To journalists covering wars and disasters: 'Thank you for your service'

Last weekend in Valdosta, Georgia I found myself in the rest room of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Next to me at the sink was a Georgia State Trooper, uniformed, armed, and armored, a massive man with a short blond military haircut. We got to chatting. “Thank you for your service,” I said, resorting to the greeting made popular for first responders after 9/11.

He was surprised by the gesture. I told him that my Uncle Pete had been a New York City police officer, as had Mr. Barron and Mr. McCloskey, who lived next door to the Clarks on Long Island. I told him that for 40 years my dad had worn the badge of a United States Customs Officer. I told him that I honored the courage of men and women who would be willing to run towards dangers and times when I would be running away.

So today, as a monster storm eyes the state of Florida, I want to say to all the first responders: police, fire fighters, EMTs and hospital workers, members of the National Guard: Thank you for your service.

And here I add a special thank you: For all the journalists covering the storm, working while I’m hiding, balancing your job with the care of your family, looking the storm in the eye while so many of us are running away, let me say: “Thank you, thank you, thank you for your service.”

There is a narrative about journalists in the land that goes like this: You are elitists, detached from the concerns of real Americans. You are jackals, preying on the vulnerable. You are ideologues in disguise, distorting the news for your own interests. You don’t care about your country. You are, in the words of the president, an enemy of the people.

To neutralize the poison of this vision, I have begun to think of journalists as among the first responders. When wars, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, riots, wildfires strike, it is often the journalist who is among the first on the scene, helping us to understand the dangers and looking for opportunities to help.

If they do their jobs well, they will act with caution, even as they try to get as close to the danger as humanly possible. Sadly, there is a long list of journalists sacrificing their lives to fulfill their missions, going back decades. Among the most famous was Ernie Pyle, the correspondent who told stories of common soldiers and their struggles during World War II. On April 18, 1945, near the end of the war, he was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet on an island off the coast of Okinawa.

News of his death brought this response from President Harry Truman, "No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen."

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this in her syndicated newspaper column: "I shall never forget how much I enjoyed meeting him here in the White House last year, and how much I admired this frail and modest man who could endure hardships because he loved his job and our men."

What a difference in tone and spirit from the attacks upon the American press coming from both ends of the political spectrum, but especially from the president and his supporters. Reporters are called out and booed at rallies. They are reviled online, on social media, and in person. And yet there they are in storm waters, on the edge of forest fires, embedded with soldiers on the front lines.

One of my favorite television journalists is Kerry Sanders of NBC News. I have been following his work from the beginning of his career in Florida. I like him for his versatility, ingenuity, courage, good humor, all expressed in a Tom Sawyer-like affect that defies the stereotype of the vapid, well-coiffed news stud.

Sanders is a veteran of Hurricane coverage. He has covered Andrew, Ivan, Katrina, Harvey, and is likely to be a key reporter on Irma. According to his Wikipedia page, “He has also been on the front lines in both Desert Storm in 1991 and as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Marines during the Iraq War in 2003. He had previously worked with NBC reporter David Bloom at WTVJ in Miami, who died from an embolism caused by DVT while also covering the Iraq war along with Sanders.”

Such courage is nothing new. It can be traced to the beginnings of war and disaster coverage from the pens and cameras of eyewitnesses. No reporter embodied it more than Edward R. Murrow, who reported from embattled Britain and the liberation of concentrations camps and accompanied airmen on bombing runs of Berlin. And for what?

For fame and career advancement, we might suppose. But I think for something else. Reporters who head for the storm front or the front lines want a good story, one that can go on the front page. But not for its own sake. The sagas they write of tragedy and loss, of compassion and redemption, give us hope, even in the darkest of times.

I heard a story out of Texas that when the Houston Chronicle was delivered to a shelter, to those waiting there not knowing whether their homes were destroyed or loved ones were alive, they let out a cheer. Cheers to them for their resilience. And for the journalists in Texas, and now in Florida, and all over America and the world: “Thank you for your service.”

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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