Question: What activity burns through money “like jet fuel,” involvesthree armored cars, forty-five full-time, Kalashnikov-toting securityguards, and two blast-wall-enclosed houses with belt-fed machine-gunsmounted on their roofs?

Answer: Reporting from Iraq. This comes from New York Timesjournalist Dexter Filkins, now home from Baghdad on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

According to an article by David S. Hirschman ofEditor & Publisher Online, he added as well that, essentially, if you’re a Western reporter in Iraq, you can never go out. Filkinsclaimed that “98 percent of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has nowbecome ‘off-limits’ for Western journalists.”

Here’s the problem. I’ve been reading New York Times reportagesince the invasion of Iraq began and I don’t remember running across afigure like that — and neither has just about anyone else who happens to have been reading a major paper in the US for the last year. When, way back in September 2004, an e-mail fromthe Wall Street Journal’s fine reporter Farnaz Fassihi slippedinto public view, suggesting that “[b]eing a foreign correspondent inBaghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” it wastreated as a scandal in the media; her “objectivity” was called intoquestion; and (if memory serves) she was sent on vacation until afterthe presidential election. While there was a vigorous discussion in the British press of what came to be called “hoteljournalism,” it was hardly a subject here, once you got pastThe New York Review ofBooks.

It seems to me that it should be news when Filkins reports that Western journalists can no longer even go to the scene of a car bombing and that there are many situations in Iraq “even too dangerous for Iraqi reporters to report on.”

Cigarette packs have their warning labels, as do vitamin supplements.Shouldn’t our news have the equivalent? How about little pie-charticons before each Iraqi story suggesting what percentage of the news pie had been available that day. Or a warning label that might say: “This ordinary piece was put together by American reporters locked in their well-guarded and barricaded buildings from scraps of information delivered by Iraqi reporters who can’t even tell their families where they work for fear of assassination.”

My own theory, based on a 1 percent pie slice of knowledge about that missing98 percent of Iraq, is that that must be where the “good news” is — you know, the stuff that the Bush administration has so long insisted the media doesn’t cover. And it’s undoubtedly zealously guarded by Shiite and Sunni militants, who aren’t about to share all the wonderful things Bush/Cheney reconstruction has done for Iraq with the rest of us.