. But again, there are so many things now that enrage Arabs and Muslims. And particularly, in Iraq, the situation is so volatile that that anger has to spill out somewhere. And perhaps a little bit more what I'm seeing is that anger expressed at the first available target. And for the most part, I mean we're not talking about the kidnappings or killings or assassinations, we're talking about people just shouting at you. That is more, I think, more and more I'm seeing people willing to express that, take out that anger on individual Americans, as opposed to separating it in their minds.

Q: CNN's coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 is really, by many people's accounts, the starting point of this current revolution or evolution, as some would argue, of the Arab media. But it seems to me that it has come a bit full circle, because now I see CNN airing the same video that Al Jazeera aired maybe an hour previously. What are your thoughts on that?

Arraf: That's a really interesting point. I think what we are seeing is...and again, going back to Iraq, it's become such a dangerous place that we're seeing there what we will see in other places like that, which is fewer sources of information. I mean it's a bit paradoxical, in a sense, because you have a wealth of information, too much information now in Iraq. But if you filter through it, there's not a lot of solid information from sources that you know you can trust. And it's particularly bad for television, because to actually go out and get those pictures, you run enormous risk.

So in the case of Fallujah, for instance, that was really the biggest development in Iraq, the biggest story since the fall of Baghdad, I would say. At the same time, it was such a potentially dangerous thing that all of the video was determined by broadcasters to be pool coverage. We were doing pool, and we went in with the Army and then with the Marines. But while we were going in with the Army in that first assault on Fallujah, one of the most dangerous parts, our footage, the footage that we shot was shared by everybody.

So you're absolutely right. We are seeing more of that because of the constraints, I think, of operating in places like Iraq and other places because of market constraints, because it makes economic sense. It's a lot cheaper to have an agreement with another network and get them to do the work and vice versa, rather than send your own people out.

Q: Has CNN changed its journalistic practices in gathering information based off of the competition that may or may not be there in the Arab region?

Arraf: That's a great question. I'm not sure that I have a sense of that. From the...I've been a Bureau Chief. We've changed our practices in the sense that the more that that footage—and again, we're concentrating on footage—is available, the more resources we can devote to something else. But if I get, from the agencies, for instance...and I think the role of the television agencies is really misunderstood and really underestimated and underappreciated, because most of those pictures that viewers see on their TV screens actually come from the television news agencies, and they're sort of the unsung heroes of journalism, I think.

We have extraordinary camera people who do extraordinary things, but we have used them less and less as that situation becomes more dangerous. And in other places, where it's phenomenally expensive to send in a crew, in places that are hard to get to, you will rely more on that sort of thing.

Q: Because you've been in Iraq for quite a while, I'm curious as to whether or not the US government funded stations—Al Hurra, Radio Sawa, Al Hurra Iraq—have any sort of impact or affect on the local population.

Arraf: I don't think they have a lot of effect. I remember when Sawa first became available. People listened to it for the music, and never quite could figure out whether that meant that they were getting the value of the news that they were intended to get. But they did listen to it. But let's be really clear about this. They listened to it because it was a really clever mix of Arabic and English pop music. Hurra has been unavoidably, I think, tainted by its association with the American government. I just don't know that you can overcome that. It's not one of the most widely watched networks there, and I'm not sure it ever could be, given that it's connected with the US government.

Q: And you have said in the past that you think the US may be losing the information war. Can you expand on that?

Arraf: In a very practical sense, with the profusion of the proliferation, if you will, of sources of information in a story, in a battle like the one that's going on in Iraq, when you have a huge lag in time between the time that an event happens and the time you can get information, there are going to be other sources that jump in to fill that. So while at the very beginning, there were no Iraqi police officials, there were no Iraqi army officials, there were no real hospital officials, we could call up on the phone and say, "What's going on? What just happened?" The US military, for instance, and the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] were the only sources of information, but now they're not and there are other sources of information.

I mean we will make every effort to filter this and make sure they're credible and make sure we're talking to sources we know, but still, there's so much competition out there. And we have a responsibility to report the stories in as timely a manner as possible, that we can't wait for the military to call us back two days later. We cannot wait for an appointment with a State Department official that might come next week or might never come. And in that sense, I think that's why they are at risk of losing this.

Q: I think that is a misperception that happens with Americans when they talk to me about working overseas and, "Oh, you must have access to the embassies right away. And obviously, you get all of your information because you're an American from the American sources as soon as you ask for it," and that just doesn't happen. It's very, very difficult to actually operate as an American trying to talk to American officials, whether it's in Iraq or in Africa or anywhere else.

Arraf: It's funny. I keep having to dispel the misconception that journalists operate out of the Green Zone, that they routinely are there. And they don't, mostly because you really don't want to be associated with what is in many senses still an occupation. But the practical element is as a group, the press in Iraq are still treated by US officials as the enemy. They cannot tell the difference between individual journalists who are friendly and journalists who may actually be potential insurgents. On a very practical level, what that means is it's as hard for us to get into the Green Zone as it is for most Iraqis. And when we do get into the Green Zone, we line up with Iraqis at the risk of being blown up. And that happens every day.

We can't take helicopters from the Green Zone to the Baghdad International Airport. During the worst of the times when there were roadside bombs on that road every day, journalists are left driving that road, because we can't get on military helicopters or official helicopters. You're absolutely right. It is a misconception that because you're American or work for an American news organization, you can instantly get access to information.

Q: What advice would you have for American leaders then, in terms of interacting better with the Arab media, and even the US media?

Arraf: First they have to realize or decide that that's something that they want to do. A lot of officials, military and civilian officials, are afraid of the Arab media. They think they'll be misquoted. They think they'll be misunderstood. They think that their message will not get across. That's a risk you have to take. That risk happens with the American media, as well. So first, if they make that decision and they decide that they do want to engage, which I think they have to with the Arab media, then there has to be a structure set up.

And in terms of the military, it takes a lot of work. Its very labor intensive, but it really has to be done. And what that means, again, on very practical terms is you have to find and identify journalists with companies who, first of all, are willing to come in and give you a shot at hearing your story and seeing what you want to show them, and then you have to treat them like you would any reputable journalist. You can't keep them locked away. You cannot deprive them of basic things, like the use of telephones. And sometimes that means that you will have to have a translator that's with them all the time. You can't just say, "Yeah please, come on in, here we are," and expect them to understand. It's going to take some work.

Q: President Bush has embarked on this public diplomacy campaign. Karen Hughes is back and is trying to be the face of the United States in the rest of the world. It doesn't seem to be going all that well in the early stages of this campaign. What can be done to salvage it?

Arraf: I think there are a lot of—that's a multipart question and a multilayered problem. The essential thing, I think, is that we still have the idea that if only we explained ourselves better, then they'd love us, or if they didn't love us, at least they'd understand us. So much of it is not about explaining ourselves better. So much of it is about the policy, itself. And I think that's the message that Washington doesn't want to hear in a lot of ways. I've had a military official tell me recently, "there's only so much lipstick you can put on a pig," and he's talking about the situation in Iraq. It's not so much about the message, I don't think. It is about the policies. And if you do want to focus on the message, you should focus not on the message that you're trying to tell people, and people think rammed down their throats, to be perfectly honest. They should go out there and listen to people.

"24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media" is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. The full program includes segments on Arab broadcast media, the regional perspectives on the rise of Arab media, Washington perspectives on the shifting Arab media landscape, and an essay by David Brancaccio on the influence of satellite television on Arab society. Exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera senior anchor Jamil Azar, US Central Command's Media Engagement Team, senior CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, and Professor Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University are also available.