- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

Death of Zarqawi

My clock radio wakened me Thursday with a report that Abu Musab Zarqawi was dead. Every day is different in the news business, but I already knew what I would be doing that day.

Big stories can break at any time. When they come in the late afternoon or evening, we scramble like crazy, snatching up whatever details we can and rushing them into the newspaper. A good job is one in which we get most of the salient facts and avoid any obvious errors.

But when a story breaks very early in the morning, we have all day to plan, think and organize. Reporters have time to put out phone calls and wait for callbacks. Editors have time to fiddle, adjust and second-guess.

I was already deep in thought about the Zarqawi story as I showered and ate my breakfast. My first concern was how to reach Sharon Behn, our lead reporter on Iraq, who had just completed a monthlong assignment in Baghdad.

She was already out of the country — meaning we could not have a staff byline and Baghdad dateline on the story — but she would have phone numbers for people who could tell our readers things they would not hear anywhere else.

Mrs. Behn was working her way home through reporting stops in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Amman, Jordan, but I had not spoken to her for two days and was not sure exactly where she was. In Amman? On a flight over the Atlantic?

With no reporter in Baghdad, I was thinking, we would want to use a wire agency for the main story and have Mrs. Behn write an analytical article — if I could find her. But President Bush was planning to speak on the subject; would the White House reporters want to write the main story?

And there was another big story out of Baghdad: parliament had finally approved the appointments of defense and interior ministers. Who were they? Would they make a difference? Who would write the story? Should Mrs. Behn do this one instead?

Juggling assignments

I arrived at the office to find Managing Editor Fran Coombs was far ahead of me: In my e-mail were two memos laying out a package of about five stories and three graphics he wanted, including a list of Zarqawi’s worst atrocities and a rogues’ gallery of who might replace him as head of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Besides the two stories I was already planning, Mr. Coombs wanted a detailed profile of Zarqawi and his importance to the Iraqi insurgency; a story explaining how the Bush administration would prove to the world that the man it had killed really was Zarqawi; a roundup of reaction from the Arab world; and a story on the political implications in the United States.

Along with the memo in my e-mail was the item I had been hoping for — a message from Mrs. Behn saying she had arrived back in Washington the night before. She and I were still on the phone sorting out our ideas when reporter David R. Sands called to say he wanted to write an analysis, and National Editor Ken Hanner sent an instant message: His staff wanted to write the analysis as well.

Mr. Hanner and I went to huddle with Mr. Coombs in his office. With a minimum of fuss, we agreed that the main story would come from wire agencies in Baghdad and that we would split up the analysis: Pentagon reporters Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough would explain who Zarqawi was and how he had been captured, while Mrs. Behn would write about what the day’s developments meant for the future of Iraq. Mr. Sands would explain how we would convince the world that Zarqawi was really dead. Arab reaction would come from our overseas stringers or wires. National reporters would cover the political implications.

A short time later, Mr. Coombs decided the regular Special Report in today’s paper should be on the death of Zarqawi, so Mr. Sands was diverted to work on that. And we were just getting started, with a whole day ahead to make changes and additions.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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