Twelve years ago, Michael Kelly was one of hundreds of reporters covering the war in the Persian Gulf, a 30-something stringer for The Boston Globe, GQ and The New Republic who was hardly a household name even in media circles.
Last month, Kelly returned to the Gulf to report on the war with Iraq, and what a difference a decade had made.
His gutsy and powerful dispatches from the first Gulf War had launched an illustrious and sometimes stormy career. Now 46, he was a media heavyweight, editor at large for The Atlantic Monthly, the 145-year-old magazine he’d infused with new life, a successful political writer who’d burnished his fame in the late 1990s as a Clinton-bashing columnist. A supporter of President George W. Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein, he wanted to be there to witness it.
On March 5, Kelly filed his second column from Kuwait City. Under the headline, “Battle Stations for the Press,” Kelly wrote:
In a few days the United States armed forces will attempt to discover if it is possible to successfully place about 500 journalists in military units (down to the company level) going into war. This experiment in what the military calls “embedding” entails grafting what amounts to a presidential-campaign-sized press corps onto an army in combat. The question of whether this is going to work, or implode, is a matter of much conversation among the involved parties here.
By most accounts, the experiment has worked so far, although Michael Kelly did not live to gauge its ultimate success or failure.
On Thursday night, while embedded with the Third Infantry Division, Kelly died in a Humvee accident south of Baghdad, the Washington Post reported and Atlantic Media said Friday. He leaves his wife, Madelyn, a former producer for CNN, and their two sons, Tom, 6 and Jack, 3, in Swampscott, Mass. He is also survived by his father, Thomas Kelly, a former reporter for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, and his mother, Marguerite Kelly, who writes a syndicated column, “Family Almanac,” and three sisters.
Kelly, an influential magazine editor, columnist, and reporter, became the first American journalist killed in the war with Iraq and the first “embedded journalist” to die while traveling with military forces. Three journalists from other countries covering the war have been killed in the two weeks since action started. Two others remain missing.
“Michael Kelly will be remembered as a gifted wordsmith, someone whose creativity and pure skill was obvious in every column,” Alan Shearer, editorial director of the Washington Post Writers Group said in a statement posted Friday on the the syndicate’s website. His war columns had drawn more subscribers, now numbering about 80 newspaspers worldwide. “But to me he was foremost a columnist of ideas.” Shearer said. “He was someone with strong opinions and, agree with him or not, he presented his ideas in new and sometimes entertaining ways. He leaves a body of work that is a testament to his true gifts.”
Kelly was one of approximately 600 journalists traveling with the military.
Four days before his death, he was one of several reporters featured in a New York Times article, “Reporters’ New Battlefield Access Has Its Risks and Rewards,” about the Pentagon’s decision to “embed” reporters with coalition forces:
“There was a real sense after the last gulf war that witness had been lost,” said Michael Kelly of The Atlantic Monthly, who is with the leadership of the Third Infantry Division, 35 miles from Baghdad. “The people in the military care about that history a great deal, because it is their history. I think that it was the primal motivating impulse here, and they decided to take a gamble.”Kelly’s last column for the Washington Post was posted April 3. “Kelly dictated his column via satellite phone minutes after his unit crossed the Euphrates River, a significant military objective,” the syndicate said.
Details about Kelly’s death weren’t immediately available. According to the Associated Press, “Navy Lt. Herlinda Rojas, a spokeswoman at the Coalition Press Information Center in Kuwait City, said a soldier and a reporter were killed near Baghdad when a Humvee went into a canal. Neither were identified by Rojas. Military officials said they believed it was an accident and not the result of combat.”
The New York Times Friday night provided a fuller account, revealing that Kelly died when the Humvee he was riding in rolled over into a canal south of the Baghdad airport after the vehicle came under attack from Iraqi infantry armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The Humvee was submerged for nearly a half-hour before soldiers were able to pull Kelly and the driver from the water, the Times said.
Michael Kelly was born in 1957 and educated in Washington, D.C. He studied journalism at the University of New Hampshire, where friends and former teachers learned of his death Friday morning. After college, he spent four years as a booker and producer for “Good Morning America,” then worked as a reporter for the Cincinnati Post and joined the Baltimore Sun, working his way up to Washington correspondent. In 1986, he moved to Chicago, where he made his living as a magazine freelancer.
But it was his reporting from Kuwait and Iraq during the first Gulf War that vaulted him into prominence. “He became something of a legend in the first Gulf War, when he was a freelancer filing dispatches for the New Republic,” media writer Dan Kennedy wrote Friday in the Boston Phoenix. “At one point, he and another reporter commandeered a jeep and drove out into the desert, where a group of Iraqi soldiers attempted to surrender to them.”
“Michael Kelly’s coverage of the Gulf War for The New Republic and other publications established him as one of the bright lights of American journalism,” Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes said in a review of “Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War.” Based on his wartime dispatches, and full of vivid, first-hand reporting, the 1993 book won a PEN-Martha Albrand award.
After the war, The New York Times hired him as a Washington correspondent and he later worked as a writer and editor for The New Yorker before Martin Peretz, publisher of The New Republic, installed him as editor in 1997. He quickly made a name as a caustic critic of the Clinton administration.
But after just nine months, Peretz, a friend of Vice President Al Gore, fired Kelly who rebounded quickly, joining The National Journal as editor and beginning a new career as a syndicated columnist.
In 2000, Kelly became editor of The Atlantic, where he was credited with breathing new life into the magazine, according to a Boston Globe profile by Don Aucoin that described Kelly as a “somewhat owlish figure in wire-rimmed glasses and rumpled khakis.” During his tenure, The Atlantic won several National Magazine Awards. Last fall, Kelly stepped down as editor to work on a history of the steel industry, his syndicate said. He remained the magazine’s chief editorial adviser.
He returned to Kuwait in late February, concluding his first column with a defense of war with Iraq:
I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?“He was really excited to be covering that big story,” Shearer of the Washington Post Writers Group told Editor & Publisher.
“There is some element of danger,” Kelly said on ABC’s Nightline last month, “but you’re surrounded by an Army, literally, who is going to try very hard to keep you out of danger.”
His widow told the New York Times there was no question that he was going back for the second.
“I was not that worried,” Madelyn Kelly said. ‘`He made it back the last time, and I thought he would have to be very unlucky not to return this time.”
“His readers know that they’ve lost one of the greatest war reporters in the history of American journalism. His colleagues know they’ve lost so much more” -Jonathan Chait, senior editor, The New Republic.
Reactions to Kelly’s death came quickly from his friends, admirers and former colleagues from both sides of the political spectrum. While Kelly’s commentary was pugnacious, they said, his personality was warm and colleagues described an editor who was generous with his time and talent. The New Republic posted an online tribute, as did Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter.
“It’s death’s joke,” observed Jack Shafer, media columnist for Slate.com, “that Kelly meet his end in the “safe” war where armor-clad soldiers shield embedded reporters like Kelly with the ferocity of she-bears.”
On his weblog, Andrew Sulllivan, like Kelly a former editor of The New Republic, offered this eulogy shortly after the Post’s Howard Kurtz confirmed the rumors of Kelly’s death that swirled around the media world Friday morning:
“I’m simply stunned by the news of Mike Kelly’s death. He was a beautiful writer, a brave polemicist, a prickly, funny man, a superb editor, and a friend. He died in action, which is perhaps as he might have wanted it. I can’t think of anything more to say right now in the moments after reading this awful news, except that please pray for his young family, his wonderful wife, and his wider family and friends. He was a great journalist and a good, good man. May he rest in peace.”
• In High Gear: Editor Michael Kelly has put the Atlantic on the fast track (Boston Globe)
• Kiss of Victory, a 1991 The New Republic piece by Michael Kelly
• Kelly’s Death Mourned by His Syndicate (Editor & Publisher)
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