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Tensions rise as American attention shifts away from Iraq.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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August 7, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where — in keeping with media tradition — Max is sweating it out in Brooklyn while I write from Martha’s Vineyard.

I’m out here for the biennial book festival, which has mostly been a nice break from the AI panic ruling news media. Even as the machines replace copy editors, paralegals, and the people who write Law & Order episodes, novelists ought to be pretty much the last to go.

But the Pulitzer-prize winning writer of “March,” Geraldine Brooks, rejected that consensus on a panel Saturday. She’s more worried, and intrigued, by the possibility of a new wave of machine creativity. And more to the point, there’s not a word in her book contracts about AI.

“We’re the ones who should be going on strike,” she said of novelists.

“I bet some monk in a scriptorium took one look at the first blurry, error-ridden broadsheet off the Gutenburg press and said, ‘This is lousy. They’ll always need manuscript illuminators,’” she told me later in an email.

Sounds like a good, timely novel.

Also worthy of a novel: The New York Times is investigating yet another Baghdad bureau chief, and again the trouble in Baghdad has more to do with the direction of the publication than any particular local foibles. Max Tani has the scoop, long after the American public turned their eyes away from Iraq.

And: A heterodox university draws a line, the Atlantic presses its case against Variety, Vice keeps shedding journalists, and a gossip queen moves on.

If you’d been signed up for our newsletter on American politics, Americana, you would have been the first to get Dave and Shelby’s blockbuster story last week on leaked Signal chats from the DeSantis campaign, and their glimpse into a disastrous strategy of laundering meme-filled videos through anonymous Twitter accounts. Sign up here.

Box Score
Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

Los Angeles: Striking writers are digging in: “We have not come all this way, and sacrificed this much, to half-save ourselves.” —The Wrap

New York: A popular Twitch streamer is facing first degree rioting charges after his attempt to give away PS5’s in Union Square went too viral and caused mass chaos and violence on Friday. — The Verge

Shanghai: A new stream of propaganda mixes “progressive advocacy with Chinese government talking points.” — New York Times

Max Tani

New York Times is investigating its Baghdad bureau chief

Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images


The New York Times fired its second Baghdad bureau chief in five years in a bizarre saga that has infuriated some of the paper’s staff in the Middle East.

Three people with knowledge of the situation told Semafor that Jane Arraf was put on leave earlier this year amid an investigation by the paper into whether she misused the bureau’s funds. Two people with knowledge of the situation said that among the issues the Times examined was Arraf’s decision to pay non-US journalists over the paper’s $150 a day limit, a cap that has prompted grumbling in at the Times’ foreign bureaus in recent years, including at its office in Baghdad. Arraf has privately disputed that her spending within the bureau was improper.

Arraf is a veteran of the CNN Iraq bureau, who began work there in 1998 and was for a time the only Western correspondent in the country. She joined the Times in 2020, but clashed with management when the paper ordered her to cut costs by firing some non-US staff working in the bureau.

Arraf pushed back against the moves, and according to two people with knowledge, even suggested to some bureau staff that they look into whether the Times’ decision may have violated local Iraqi laws.

One person familiar told Semafor that the Times and Arraf are continuing to negotiate over the circumstances of her departure. After Arraf was put on leave, several staff who have worked for the Times abroad complained about the decision to the paper’s management.

A spokesperson for the Times declined to comment.


Arraf occupied what was once one of the most coveted foreign postings in journalism. But her unceremonious departure came as Iraq was marking the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of the country, and with it, the continued shift of American media attention and resources away from Iraq for conflict zones like Ukraine and the deep-pocketed Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Over the last several years, almost every major US outlet has scaled back its presence or pulled out of the country: The Times, which once had over a hundred people in its Baghdad office, has not had a bureau chief there for most of the year. The Associated Press’ Iraq correspondent was reassigned to Ukraine last year. While the Washington Post has a Baghdad bureau chief, the paper is in the process of closing down its physical bureau.

The moves are understandable. Major US news organizations have limited resources for on-the-ground foreign coverage, which is costly and often has a limited audience at home. With the US spending billions on the war in Ukraine, and with an increasing diplomatic focus on China, it makes sense that major US organizations have reoriented their international coverage to focus on these areas of national interest.

But the pullback has left Iraqi and other Arab journalists who cover Iraq feeling frustrated, serving as a reminder that American interest in the country extended only to conflict.

“Western newspapers have abandoned Iraq,” one Arab journalist who has written for the Times told Semafor.

Arraf’s departure is also just the latest data point in the tumultuous recent history of the Times Baghdad outpost.

Her predecessor, Margaret Coker, left the Times after the paper concluded that she worked with the Iraqi government to bar fellow Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi from entering the country. Coker believed that Callimachi’s reporting was reckless and didn’t meet the paper’s standards.

And while her conduct may not have been collegial, the substance of her suspicion was borne out several years later when Callimachi’s hit podcast Caliphate was forced to correct major errors that relied on faulty information from one of its key sources.

To read the whole story, click here.

One Good Text

Dave Price was the political director of WHO in Des Moines for 22 years until this Spring. You can currently find him on Substack.


Austin City Limits: The University of Austin, founded by a group including Bari Weiss in reaction to progressive campus culture and promising freer speech, has drawn a line at the right-wing writer Richard Hanania, after HuffPost revealed that he’d written in favor of eugenics and racism under a pseudonym.

“Richard Hanania has no affiliation with UATX. He was invited once as a speaker. Like many other institutions, we were completely unaware of his pseudonymous, racist writings. Had we known, we would not have invited him,” a spokesman, Hillel Ofek, told Semafor in an email.

Vice Squad: Bankrupt Vice continues to bleed top journalists. Semafor has learned that Vice News editor in chief Matthew Champion, Vice News deputy editor Helen Nianias, and Vice News reporters Carter Sherman and Sophia Smith-Galer have all also told the company in recent days that they will be leaving. — Max

Still Going: Last week, we reported that Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg demanded a retraction and a public apology from Variety over the Hollywood trade publication’s lengthy article about CNN, which included items criticizing the Atlantic’s earlier profile of Chris Licht.

Semafor obtained a copy of the “catalogue of the inaccuracies in your story” that Goldberg emailed to Variety. They include the number of meetings Atlantic journalist Tim Alberta had with Licht, Licht’s comments about Zucker during a workout, and a line saying “liberties were taken with the Atlantic piece, including that key off-the-record details and quotes were used on the record.” Two sources with knowledge also said Goldberg delivered his complaints directly to Variety editor-in-chief Ramin Setoodeh in a brief call last week.

“I’ve asked the editor of Variety to retract those parts of the Tatiana Siegel story that mention The Atlantic and our reporter, Tim Alberta,” Goldberg told Semafor in a statement. “The passages that concern The Atlantic are riddled with errors and falsehoods. Variety has smeared Tim Alberta, who reported and wrote an impeccable story about CNN and Chris Licht. I hope that the editors of Variety take seriously our demand for a retraction. I have not yet received a response. I look forward to receiving one soon.”

The New York Post longtime gossip queen Emily Smith quietly left the paper last week, as Semafor first reported. It was the “ride of a lifetime” that included dancing with Beyonce and accidentally stepping on Jennifer Anniston’s dress and “nearly causing an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction.”

Forbidden fruit: Apple has removed the daily news show of a key independent Russian outlet (and Semafor partner) Meduza from its app store after complaints from the Russian state censorship body. An Apple spokesman didn’t respond to an inquiry Sunday.

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