When a Journalist Goes to War

By George Esper
Special to Poynter.org




Former AP special correspondent George Esper interviews Loi, right, a 70-year-old veteran Viet Cong colonel during a celebration marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in April 2000. Tran Van Minh (center) translates for Esper as Jerry Harmer of Associated Press Television News gets everything on tape.


Photo by Tran Ha.

The Vietnam War propelled me far beyond where I believe I was intended to go. People can’t believe that this small town reporter stayed in Vietnam for 10 years. Why, they ask. I never quite knew the answer myself. Excitement, adventure, being on Page 1 every day, autonomy, no routine, camaraderie, and being a member of an exclusive club, that of combat correspondent. All these things. But what really drove me I discovered in the words of a young Army combat nurse who came right out of school into harm’s way, into the jungles and monsoons of Vietnam, to comfort the badly wounded as they died in her arms. “I never felt more worthwhile in my life,” she told me.


The photos and plaques on the walls of news bureaus across the country tell of honors won and sacrifices made, and of the toll our profession paid in talent and friends to cover Vietnam and other wars. Sixty-three men and women journalists were killed in Vietnam during 14 years of war. Scores more were wounded. Reporters and photographers won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards in Vietnam. The Persian Gulf War was a high-tech war of short duration. Because the ground war lasted only 100 hours, fortunately there were no journalists killed. But in the new war against terrorism, eight journalists have already died, compared to one American military man killed by hostile fire. The new war in Afghanistan is more dangerous to cover than any other war.



Vietnam was an open war — no restrictions on the media. It was the most accessible war in our history. If you had the stamina and courage, you could go anywhere you wanted, and a few places more. And we did — by sampan, by foot, by car, by helicopter, by plane. I remember hitchhiking my way from the northern battle zones southward to Saigon to send my stories and photos to the world. There was, of course, no regular transportation, no phones. I’d run up and down the runways waving at pilots, yelling: “Can you give me a lift to Saigon?” On the first of several such rides I found myself crouched in a bucket seat, drained and exhausted as the big cargo ship took off in the middle of the night. In the freight compartment of the C-130 with me, separated from the cockpit, were scores of other Americans. But I was the only one alive. All the others were wrapped in green plastic body bags, slain in jungles half a world from home. As the plane lumbered through the night, I tried to keep my sanity by working on my notes. But I somehow became a one-man wake as I found myself thinking of the lifelong hurt that would strike when the families of these casualties answered the dreaded knock on the door. The toughest interview I ever got into in 50 years of reporting was during the fall of Saigon in 1975, which I was an eyewitness to. As I was interviewing a South Vietnamese police officer during the country’s surrender, he whipped out his holstered pistol. I froze as I thought he was going to shoot me because of the South Vietnamese resentment toward Americans for abandoing them. Instead he put the weapon to his own head, pulled the trigger and fell dead at my feet.


The military blamed the media for losing the Vietnam War, so they were bent on shutting us out in future wars, as evidenced by the Gulf War and in Afghanistan. While U.S. forces scored a thundering victory in the Gulf War, the reporting of many of their heroic exploits was swept away in the sandstorms of the military pool system. Two days before the war with Iraq ended, on Monday night, Feb. 25, 1991, a scud missile tore through a metal warehouse converted into an American barracks. Buried under the debris were the bodies of 28 American men and women, the war’s worst single attack on the Americans. But no one saw in pictures the horrors of war deaths or read in words the fear and anguish of those who survived, those who gathered the belongings of their fallen friends from the debris of death and packed them into their duffle bags. The small American flags they waved when they arrived in Saudi Arabia were tucked into the tops of some of the bags that would accompany them on their final journey home.


Now, more than 10 years later, we see the same thing in the war in Afghanistan. Reporters and photographers were denied access recently on a Marine base in southern Afghanistan after American soldiers were killed and wounded Dec. 5 in a mistaken U.S. bombing attack. In another incident, three photojournalists were detained at gunpoint by Afghan tribal fighters while American special operation forces looked on. They were roughed up and had disks containing digital photographs taken away by the tribesmen. In the Gulf War, those enterprising journalists who dared go out on their own outside the official pool system were sometimes detained and put on a “hit list” of those whosew visas should not be renewed by the Saudi government.


Because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed thousands of civilians, Americans responded with a wave of patriotism not seen since World War II. There has been debate on the role of journalists in the war: Are you an American first or a journalist first? There is concern on the impact of the war on freedom of speech and civil liberties.


Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism, says that ever since Sept. 11, “national security” has been the catchphrase to justify unprecedented secrecy in the federal executive branch whether or not it has anything to do with conducting successful military operations or thwarting terrorist attacks. She writes in The American Journalism Review that despite paying lip service to the ideals of an informed citizenry and government accountability, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s approach to the Freedom of Information Act ensures that both will be greatly reduced in the name of “safeguarding our national security.”


The Society of Professional Journalists among others has taken a leading role in fighting restrictions on journalists. Al Cross, president of SPJ and a political columnist at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, says there is no general agreement among journalists about how we should do our jobs in a war that no one has seen before in which information can be conveyed instantaneously around the globe, the American homeland is under threat and many of the rules, journalistic and governmental, are being made up as we go along. Cross writes: “Individual journalists and news outlets decide for themselves how hard to push for information and how far to go in publishing that information. The leaders of SPJ believe it is our job to defend the individual and collective rights of all journalists, timid or bold, to exercise their First Amendment freedoms.”


Syndicated media columnist Norman Solomon said recently on C-Span’s Washington Review that the press has been acting more like a fourth branch of government than a Fourth Estate and has lost sight of its duty to tell people what they may not want to hear. Solomon called the flags that some newscasters have been wearing in their lapels “totally inappropriate.” He said: “This is not a country we can look at through glasses that are tinted red, white and blue. We don’t need our journalists to be waving flags. We need our journalists not to speak for the U.S. government, but to speak to the crucial mission of journalists to . . . give us facts, give us information.”


Columnist Michelle Malkin took a different view. She recently wrote: “The media backlash against public displays of patriotism reveals a lot about modern American journalism’s true colors . . . It’s those brave men and women in uniform who will leave their families, their security and their way of life behind to defend all of ours. What’s wrong with showing a small token of solidarity and appreciation.”


Ted Koppel, managing editor and host of ABC’s Nightline, says our job, our function as Americans is to create a sense of context in our reporting, to give people as much of a sense of how it is that something is happening, why it is that something is happening; of painting it into as much of a frame as we possibly can. Speaking at a Brookings Institution/Harvard Forum on “The Role of the Press,” in Washington in October, Koppel went on to say: “I don’t believe that I am being a particularly patriotic American by slapping a little flag in my lapel and then saying anything that is said by any member of the U.S. government is going to get on without comment; and anything that is said by someone from the enemy is immediately going to be put through a meat grinder of analysis.”


Peter Arnett, a longtime friend and colleague who covered Vietnam and the Gulf War, and is the best war correspondent in journalism, was in New York City on the morning of Sept. 11. He says that personally he’s angry at what was happening. Arnett told the audience: “I’m a supporter of what the U.S. government is doing. On the other hand, I would reserve the right to ask why wasn’t the attack on Kabul maybe launched two weeks ago. I would feel the right to question tactics. I don’t think that’s unpatriotic, and I don’t think my deep feelings about what went on would affect my assessment as a journalist. That’s maybe coming from 40 years of having been a journalist in many controversial places.”


Richard Harwood, writing in the Washington Post years ago, says that even in a war, the reporter has an absolute duty to their craft to seek the discipline of detachment and neutrality. He says that if they see themselves as an agent of the American government, as a promoter of American policies, they cease to be a journalist and become instead a propagandist.So many times in Vietnam we heard generals and admirals admonish us: “Why don’t you get on the team,” or “Whose side are you on, anyway.”


So, cherished friends and colleagues, what is the role of journalists in war? That thought stirs a few memories in AP legend. After a world heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in another time, the Associated Press sportswriter covering the bout didn’t know where to begin or what to say. Sensing the problem, a more seasoned writer, the legendary Damon Runyon, turned to him and offered these words of encouragement: “Just tell `em what happened, kid.” The panic vanished and the words began to roll. As a rookie AP staffer more than 40 years ago, I was often reminded of the three AP rules: Accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.


As an old editor friend of mine, Bill Ketter, observed, journalism is the most human of the professions because it is inexact. Unlike engineers, we cannot turn to mathematical equations for right or wrong answers. Unlike lawyers, we cannot refer to dusty tomes that dictate precedents. The success of journalism under our system depends on the character and the judgment of the individual reporter and editor on their commitment to a newspaper’s conscience.


The world too often hears and sees only glib programmed hot-shot briefers’ versions of military operations, lacking the personal tragedy of war and compassion for the military, civilians and other victims from both sides. News conferences feature generals and admirals presiding over usually newsless briefings, showing gun-barrel videos of cross-hair bombing, or giving power-point presentations in fancy graphics. Remember this: Nothing can match being there yourself. When Saigon fell, I was an eyewitness to history. My eyes and ears served me better than any military briefer as I witnessed a panorama of human emotions unfold fear, humiliation, anger, panic during the final chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.


No high-tech can ever match the fully dimensional viewpoint of a reporter or photographer because their eyes and ears are linked to a brain and a heart.





George Esper was a combat correspondent for The Associated Press, and covered both the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Now, the Ogden Newspaper Visiting Professor in Journalism in the PI Reed School of Journalism, he teaches a course at West Virginia University on the role of the journalist in war. The above op-ed piece is based on an address he gave in Salem, Oregon, Jan. 17 to the inaugural meeting of the Oregon Associated Press Newspaper Executives Association. He can be reached at: George.Esper@Mail.WVU.Edu

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