February 18, 2003

Covering War in a Free Society

This week news organizations will give to the Pentagon the names of the 500 reporters, photographers and cameramen who intend to cover the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This is a historic - and welcome - reversal of the government's exclusionary policy toward news coverage of U.S. military action. As the New York Times reported today, "For the first time since World War II and on a scale never before seen in the American military, journalists covering any United States attack on Iraq will have assigned slots with combat and support units and accompany them throughout the conflict."

Access to war means proximity to danger. The Pentagon has been running boot camps for would-be war correspondents [ Read John Koopman's first-hand account ], who, unlike their counterparts in World War II, will not carry weapons (although they must provide their own helmets and flak jackets.

War is, by nature, deadly, and, by extension, so is reporting on one. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, eight journalists were killed covering the short war in Afghanistan and 60 died in the last decade in various cross-fires around the globe, most of them photographers or cameramen.

Harold Evans, in a compelling essay written for the Newseum on the history of war reporting and the nature of the people drawn to it, asks, "Is journalism worth dying for? Is history worth dying for?"

Indeed, Evans is asking, is truth worth dying for?

That is a question each correspondent must ask himself or herself. Most will answer yes, and some of them, despite all precautions, will die in this coming war.

Others will witness acts of inhumanity that will haunt their remaining days. Evans tells the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter who "convinced himself that he was right in the mid-1980s to photograph the first known public execution in South Africa by 'necklacing,' setting fire to a gasoline-filled tire around someone's neck. 'I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures... then I felt that maybe my actions hadn't been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn't necessarily such a bad thing to do.' Carter later took his own life."

And for some of these reporters and photographers who cover the Iraq War, the horrors and heroics they witness will make them better journalists.

David Halberstam, in an interview that is part of the Newseum exhibit on war correspondence, says, "I always thought my life was more precious coming back. I, I thought I always worked harder on stories when I came back from Vietnam. I, I never took being a reporter, a reporter in a free society, I never it took it for granted again. I'm 66 now and I still work as hard as I did when I was young. And I, I think part of that is Vietnam, the, the good fortune to go there, to, to do well, to be lucky enough to live when others who were just as good as you were and weren't quite as lucky died. I think the sense that your life is a privilege and that you were the beneficiary of something and therefore you owe it, I think that has always stayed with me and so I've always continued to work hard. And I think it's because I think my life is a gift and some of that is due to Vietnam."

Increasingly, as modern conflicts become less decisive and more chronic, little good seems to come of war (if indeed much ever did). As journalists, though, we can hope the current generation of war correspondents is as fortunate as Halberstam was - that they not only survive but are also compelled to excel as "reporter(s) in a free society."

 Harold Evans Reporting in the Time of Conflict
 Newseum War Stories
 Committee to Protect Journalists
 Editor & Publisher U.S. Military Document Outlines War Coverage

Posted by Tim Porter at February 18, 2003 09:44 AM

It's an age-old problem: just how do we get people to be caring?

When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.
- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Diary of the human dream:


Posted by: jozefimrich on February 19, 2003 05:38 PM
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