On the safety of combat Journalists

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On the safety of combat Journalists

Contributed by Terry Phillips ([email protected]).                                                                                                                           Contributed articles do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the ÆGIS e-journal.

The English novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) is responsible for that famously bad phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.” To his credit, however, he also coined the oft-quoted saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But on the battlefield, a press pass does not provide much in the way of protection for reporters.

I flew into Baghdad on September 2, 1990– a month to the day after Iraqi forces crossed their southern border into Kuwait. I can tell you without reservation that the challenges of reporting from that war zone today are equal to or greater than the ones my fellow correspondents and I faced a dozen years ago. These challenges exist despite (or in some cases, because of) the Pentagon’s new policy of “embedding” journalists with military units.

For those who have never been in a war zone, who have never witnessed armed battle, who have never seen the effects of bullets and shrapnel on human flesh, let me emphasize what everyone ought to know. War is not a football game. It is not a form of entertainment that we ought to cheer. It is not a high tech exercise with antiseptic or theoretical results. It is the deliberate, large-scale, organized, mass killing of men and women and children, as well as the destruction of the places where they live and work. Reporting the news can be a dangerous enterprise no matter what the circumstance. Being a war correspondent has its own peculiar risks. Unlike the brave men and women who wear their country’s uniform in times of conflict, most journalists are not armed. Those few who do carry weapons are not supposed to be combatants. Thus, they are at a disadvantage when the shooting starts.

Covering combat from the front requires more than courage – or stupidity. There are some things that news agencies can provide to help their people. The necessities include such fundamentals as adequate communications, money, training, equipment, and moral support. Before going into more detail, let me say a word about how some news agencies treat those who take great risks in dangerous places for the sake of reporting.

A colleague of mine was recently offered the chance of a lifetime, traveling to the Persian Gulf to do a live radio news talk show. When he asked for a chem suit and a gas mask, his prospective boss responded that the station’s budget wouldn’t cover such extravagant expenses.

Another journalist I know regularly finds himself in harm’s way on behalf of his employer. And whenever he travels to conflict zones, the company’s insurance policy automatically provides death benefits for his surviving wife and kids in the amount of seventy thousand dollars. By the way, when I started out as a radio stringer, the payout was only ten thousand. Lucky thing for my family that I didn’t die on the job.

In defense of every news director and assignment editor I knew, my marching orders always included clear instructions not to do anything stupid, not to take any unnecessary chances. In other words, don’t get yourself killed for the sake of a story. It isn’t worth it. And for the most part, I followed that advice. But many editors have no idea what conditions are like in the faraway places from which this type of news comes, so their advice is often not very helpful.

I remember filing a radio story from the scene of a pitched battle in the former U.S.S.R. The noise of gunfire was very loud, nearly drowning out my narrative. The copy editor back home complimented me on the piece, then actually had the temerity to ask – and I quote – “Where did you get those great sound effects?” She was not kidding.

Some news agencies are more supportive than others. Today, networks and even individual stations send their reporters to combat survival schools. They routinely provide protective gear such as helmets and flak vests. But none of these courses or tools will take the place of actual experience. Or of common sense.

Most of the military forces I have dealt with around the world were not American. That fact made those dealings both easier and more dangerous. Easier because there were no clear rules. I didn’t have to overcome the obstacles erected by the Pentagon. But more dangerous because there were no clear rules. I didn’t have the luxury of relying on the resources of the Pentagon. Getting to the front was possible. Getting killed at the front was also possible.

When I did encounter U.S.troops, they almost always went out of their way to take care of American journalists. When I found myself in the wilds of Somalia without adequate provisions, transportation, or shelter, American G.I.s took me in. I was provided a sleeping bag in the back of a Humvee and some of those delicious MREs (meals ready to eat). Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had provided free access to the CBS News $15-per-minute satellite phone for every soldier who wanted to call home. (The bill for those few days totaled ten thousand dollars. My employer was happy to pay for all the good will.)

I want to say a word about the value of good communications. I consider the omnipresent cellular telephone to be modern miracle. It was not widely available when I went to war the first time. I either had to use traditional, and highly unreliable, local wired telephones or an expensive INMARSAT phone that I lugged around in a big, heavy, metal suitcase. A cell phone would have changed my life. Say what you will about the dangers of driving while talking on a mobile handset, I would have given a lot back then for one of these ubiquitous devices.

Today, keeping in touch is not much of a problem. State-of-the-art satellite phones come in lightweight briefcases with long-lasting batteries and great sound quality. Even portable satellite videophones make it possible to report from almost anywhere, anytime. And now there’s the Internet. But it’s not only about the technology. Simply having sound and pictures does not necessarily mean having news.

War is generally not fought in a hotel or a command center. There are exceptions to that rule, but on the whole, combat coverage requires that one go outdoors to witness the fighting. That is why we insist on being allowed to accompany troops whenever possible, not just accept their accounts of what happened. Of course, the battlefield is not the only place reporters should go during wartime. But we should not be excluded from sorties and maneuvers, either.

War is generally not fought on only one side. That is why we need to see it from various perspectives. The so-called enemy side is one of those perspectives. And good journalists know the difference between news and propaganda. The story must be complete if it is to have any value at all. War is generally not fought on a comfortable schedule. The rigorous demands of combat coverage far exceed anything else a reporter is ever required to do. These people need to be in good condition, physical as well as emotional. And eventually, they need to get some down time and some help to cope with what they will feel.

War is generally not fought for the convenience of news agencies. As such, bosses must be willing to accommodate the peculiar nature of this story. I’m sure my bosses would have been horrified if they knew the extent to which I was consorting with the enemy. I’m not talking about enemy soldiers. I mean rival network reporters. We frequently helped keep each other alive in tough situations. Quite often, the best support in a hostile environment comes from competitors nearby, not colleagues back home. That kind of mutual aid does not undermine the quality of coverage: I would argue that a live reporter is more valuable than a dead one.

There are other things news agencies can do to help even an ocean and a continent away. They can give their people trust and confidence, let them know that their point of view is valued. They can be given the flexibility to bend or break the rules in extreme circumstances, whether it’s violating a government-imposed regulation or a company-imposed format. And in the end, they can be given the right to decide when it’s time to bail out.

The responsibility of journalists during times of war, both at home and in the field is to describe, in a clear and accurate way, this most heinous of human activities. Telling the truth is not unpatriotic. It is our obligation as citizens.

Terry Phillips is a veteran war correspondent. From the melting of the Iron Curtain to the implosion of the Soviet Union, he reported major stories for CBS News, National Public Radio and the NBC/Mutual networks. His international datelines have included Moscow, Baghdad, Kabul, Bucharest, Mogadishu, Sarajevo, Port-au-Prince, and Prague, to name but a few. Now living in Northern California, he works as a lecturer, commentator, and news analyst.

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