A good reporter covers Iraq under the gun

She is a young reporter and every morning she awakens with the resolve to provide necessary information about and to her fellow countrymen in an increasingly troubled land. But to accomplish this she must first go through a ritual few of us could sustain for long.

She never leaves her home at the same time and she never takes the same route to work. She keeps watch on the street each day for several minutes before being picked up by her driver to make certain she is not under surveillance. She follows the same routine when her workday is done. She is widely known, yet those who listen to her broadcasts daily, including her neighbors, would not recognize her on the street — at least not as the famed correspondent she has become.

She has no social life and the strain of having no relief from the tensions of her chosen profession has begun to show in her eyes, which, by the way, are deep set in a face that could only be described as extremely attractive. She should be enjoying her fame and the young men her prettiness would draw like flies in any other society.

That is the life of Shadha al-Jubori, a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company’s Arabic news service in Baghdad, whose perseverance and excellence under extreme difficulties recently brought her to America as one of two foreign journalists to receive a Knight International Journalism Award at the annual banquet of the International Center for Journalists. Her fellow recipient was Drago Hedl, a crusading editor from Croatia with a distinguished history of battling for peace and justice in his homeland.

Other honorees included Associated Press correspondent Bagila Bukharbayeva of Kazakhstan, who won the Paul Klebnikov Prize for Courage in Journalism, and CBS news anchor and correspondent Bob Schieffer, who was the first recipient of the ICFJ’s Founders’ Award.

But it was Ms. al-Jubori, whose daily struggle to make some sense out of the utter chaos around her in her hometown, who clearly provided the most poignant moments of the evening, a perfect model of what journalism at its best is all about — the struggle to keep one’s community, region and world supplied with information that can help them survive. Every day she must lie about who she really is (she uses the last name Muhammed in her neighborhood and only her sister knows she is the famous voice on radio) just to stay alive. She is a modern woman who at times must pretend she conforms in a culture that is often repressive to females.

“I must protect my life,” she says in heavily accented English. And then with perfect, precious understatement, adds, “This job is not easy.”

This is a profession or craft or whatever that spends countless hours and millions of dollars annually on awards for those who practice it. “Award-winning” as prefix to the word “reporter” has become just as common as a byline and often cheapens what we do. In the satirical TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” the newscaster, Les Nesmond, was always introduced as winner of the Buckeye News Award. It was a lovely piece of writing that hit the mark in poking fun. Perhaps part of the problem the newspaper industry is experiencing today stems from it’s inclination to print not what its patrons need in a fashion they have time to read and digest, but to publish for prize judges.

One major East Coast newspaper spent so much energy winning Pulitzer Prizes with longwinded exposes at the expense of the kind of news its community needed that it lost much of its audience and its circulation has dropped by half.

But extreme self-indulgence isn’t the case with the award given Ms. al-Jubori and the honorees. Here are men and women struggling under the most difficult conditions to shine the brightest light possible on ignorance and intolerance and injustice for the benefit of their countrymen. Ms. al-Jubori is a highly intelligent, young Iraqi woman who is willing to sacrifice much of her youth to perform a public service. It is exactly what we should be recognizing as achievement of the highest merit.

She is an extension of all those countless correspondents throughout history who have been willing to bring the message to the masses under difficult, often life threatening circumstances. A considerable number of them have been killed in Iraq, where this award-winning reporter carries on every day in behalf of those living in a blighted land. She makes us all proud, and in this week of Thanksgiving we should all give thanks for her.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)