WHEN two CBS journalists were killed and a third was critically wounded this week, the war in Iraq officially became the deadliest ever for combat correspondents.
The car bomb that took the lives of cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan and badly injured reporter Kimberly Dozier pushed this conflict’s journalistic death toll to 71. Twenty-six members of the news media’s support staff also have been killed. By comparison, 69 journalists were killed during World War II, 63 in Vietnam and 17 in Korea. The majority of those killed in this conflict were Iraqis working with American or other Western news organizations.
As this toll has mounted, it’s been curious to watch the change in attitude toward the press by the war’s die-hard supporters. Initially, we were informed, the embedding process was going to produce a better sort of war correspondent -- more Ernie Pyle, less David Halberstam. The eminent military historian Sir John Keegan, now a military analyst for Britain’s Daily Telegraph and a great admirer of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, informed us that the embeds’ experience of training and serving alongside fighting troops would create a new generation of journalists, free of the skeptical and adversarial taint that has poisoned combat correspondence since the Vietnam War. Keegan’s American confreres more or less agreed.
As the war ground on -- and so much of the news became so inconveniently bad -- the tenor of this commentary changed. More recently, there has been a drumbeat of criticism alleging that the press corps in Iraq is misleading the American people because it is either too cowardly to leave the relative safety of the Green Zone, or too culturally biased to recognize what they see when they do.
The right-wing radio personality Laura Ingraham went on the “Today” show and charged the Baghdad press corps with simply “reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.”
If Dozier ever recovers the full use of her legs, maybe she and Laura could go for a walk and talk the whole thing over.
In the New York Post, Ralph Peters excoriated Iraq correspondents for staying “safe in their enclaves protected by hired guns, complaining that it’s too dangerous out on the streets. They’re only in Baghdad for the byline ...”
One suspects he meant “dateline,” but perhaps he can explain that to Douglas’ widow, when he pays a condolence call.
Best of all, though, were the comments by President Bush’s new chief domestic policy advisor, Karl Zinsmeister. As a magazine editor, he made a trip to Iraq and wrote in the National Review that “many of the journalists observable in this war theater are bursting with knee-jerk suspicions and antagonisms for the warriors all around them. A significant number are whiny and appallingly soft ... and show their discomfort clearly as they hide together in the press tents, fantasizing about expensive restaurants at home and plush hotels in Kuwait City, fondling keyboards and satellite phones with pale fingers, clinging to their world of offices and tattle and chatter where they feel less ineffective, less testosterone deficient
If Zinsmeister’s busy schedule permits, maybe he could call on Brolan’s 17-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter and explain how real men behave. On the other hand, maybe he should stay in the White House and mislead the president. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Criticized for reporting
THIS week, moreover, many of the right-wing’s most ardent press critics did a 180 and denounced correspondents for reporting too much out of Iraq. The stories they find so objectionable concern allegations that U.S. Marines executed as many as 24 civilians, including women and children, in the village of Haditha and, earlier, another civilian in Hamandiya. As The Times’ Tony Perry reported Friday, the Corps shortly will file charges, including murder, in the latter incident. The events in Haditha are being investigated, but appear to involve not just the enlisted men who allegedly did the killing, but some officers who overlooked or covered up the misconduct. The military’s probe of the incident began four months after the killings occurred and two months after reporters from Time Magazine first inquired about it.
Thursday, the BBC obtained videotape that appeared to corroborate a report filed March 19 by Knight Ridder’s Matthew Schofield that U.S. soldiers may have executed as many as 11 Iraqi civilians in the town of Ishaqi. The victims included a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old infant. (The Pentagon on Friday issued a report exonerating the U.S. soldiers.)
This time, critics say, the problem is that the press is saying too much. In fact, some online commentators insist that any reporting on these incidents or the investigations into them is an act of disloyalty and an attack on the morale of our soldiers and Marines.
More typical was the blogger who wrote: “The accelerating media feeding frenzy over the alleged killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha by U.S. Marines last November is about to overwhelm American politics. Propelled by their most irresponsible war critics, the left will try to use Haditha as it used My Lai 30 years ago: as a political tool to take apart America’s support for the law and to shatter the legitimacy of our cause and the morale of our troops.” Another alleged that “the media frenzy around the actions of a handful of Marines ... will be used to advance agendas unrelated to the allegations, agendas which trade on the slander of the American military ... “
Truth, of course, is an absolute defense against slander charges. Silence is truth’s enemy.
Meanwhile, when Dozier awoke Thursday in a military hospital after a series of operations, according to The Times’ Matea Gold, the first question she scribbled onto a piece of paper was, what happened to her crew? When Dozier has the strength to look around, she’ll see a Purple Heart. The young American soldier to whom it was awarded gave it to Dozier’s brother Michael, and said he wanted the correspondent to have it.
Whatever the ideologues may argue, Americans -- whether in or out of uniform -- are neither a fearful nor a fragile people. They are not indifferent to facts, even unpleasant ones about themselves. They do not want their journalists to behave like ancient bards, contriving cheap mythology from the sanitized feats of warrior heroes. They do not want a press that cuts and pastes to serve a party line.
Military service is one of the most onerous responsibilities free men and women discharge in the service of their community’s common good. The correspondents who go to Iraq to report on the lives -- and deaths -- of our servicemen and -women are not only fulfilling the duty of witness that a self-governing people requires of its free press; they also are expressing, through their very presence, a profound solidarity with fellow Americans put in harm’s way by decisions taken in all our names.
The President’s advisors may choose to ignore that, as may their eager acolytes in the commenting class. The American soldier who sent his own Purple Heart to acknowledge his bond with Dozier clearly feels otherwise.
Like the honorable majority of our soldiers and Marines, he’s not the sort inclined to look away.