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Our Man in Baghdad

Checking in with Fox News' new Iraq bureau chief before he leaves Vermont


Published September 21, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

Fear will be among the things Gordon Robison carries when he leaves his Shelburne home on Friday to become Baghdad bureau chief for Fox News.

"Everyone working in Iraq has to deal with that and has to find a personal comfort level," says Robison, who gave a talk about the U.S. Middle East policy at the Colchester Town Meeting House Tuesday night. "You make a reasoned decision about when the dangers are acceptable and when they are not." In Baghdad, he adds, risks must be reassessed on an hour-by-hour basis.

What drives a 41-year-old father to leave the comforts of Vermont for the chaos of Iraq?

Career ambitions and a thirst for excitement play some role, of course, but Robison has idealistic motivations as well. "Journalism is to some extent a public trust," he says, "and this is arguably the most important story that my generation of journalists will be entrusted to tell to the public. Also, I have devoted the past three years of my life to this story, and I do want to see it through."

Robison recently re-established a home base in Vermont, where he grew up; his father, Olin Robison, served as president of Middlebury College from 1975 to 1990. Gordon Robison got his first taste of journalism covering local sports for the Addison Independent while attending Middlebury Union High School. At the family dinner table, he developed an appetite for international affairs from his father, who would serve as head of the Salzburg Seminar, a global-learning institute, from 1991 until earlier this year.

Gordon Robison, who spent seven years as a producer for CNN Inter-national in Atlanta, comes to his new job with lots of Middle East experience. He worked as a freelance journalist for several years in the region, mainly operating from a base in Cairo, where he also studied Arabic. Robison has also traveled extensively on the Arabian Peninsula to gather material for books he has written for Lonely Planet, a leading publisher of tour guides.

In addition to reporting or producing in Iraq for both CNN and Fox News, Robison worked for four months as a contractor to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, helping organize an Iraqi television network.

Familiarity with the war does little to diminish the dread or to make the carnage seem less shocking. The course on "Working in a Hostile Environment" that most Iraq-bound journalists are required to take is also not adequate preparation, Robison suggests.

Actually being in the line of fire is an experience unlike any other. Robison notes that on two occasions he was in hotels that were hit by missiles. And during the four months he lived in the U.S. administrative Green Zone headquarters in Baghdad, mortars fired by insurgents would routinely whiz over his home, sometimes landing just a few yards away.

But during four separate sojourns in Iraq, Robison has never been within close range of a car bombing, nor has he witnessed the immediate aftermath of such an attack. "I have seen some pretty horrifying scenes in Iraqi hospitals," Robison says, adding that he has perhaps been most affected by the loss of friends and colleagues in the media.

According to the Reporters Without Borders monitoring group, 68 journalists and their assistants have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war two and a half years ago. That is five more than the number killed in Vietnam in the course of 20 years of combat there.

As bureau chief, Robison may face fewer direct threats to his life than do reporters in the field. He notes that his job is not an on-camera position, and will involve mainly administrative duties to be conducted in Fox News' offices at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi forces maintain several layers of security around the hotel, and Fox also hires its own guards to control access to the bureau, Robison points out.

Still, two journalists staying at the Palestine were killed in April 2003 by U.S. tank fire. They are among 13 reporters killed in Iraq by American forces.

Having a home in the United States doesn't just allow Robison to be near his parents. It also gives him easier access to his two daughters, ages 16 and 7, who live in Atlanta with his former wife. Robison claims that Vermont is actually a more exciting place to live than Amman, Jordan, where he had settled a few years ago because of its strategic location between Iraq and Israel/Palestine.

"Vermont is where I want to be as long as I am able to do what I want from here," Robison says. The Internet and good air connections from Burlington to New York and beyond are making it possible so far. Fox News is striving to accommodate him as well; company managers express no reservations about having to pay a little extra in airfares.

So, what's it like to work for a network widely regarded as a mouthpiece of the Bush administration? "Working for Fox News is very good," Robison replies. The pay is competitive, for one thing. "And I have never been asked to do anything improper, dishonorable or unethical."

Fox's coverage of Iraq is similar to that of CNN and other networks, Robison says. "Whatever one may think of Fox News -- or CNN, for that matter -- if you watch reporters' live shots, you will find the quality and nature of Fox News and CNN to be pretty much the same."

Robison is not forthcoming about his own political views. Asked whether he thinks the war in Iraq makes any sense, he declines to comment, citing a mainstream journalist's obligation to refrain from opining in public. While it is clear from Robison's blog at mideastanaly 9sis.com that he is no right-wing ideologue, the commentaries he posts at this site do not certify him as a liberal, either.

Robison's scholarly inheritance may be apparent in his general reluctance to take sound-bite stances on complicated topics -- an attitude in conflict, he acknowledges, with what's expected of a TV journalist. On the subject of Islamist suicidal violence, for example, he has this to say:

"Jihadism of the sort most closely identified with bin Laden is far outside the mainstream of Muslims around the world. Muslims should be judged in terms of Osama bin Laden no more than Christi- ans should be judged in terms of those who blow up abortion clinics or assassinate federal judges.

"The West is not without blame" for the rise of jihadism among youth in the Middle East, Robison continues. At the same time, he suggests that some Islamist interpretations of Western actions are way off the mark. "The American army in Iraq is not a Crusader army of the 12th century, yet a large number of people in the region do draw that parallel," he says.

"People like there to be one declarative sentence that explains al Qaeda and its hatred of the West and another sentence that explains why the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq. But it is simply not there in either case," Robison says.

The U.S. media have covered the Iraq war in a generally commendable manner, given the circumstances reporters face, Robison says. But he does point to one thematic shortcoming. The press has generally failed, he says, to convey the extent of purely criminal violence -- as opposed to insurgent activity -- in Baghdad and many parts of the country. "Many of my Iraqi friends don't seem nearly as worried about getting killed for political reasons as for criminal reasons," Robison says. He agrees that "murderous anarchy" may be a fair way to describe conditions in much of today's Iraq.

Robison is loath to forecast the outcome of the war, although he predicts that Iraq will "eventually" emerge as a stable democracy. He cautions that he uses the word "eventually" to cover a span that could be as long as 50 years.

In some conflicts, he adds, peace can come surprisingly quickly and prove unexpectedly durable. He cites the case of Lebanon. "In the mid-'80s it was impossible for many of us to conceive of Lebanon as relatively peaceful," Robison says. The country was then being convulsed by a many-sided civil war that bears some resemblance to the Iraq conflict in terms of civilian deaths. And although Lebanon has suffered a limited resurgence of political violence of late, "the situation there is great, compared to 15 years ago," Robison says.

As for his own future, he wants to remain engaged with the Middle East "because I love being in the Arab world." He may not always be a full-time journalist, however. Robison says he hopes to set up a consulting business that would help U.S. businesses and universities seeking to establish a presence in the Middle East.

For now, Robison says he's looking forward to working as a Baghdad bureau chief, but adds, "I would have to think long and hard about any job that kept me in Baghdad even semi-permanently." Six to eight weeks is generally as long as journalists are assigned to Iraq before receiving at least a couple of weeks' respite. "That's about as much as most of us can take," Robison says, "in terms of the day-to-day stress of being in that situation."