Anne Garrels reports from the Middle East's hottest spotAnne Garrels is barely two days away from flying back to Baghdad when BookPage reaches her at her home in Connecticut. To compound her last-minute flurry, she's just had to have one of the family dogs put to sleep. This makes her 15 minutes late for our interview and profoundly apologetic. "We had an old boy who just didn't make it," she explains. If all goes as planned, the National Public Radio reporter will be in the Iraqi capital for five weeks, after which she will return for a tour promoting her new book, Naked in Baghdad, a vivid account of her experiences during the war.
Garrels' was one of the sanest, most dispassionate voices to emerge from the media din that attended the recent invasion of Iraq. Working with her endlessly resourceful "handler," Amer (not his real name), she beamed dispatches from her 11th-floor aerie at the seedy Palestine Hotel. Between broadcasts, she roamed the city to the extent that authorities allowed talking to officials and common folk and monitoring the changes as the invading forces came closer. Lots of listeners worried about Garrels' safety and e-mailed their concerns to NPR. Of the audience response, she says, "I was astonished. I was in a cocoon in Baghdad, because I was on a satellite phone. It was both expensive to get onto, and I was loath to be on for any length of time for fear of being seen. So I didn't see the e-mails that were coming in from people until very close to the end." Naked in Baghdad has two storytellers: Garrels, of course, who gives a running account of her daily activities, observations and reflections, and her husband, magazine illustrator Vint Lawrence, who e-mails friends and family periodic summaries of what his wife has told him during their daily satellite phone conversations. He labels these e-mails "Brenda Bulletins," a whimsical allusion to comic-book heroine Brenda Starr. The title of Garrels' book works on two levels as well. She was reporting unprotected in a war zone, but she also had the habit of broadcasting literally naked from her hotel room at night, figuring it would give her an excuse to plead for time to get dressed (and to hide her outlawed satellite phone) if the authorities came knocking. Although Garrels had good relations with her fellow reporters, she criticizes the actions of some of them in her book, notably Geraldo Rivera and Dan Rather. Rivera, she says, endangered all working reporters by swaggering around with his own guards and announcing that he was carrying a gun. "I felt personally threatened by Geraldo['s conduct]," she says. "At the very time that he made those statements [about being armed] and decided to become a war correspondent, Fox [News] was being increasingly shown on satellite channels. So this wasn't just for American domestic consumption it was being seen in real time around the world. This was serious business. We had no protection. So when somebody like Geraldo says, I'm packing heat,' there's an assumption there that, Gee, this is what American journalists do.'" She dismisses Rather's face-to-face interview with Saddam Hussein just before the war started as "obsequious tripe." A former TV reporter herself, Garrels believes that the medium too often distorts the very news it aspires to tell. As an example, she cites the attention-grabbing scenes of newly arrived American soldiers in Baghdad helping the locals topple Saddam's statue. She says the spectacle in no way conveyed the general mood of the people at the time.
In Naked in Baghdad, Garrels depicts such a harmonious relationship with her husband that we ask if he really supports her returning to what is still a dangerous assignment. "Well, I asked him that last night once again," she says. "When people have been married a long time, there are sort of assumed discussions. I finally looked at him and said, OK, honest and true, is it OK if I go back?' And he said, You'd better go back. You need some new stories.'"