LA Times 2006-02-20

Student Journalists Seek Out the Voices of Ordinary Iraqis

February 20, 2006

Embedded with troops? Nope. War News Radio prefers its innovative use of the Internet.

David Zucchino, Times Staff Writer

SWARTHMORE, Pa. – A U.S. soldier returns home from Iraq, pregnant. Her husband is outraged.

“But you should be happy,” she tells him. “I came back with an Iraqi prisoner.”

This nugget of humor is brought to you by War News Radio, an innovative and sometimes irreverent form of journalism practiced by students at Swarthmore College. The joke, related in English by an Iraqi businessman, aired in a segment titled “Comedy at War” on a half-hour weekly radio program run by students and devoted exclusively to Iraq.

War News Radio was created a year ago as an antidote and supplement to mainstream media coverage of Iraq. Convinced that commercial news outlets focused too heavily on violence and incremental developments, the students tried to home in on more personal topics, all from 6,000 miles away.

The program’s reporters have never been to Iraq. Instead, they troll the Internet for e-mail addresses of ordinary Iraqis, then use a free Web-based phone system to interview them on matters great and small. They also track down U.S. soldiers, Iraqi movers and shakers, and experts on everything from Iraqi poetry to the Baath Party.

Though confined to their campus studio, the reporters have produced incisive and startling reports on daily life in Iraq. They have interviewed an Iraqi doctor whose daughter was killed at a U.S. checkpoint, a U.S. soldier whose convoy was hit by a roadside bomb while delivering school supplies, and the top executives of the Iraqi airline and stock exchange.

The stories tend to be intimate and intensely personal. And unlike most radio or TV stories from Iraq, they run from four to seven minutes and sometimes longer — a lifetime in commercial broadcasting.

Last month, the program featured stories on a Muslim Marine in Iraq, U.S. military attempts to improve communications with Iraqis, tensions between Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters, and the Muslim holiday Eid ul-Adha. A regular feature called Iraq 101 has probed the history of the Baath Party, the Sunni-Shiite schism, the 1958 coup that toppled Iraq’s monarchy and Britain’s colonial influence.

“We’ve tried to go way beyond the stereotype we’ve all had at one time of Iraq as a Godforsaken wasteland plagued by car bombs and violence,” said War News Radio co-host Wren Elhai, 19, a political science major.

The college pays the program’s $125,000 annual budget, but students say it does not interfere with substance or tone. The only “grown-up” in the cramped ground-floor office known as “the war room” is Marty Goldensohn, 59, who serves as paid advisor, professor, mentor and all-around news junkie.

Goldensohn, a 30-year veteran of public radio whose rich baritone is heard on some segments, calls each of his young reporters a “smart, rigorous thinker with a heart.”

“This is a brilliant kind of ivory tower where the kids learn to think objectively,” he said. “The concept was: ‘Let’s harness all this intelligence and passion about Iraq and the war … and do something that really matters.’ “

In the war room this month, a storyboard tracked pieces in progress — among them stories on Iraq’s black market and an Iraqi Olympic hopeful. The editing stages included “unconsummated (stalled),” “zygote (it’s happening)” and “bassinet (finished!).”

War News reporters culled through blogs, websites, chat rooms and Internet phone directories to connect with Iraqis. They call for free on a Web-based phone service called Skype.

Three of the program’s two dozen staffers speak Arabic. Others, such as Elhai, use a “cheat sheet” of Arabic phrases similar to the phrase cards carried by U.S. troops in Iraq.

Many of the reporters, like their cohorts in the mainstream media, are skeptical of authority. After hearing President Bush describe Iraqi attitudes toward the U.S. occupation in his State of the Union speech last month, program co-host Amelia Templeton decided to seek out experts: everyday Iraqis.

“With all due respect, the president isn’t the expert on that,” she said. “I wanted to give ordinary Iraqis the chance to speak for themselves.”

Her interviewees expressed a wide range of opinions on the occupation, Templeton said — much like Americans. Her reporting over the last year has not crystallized her views on the war, she said. On the contrary, her thinking is more complex and nuanced.

“My views have become far muddier now,” she said. “I’ve gone to a place of less certainty, and that’s intellectually challenging.”

Is it presumptuous for students at a $40,000-a-year private college to define the essence of Iraq without going there? War News Radio reporters say they are just one voice on the subject — not the definitive voice.

“We acknowledge that we’re not getting the full picture, but at least we get close,” Elhai said. “We acknowledge our biases and try to work past them.”

The students also concede that Internet-based sourcing restricts them to a narrow slice of the Iraqi population: English-speaking, largely secular Iraqis with access to the Internet. And sometimes the students struggle to verify whether their Iraqi interview subjects are who they say they are.

Not everyone is a willing subject. Hansi Wang, 18, a freshman who reported the Iraqi humor piece, said about a third of the Iraqis he reached by instant messaging or e-mail agreed to be interviewed. Some said they were too busy or didn’t speak passable English.

“And a lot of them won’t come straight out and admit it, but they’re afraid to talk to a reporter — especially an American reporter,” Wang said.

The students are not journalism majors; Swarthmore has no journalism program. But they are fast learners who have expanded the boundaries of conventional news-gathering, often with surprising results.

For a story on the “brain drain” from Iraq, a War News Radio reporter tracked down a biochemistry graduate from Baghdad University who was trying to start an Iraqi restaurant — in Poland. For a report on the violent reaction to the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, Danish-speaking reporter Anne Kolker interviewed the commander of the Danish military contingent in Iraq.

It took months to persuade the Swarthmore College radio station, WSRN-FM, to air War News Radio. It has since been picked up by stations in Minnesota, Mississippi and Australia. A dozen more plan to air the program, Goldensohn said.

War News Radio remains primarily an Internet-based program, available at www.warnewsradio.org.For all its independence, the program relies on the much-reviled mainstream media for something fundamental — listeners’ basic understanding of, and familiarity with, the outlines of the Iraq story. Without the mainstream media, War News Radio would have no informed audience for its take on Iraq.

When fishing for unique or under-reported stories, the students sometimes ring up some of their best Baghdad sources — the mainstream news reporters based full time in Iraq.

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