In the play, Richelieu, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the English novelist and playwright, wrote, "the pen is mightier than the sword." Were Lord Lytton alive today, he would likely concede that the pen has been supplanted by a television camera — and swords by lethal projectiles and explosives. But it’s doubtful that the author would have claimed that those who use pens — or cameras for that matter — were more important than those who wield the weapons. Yet that seems to be the way it is today for those who fight in, and cover, the war in Iraq.
Earlier this week when ABC’s Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt were badly wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) near Taji, Iraq, the incident was instantly reported on every network and news wire. The following morning it was front-page news in every major newspaper.
The course of the two men’s treatment, their evacuation — first to a field hospital in Iraq, then to Landstuhl, Germany, and finally to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland — has been detailed on TV, talk-radio, in news magazines and Internet blogs. In the aftermath, the incident has been cited as "proof" that the war is going badly.
On Monday night, CNN’s "Chief Foreign Correspondent" Christiane Amanpour told the number two news network’s Larry King that the war in Iraq "has basically turned out to be a disaster, and journalists have paid for it, paid for the privilege of witnessing and reporting that and so have many, many other people who have been there." She then continued, "… for some reason, which I can’t fathom, the kind of awful thing that’s going on there now on a daily basis has almost become humdrum. So, when something happens to people that we identify, like Bob and like Doug, we wake up again and realize that, no, this is not acceptable, what’s going on there, and it’s a terrible situation."
Statements like these — so full of self-importance and clearly made to advance a political perspective, obscure important facts. They also illuminate some very unflattering aspects about the modern "news business."
All but ignored in the "noise" was the poignant and extraordinarily sensitive statement of Bob Woodruff’s wife Lee: "We realize that our family is going through something that thousands of military families have experienced over the last three years since the war began and throughout our history. Bob’s name may be more recognizable, but his story is no more important. He would be the first to insist that the attention should be focused on the members of the U.S. military whose heroic actions he has reported on for years."
Lee Woodruff has it exactly right. That’s what those who cover young Americans serving in harm’s way are supposed to do: document events as they happen; prepare a "first draft of history;" file accurate reports — no self-inflated hubris, no polemics.
War reporting is an inherently dangerous business. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 members of the media have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. But this war cannot be properly covered from the balconies of hotels in the "Green Zone" or by regurgitating press releases prepared by overworked public affairs officers. That’s why Woodruff and Vogt were standing up in the back of an armored vehicle when that IED exploded. To get the story right — on film, videotape or newsprint — they had to be where the action is. It has always been that way.
During World War II, Ernie Pyle’s column — a foxhole fighter’s perspective on the war — was avidly read in 400 daily newspapers and 300 weeklies — because it was the real thing. After covering most of the European campaign, he went to the Pacific Theater and was killed by a Japanese bullet on April 18, 1945, during the invasion of Ie Shima, a tiny island off Okinawa, Japan.
Joe Rosenthal would never have captured the picture of those five Marines and a Navy Corpsmen straining to raise that flag atop Mount Suribachi if he hadn’t gone ashore into the carnage called Iwo Jima in February of ’45.
Joe Galloway was a young UPI reporter/photographer "embedded" with Hal Moore’s under-strength battalion when they were helo-lifted into Vietnam’s Ia Drang valley on Nov. 14, 1965. His stirring chronicle of that three-day battle against three North Vietnamese Army regiments could never have been drafted from a desk in Saigon.
None of these journalists tried to make themselves the centerpiece of the story. Neither did Woodruff or Vogt — though others have done so. Though they all faced life-threatening peril, none of them ever crowed, as Dan Rather once proclaimed to Larry King, "danger is my business." None of them gave evidence that they considered themselves to be more important than the soldiers, sailors, airmen Guardsmen and Marines they were covering. All seemingly heeded another of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s pithy comments: "One of the sublimest things in the world is plain truth." And unlike Amanpour, they all reported facts — not opinions.