- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

Saddam’s capture

One of the nice things about working for a newspaper, as opposed to a wire service or 24-hour television news network, is that we usually have several hours to sit back on a major story, evaluate the information and plan our coverage.

That’s why, when my wife let out a whoop at about 6:45 a.m. last Sunday and informed me that Saddam Hussein had been captured, I was able to pull a pillow over my head and try to go back to sleep.

It wasn’t to last. The phone soon started ringing with reporters wanting to know how they could contribute to the story, and with our managing editor Fran Coombs providing a rough outline for how he wanted us to cover the story.

At that point we planned four major stories — two from the foreign desk and two from the national desk. Foreign would provide the main lead from Baghdad with details of the capture, and a second item explaining how the arrest was likely to affect the insurgency and Iraq’s political future.

The national desk, meanwhile, would have a White House reporter follow anything President Bush might say about the capture and a Pentagon reporter recount details of the eight-month search for Saddam.

We knew Monday’s paper was going to be a collectors’ item and wanted, as far as possible, to have our own staff bylines on the front-page stories. But Paul Martin, who has been doing most of our Baghdad coverage, had flown to London for a medical procedure just two days earlier.

That meant either trying to write the story from here and forsaking the Baghdad dateline, or using one of the wire agencies. We knew the Associated Press and Reuters would both do a first-rate job, but wanted to try for something that would not be duplicated in other newspapers around the country.

We decided to go with United Press International, whose reporters and editors have worked hard to coordinate with us since coming under the same ownership as The Washington Times, and which we knew had a reporter in Baghdad.

More contributions

U.N. reporter Betsy Pisik, who had been in Iraq for us during the war and much of its aftermath, got the call from among several volunteers to write the story on what Saddam’s capture might mean for the future. State Department reporter David Sands got on the phone from home with his own contacts to contribute to that article.

Sharon Behn, who has for months been developing contacts with the Iraqi exile community in the United States, offered a separate article based on the reaction of an Iraqi-American businessman who ran out of his Washington-area house Sunday morning and wrote “Freedom” in large letters in the snow.

By the time I got to the office, more offers of help were pouring in. Freelance correspondent Philip Smucker called unexpectedly from Baghdad and we agreed that he should file on the reaction in the streets of the Iraqi capital.

Other stringers called from various places in the Arab world offering reaction to the capture, but we decided to rely for that on the wire agencies, which were rounding up the most interesting reaction from all the world’s capitals and packaging it into tightly edited stories.

UPI’s initial offering from Baghdad had plenty of color and reaction from the capital, but was still thin on details of the capture. We phoned their foreign editor and within an hour or two they were able to file a much more comprehensive story.

It was still just early afternoon in Washington, and fresh details continued to emerge. The AP, which files a new, sequentially numbered lead whenever developments warrant, was at that time up to its 22nd or 23rd lead and would get to a 34th lead before knocking off for the night.

As the other stories came in and were edited, we continued to monitor the AP and use that information to update the main news story through the afternoon and evening.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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