The most memorable reporting I’ve encountered on the conflict in Iraq was delivered in the form of confetti exploding out of a cardboard tube. I had just begun working at the MIT Media Lab in March 2006 when Alyssa Wright, a lab student, got me to participate in a project called “Cherry Blossoms.” I strapped on a backpack with a pair of vertical tubes sticking out of the top; they were connected to a detonation device linked to a Global Positioning System receiver. A microprocessor in the backpack contained a program that mapped the coördinates of the city of Baghdad onto those for the city of Cambridge; it also held a database of the locations of all the civilian deaths of 2005. If I went into a part of Cambridge that corresponded to a place in Iraq where civilians had died in a bombing, the detonator was triggered.
When the backpack exploded on a clear, crisp afternoon at the Media Lab, handfuls of confetti shot out of the cardboard tubes into the air, then fell slowly to earth. On each streamer of paper was written the name of an Iraqi civilian casualty. I had reported on the war (although not from Baghdad) since 2003 and was aware of persistent controversy over the numbers of Iraqi civilian dead as reported by the U.S. government and by other sources. But it wasn’t until the moment of this fake explosion that the scale and horrible suddenness of the slaughter in Baghdad became vivid and tangible to me. Alyssa described her project as an upgrade to traditional journalism. “The upgrade is empathy,” she said, with the severe humility that comes when you suspect you are on to something but are still uncertain you aren’t being ridiculous in some way.
The falling confetti transported me back three years to the early days of the war in Iraq, when the bombs intended to evoke “shock and awe” were descending on Baghdad. Most of the Western press had evacuated, but a small contingent remained to report on the crumbling Iraqi regime. In the New York offices of NBC News, one of my video stories was being screened. If it made it through the screening, it would be available for broadcast later that evening. Producer Geoff Stephens and I had done a phone interview with a reporter in Baghdad who was experiencing the bombing firsthand. We also had a series of still photos of life in the city. The only communication with Baghdad in those early days was by satellite phone. Still pictures were sent back over the few operating data links.
Our story arranged pictures of people coping with the bombing into a slide show, accompanied by the voice of Melinda Liu, a Newsweek reporter describing, over the phone, the harrowing experience of remaining in Baghdad. The outcome of the invasion was still in doubt. There was fear in the reporter’s voice and on the faces of the people in the pictures. The four-minute piece was meant to be the kind of package that would run at the end of an hour of war coverage. Such montages were often used as “enders,” to break up the segments of anchors talking live to field reporters at the White House or the Pentagon, or retired generals who were paid to stand on in-studio maps and provide analysis of what was happening. It was also understood that without commercials there would need to be taped pieces on standby in case an anchor needed to use the bathroom. Four minutes was just about right.
At the conclusion of the screening, there were a few suggestions for tightening here and clarification there. Finally, an NBC/GE executive responsible for “standards” shook his head and wondered about the tone in the reporter’s voice. “Doesn’t it seem like she has a point of view here?” he asked.
There was silence in the screening room. It made me want to twitch, until I spoke up. I was on to something but uncertain I wasn’t about to be handed my own head. “Point of view? What exactly do you mean by point of view?” I asked. “That war is bad? Is that the point of view that you are detecting here?”
The story never aired. Maybe it was overtaken by breaking news, or maybe some pundit-general went long, or maybe an anchor was able to control his or her bladder. On the other hand, perhaps it was never aired because it contradicted the story NBC was telling. At NBC that night, war was, in fact, not bad. My remark actually seemed to have made the point for the “standards” person. Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the narrative of shock and awe. The lesson stayed with me, exploding in memory along with the confetti of Alyssa Wright’s “Cherry Blossoms.” Alyssa was right. Empathy was the upgrade. But in the early days of the war, NBC wasn’t looking for any upgrades.