January 29, 2006

fter news broke Sunday about the attack that injured ABC’s
Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, I e-mailed three reporters with
extensive experience covering war zones: Martin Fletcher of NBCByron Pitts of CBS and Susan Taylor Martin of Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times.

I asked them each three questions:

1. Why do you do this work of going to dangerous places?

2. If journalists decided to just pull out of Iraq or not venture out of the “green zone,” who would suffer?

3. How do you explain your journalistic duty to your family/loved ones who might urge you not to go?

Here are their responses.

Martin Fletcher, NBC News Correspondent:
1.
I love the adrenaline, I thrive on anarchy and if I believed at any
moment that I could get wounded or killed, I wouldn’t go. What story is
worth that? None. However, it rarely occurs to me that I could get
hurt. I feel impervious to danger, which of course is nonsense, but
that’s really the only way one can operate in a dangerous job. Firemen,
soldiers, etc. — few go into a situation really believing “I could get
hurt.” We go into the situation thinking, “I won’t get hurt… somebody
else may!” Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. I began as a cameraman in
Africa and the Middle East and have covered conflicts for three
decades. Because of my work as a cameraman I believe in going as close
to the action as possible, but carefully. My working philosophy is “Get
in, get the story, get out” as quickly as possible. 
 

I
should add that I only go to these places because that is where NBC
sends me. I would much prefer to cover the Paris fashion show — but
they won’t send me!
 
2. Who would suffer? That’s a very
good question. The work we in TV do is so limited in Iraq by the
danger, and we rely so much on our Iraqi colleagues to get the pictures
and the information, that a good case can be made for saying we don’t
achieve much there, so why suffer the danger and the expense, why not
leave it to the locals? I think it would be wrong to leave for those
reasons. We need to do the best we can. Wherever people are suffering,
we should do our best to be present. But frankly, if we left, our
viewers would suffer little, nor would the Iraqis, but it would be a
major blow to our credibility. We need to cover the news, wherever it
is and at whatever risk. We just need to take all protective measures
possible. But here’s a question: If we knew there was about to be a
nuclear holocaust, would we send staff to cover it? I don’t think so!
On the other hand, in ’91, when we thought Iraq would attack Israel
with chemical weapons, my crew and I were driving in Tel Aviv around
the deserted streets during the attacks in protective gear, hoping to
be the first to cover a chemical attack. How dumb is that? I certainly
wouldn’t do that today.
 
3. In 30 years my wife has
only asked me once not to go somewhere and that is Iraq because I’m
Jewish, married to an Israeli etc. She’s never asked me before, so when
NBC asked me to go to Iraq I said no, the first time ever. So
I don’t need to explain to my family. They understand that this is my
job and I love it and they trust me. And when I told my mother not to
worry because when I go to work I wear a flak jacket and a helmet, she
answered, “Martin, if you have to wear a flak jacket and helmet to go
to work, you should get a new job!”
 
You didn’t ask this,
but this is what I strongly believe. Staying safe in a war zone has
nothing to do with experience, it’s just dumb luck. Two friends of
mine, the most experienced war correspondents imaginable, both died in
silly incidents after a career of coverage (Neil Davis and Mohammed
Amin). So these days I just try to narrow the odds by only doing what
is really necessary. I feel that after taking risks for so long, the
odds are against me. So I’m careful!

Susan Taylor Martin, Senior Correspondent covering foreign affairs:
I’m in Israel/Gaza/West Bank now (see bio) reporting
on the Palestinian election but have seen the sad news about the ABC
folks. Of course the obvious reason journalists go there and stay there
is because that’s where huge news is — this war is costing American
taxpayers billions of dollars, it is arguably destabilizing an entire
region, it has divided the American public, and it has created utter
misery for millions of Iraqis who thought the overthrow of Saddam
Hussein would mean a better life for them.

I can’t begin to express my admiration for the courage of
journalists who remain there. The last time I was in Baghdad was in
April 2004, when the insurgency really flared, and I’m not embarrassed
to admit I’d be afraid to go back now (I have since been in safer
northern Iraq). True, it’s hard to report when you’re pretty much
confined to a hotel, but that’s part of the story too. Despite all the
progress that’s purportedly being made, the very fact it’s almost
impossible for someone without enormous protection to venture safely
more than few feet from a hotel lobby says volumes about what’s really
happening. You also get a palpable sense of the fears and tensions you
could never get by reporting from a distance.

Aside from a genuine commitment to good coverage and cutting through
all the fog, people drawn to war reporting almost certainly are
adventuresome and even like living on the edge. You just hope you have
families that understand that part of your nature!

Byron Pitts, CBS News Correspondent:
1. Dan
Rather has a powerful saying: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta
fly and reporters gotta go. Since the beginning of recorded history,
men and women have gone to dangerous places simply to be a
witness.  Like many of my colleagues, 9/11 changed me. Our world
is at war on many fronts.  Each of us must play a role. I believe
mine is to go places and seek truth. I don’t want to die or get
injured. I pray for my own safety and the safety of friends in harm’s
way. But at the end of the day, I know tomorrow is not promised and
freedom has never been free.
   
2. If jourmalists pulled out, truth would suffer. History requires witnesses.

3. Fortunately for me, my family and most of my friends have a great
faith. They know I don’t take unreasonable risks. And they know I
believe in God’s grace. It’s one reason why I say “I love you” to my
wife and children and hug them every time we part.
            
And when I go to dangerous places we promise to pray more and worry less.

I hate war. I hate violence. I’d
avoid it all the time if I could. But I was raised in church and raised
to believe that to those whom much is given, much is required. The
desire for freedom requires something of all of us. I go to dangerous
places because it is sometimes necessary. Men and women have gone
before me. And many will follow.

Tonight my family and I will go to our knees and pray for my friends at ABC and their families.

Other reflections
Why Ben Arnoldy, David Bloom, Michael Kelly and Chuck Murphy covered wars.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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