Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Sad Story of Michael Ware

The news of the hour (thanks to an e-mail tip from Pat Hynes) is a reporter's heckling of Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain at a live press conference today in Baghdad. The reporter is Michael Ware, who joined CNN as a correspondent one year ago after five years with Time magazine.

By way of background, I interned in Time's New York bureau in the summer of 2004, shortly before Ware was named its Baghdad bureau chief for his steady stream of incredible exclusives—including some where he cozied up to jihadists. Although I never met Ware, such stories bore out his reputation as "crazy"—although, some might argue, "crazy good" might be apter.

Indeed, whatever his bias, Ware deserves respect for his fearlessness. Wikipedia relates one harrowing incident that illustrates why all reporters—and all soldiers—in Iraq today deserve the benefit of the doubt:

In September of 2004, while investigating reports that Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's nascent "al-Qaeda in Iraq" group was openly claiming control of the Haifa Street area of Baghdad, Ware was briefly held at gunpoint by insurgents loyal to Zarqawi who had pulled pins from live grenades and forced his car to stop. The men dragged him from the car and stood him beneath one of the banners, intending to film the execution with his own video camera. By threatening them with immediate and violent retaliation, his local guides, including members of the Ba'athist Party, were able to win his release.

I mention all this to make the point that Ware is an exceptional reporter who sometimes goes too far (which, of course, is part of his success). The problem is that in order to be treated seriously, one needs to act seriously. And that's where Michael Ware falls short.

According to the Drudge Report,

An official at the [aforementioned] press conference called Ware’s conduct “outrageous,” saying, “Here you have two United States Senators in Bag[h]dad giving firsthand reports while Ware is laughing and mocking their comments. I’ve never witnessed such disrespect. This guy is an activist[,] not a reporter.”

Drudge continues by citing an interview Ware gave to Bill Maher last year, in which Ware exclaimed,

I've been given a front-row ticket to watch this slow-motion train wreck . . . I try to stay as drunk for as long as possible while I'm here . . . In fact, I'm drinking now.

This is bizarre and disappointing, and it lends ammunition to those who focus on Ware's idiosyncrasies rather than his raw talent.

Pace the good folks at Power Line, I view Ware more in sorrow than in anger. I do not question his on-the-ground, first-hand assessments. He's spent the past four years of his life reporting the hell out of the hole that is Iraq. When people like John McCain assert that "[t]here are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through . . . today," people like Michael Ware put their lives on the line testing the rhetoric against reality.

However—and this is crucial in journalism—dubious professionalism undermines credibility. And, if Drudge's scoop is accurate, then flagrantly insulting two U.S. senators who have made the trip to see Iraq for themselves was particularly stupid from someone who should know better.

Update (7:15 pm): Brian Bennett, a Time correspondent who is now in Baghdad, says that McCain is right: it's safe for a stroll—if you take two bodyguards and wear your running shoes:

I just spoke with XXXXXX, our Iraqi bureau manager, about where in Baghdad I could go for a walk. He said there was one neighborhood (I'm not telling—why make it a target?). He said I could get out of the car with him and a couple of our Iraqi bodyguards and walk for about three blocks—then we'd have to get back in the car before the cell phone calls to kidnappers caught up with us.

Update (9:50 pm): Frank Rich points out that even as McCain made his neighborly-stroll remark,

daily attacks were increasing in the safest of Baghdad neighborhoods, the fortified Green Zone, one of them killing two Americans. No one can safely “walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi, without heavily armed protection,” according to the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who delivered an Iraq briefing to the White House last week.

Update (4/2): Howard Kurtz, the longtime media reporter for the Washington Post and host of CNN's Reliable Sources, confirms what I indicated but should have emphasized (my hyperlink):

The "purported heckling" is described by one unnamed official quoted by the Drudge Report. That's it. If that person wants to put his name to it, or provide video or other documentation, I'm more than happy to report it. Ware says it's ridiculous and that while he raised his hand he did not get to ask a question at yesterday's news conference.

Last Update (4/3): Let's go the videotape. Thanks to a Michael Ware fan site, we have the actual footage, which, as Reason's David Wiegal points out,

reveals that Ware didn't do anything until the end of the presser, when he raised his hand. . . . It's possible that Ware muttered under his breath and the source took offense, but that ain't "heckling."

Another triumph of Web 2.0. Case closed.