October 24, 2003

Couple Talks on Iraq Visit

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A husband-and-wife journalistic team gave a presentation last night describing Iraq in the days after the recent conflict there. Writer and editor Maura Stephens and her husband, photographer George Sapio, visited Iraq twice this year, once before the war and once after. They showed photographs that Sapio took in the country and explained what they found while they were there.

The talk, titled “Obscured by Spin: The People of Iraq,” was hosted by Lambda Pi Eta (LPH), the official communication studies honor society of the National Communication Association. Janeen Matacchiera ’04, president of LPH’s Cornell chapter, said that the talk promotes the organization’s goal to provide “an opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas about the field.”

Chris Westgate ’04, vice president of LPH, introduced Stephens and Sapio. He explained that they met at Newsweek, where they started to question the mainstream media’s reliability.

Stephens said that before the war, a friend of hers told her about a mission to Iraq sponsored by the organization Global Exchange, and she and her husband decided to go so that they could see the country first-hand. She said that they were both scared for their lives when they first went, but that they found that their fears were unfounded.

“Everywhere we went, we got peace signs from people,” she said.

Ubiquitous Saddam

The first time they visited the country, Stephens and Sapio found that Saddam Hussein’s images were ubiquitous. Sapio said that the first thing they saw when they entered the country was a statue about two stories tall of a horse reared on its hind legs with Hussein, sword in hand, riding it.

Stephens said that they had to be cautious during this first trip.

“We couldn’t be heard saying ‘Saddam’ all the time, so we just called him Harry,” she said.

She explained that the group they were part of was escorted by government officials.

When they visited the country the second time, however, they were struck by how absent Hussein’s likeness had become. They instead had to worry about U.S. soldiers. Sapio said that one time, two soldiers approached him after he had taken photographs. They asked him who he was and what he was doing and almost took his film.

The couple said that the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq are suffering from low morale. Stephens explained that the soldiers have to endure the extremely hot weather in full military gear and that the language and culture barriers, as well as the attacks against the soldiers, are making them tense and frightened.

The couple showed many photographs they had taken in Iraq. One depicted a young boy crouching over a dirty puddle and scooping up water to drink. Stephens said that many Iraqis drink contaminated water because the sewage system does not work.

Another set of photographs showed the Amariyah bomb shelter, where more than 400 Iraqis were killed in 1991 when the United States bombed the shelter twice.

“I guess they thought Saddam Hussein was there,” Stephens said.

The heat was so intense that it burned images of the people into the walls and ground. Stephens said that there were images of babies curled up asleep. The couple showed one image of a woman breast-feeding her baby.

The couple said that due to Hussein’s regime as well as the sanctions against Iraq that the United Nations had put in place, the country’s economy was in shambles. Sapio said that 250 dinari were worth about $750 in 1989. When they visited Iraq, that same amount was worth about 10 cents.

The couple said almost all of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed when Hussein was ousted. They showed pictures of traffic and explained that since street lights do not work and there are no police to conduct traffic, drivers have to manage by themselves. Another picture showed a city with a smoke-filled sky.

“This is what the air looks like every day,” Sapio said, adding that there are no firefighters to put out the flames.

After their presentation, the couple opened the discussion to general questions and comments. Among the topics discussed were the role of the media in Iraq. Stephens and Sapio expressed extreme disappointment in the coverage of the war in Iraq. They said that embedded journalists, who are told by the government where to go and what they can report, are not upholding their responsibilities.

“This is not journalism,” Stephens said.

The couple said that most of the major news agencies pool their stories from the same sources. They also said that these agencies do not report much of the bad news.

“This is the stuff nobody wants you to see,” Sapio said. “But it’s the stuff that happens.”

Several audience members proposed that censorship could be appropriate at times. Sapio agreed that such instances include matters of security but said that “censorship of the media is the first step toward a dictatorial totalitarianism.”

Danielle Greenman ’07 said that although she disagreed with their stance on the censorship of media, she agreed with much of the rest of the talk.

“It was an eye-opener,” she said. “I enjoyed it a lot.”

“I thought it was interesting to see the war in Iraq from a different perspective, from within the country and not from the mainstream media,” said Danfung Dennis ’05.

Westgate was pleased with the talk.

“I thought it was very representative of humanitarian efforts at Iraq,” he said.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit