The beheadings by ISIS of two American journalists can be called many things – medieval savagery, unconscionable cruelty, the pointless murders of two brave men. But one thing they are not is an attack on the United States that demands retaliation by the American government.
I say this as a former correspondent, in full admiration for James Foley and Steven Sotloff and in sympathy for the terrible price they paid for plying their trade in the most dangerous place in the world. What’s more, I think Foley and Sotloff would agree.
To understand why, it’s necessary to talk about what war correspondents do, why they do it and, especially, their relationships with governments and officials – not only with foreign governments or foreign forces such as ISIS but with their own.
American journalists are an independent lot. They see themselves as lone warriors, answerable to no one but their editors and their readers. Most newspapers have ethics codes forbidding reporters to accept gifts or free trips – nothing more than a lunch, and sometimes not even that – from a government or corporation or any other organization on their beats. White House correspondents pay full fare to fly on Air Force One. Back home, education reporters are forbidden to run for their school boards.
This may sound too pure to be credible. But it’s a deeply ingrained belief. Just this month, the Chicago Tribune printed a shame-faced story reporting that one of its former Washington correspondents, assigned to cover the CIA, showed the CIA copies of his stories in advance. The point was that this cooperation between reporters and government is unacceptable and that the Tribune considered this journalist a pariah.
In Washington, this line can be very thin. No US government official would dream of bribing a reporter with gifts or money. But friendship with the powerful is a potent lure. Whole seminars and conferences are devoted to the ethics of these relationships.
Overseas, this relationship is even more complicated. In war reporting, it can be fatal.
Most foreign correspondents crave action and excitement: it’s a big reason why they do what they do. With war correspondents, this craving goes to extremes. There is a breed of correspondents, called the war-lovers, who are drawn to conflict like moths to the flame, and aren’t happy unless they’re in danger.
I once ran into Peter Arnett, the legendary AP and CNN correspondent in Vietnam and Baghdad, when he was running the CNN bureau in Moscow. It was the late ‘80s, as the Soviet Union was crumbling – a terrific story if there ever was one. And Arnett was bored. Wars turned him on. The peaceful end of the Cold War didn’t.
Chris Hedges, himself a war correspondent for The New York Times and a self-confessed war-lover, wrote a wonderful book called “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Hedges tried to explain the magnetic pull that war exerts on journalists – and not just on journalists. War may be the most vivid and meaningful thing that happens in a person’s life, he said, which is one reason why so many civilians look back on wartime with nostalgia, and why so many nations actually choose to go to war.
What is this lure? I was never a war-lover. While I admire war correspondents, I don’t share what drives them. There is, undoubtedly the adrenaline rush from waking in the morning not knowing for sure that you’re going to be alive at night: the evening drink tastes doubly sweet. There is the excitement of seeing life at its extremes: one colleague told me once that, in war, the reporter sees both the best and worst of humanity.
There is the knowledge that the reporter in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam is going where his readers can’t. He represents them, has the duty to tell them what’s happening. If the United States is involved, there’s a double duty of describing to them their tax dollars at work.
(In the preceding paragraph, I used the pronouns “him” and “he,” as though war correspondents are all men. In fact, many of the best and bravest these days are women. Liz Sly and Carlotta Gall come to mind. Marie Colvin made one too many trips into Syria, and was killed. An AP photographer was killed and an AP correspondent wounded in Afghanistan recently when an Afghani policeman opened fire on them: both were women.)
The best reporters, I think, are driven by a compulsion to witness. They go places where people trapped in history are dying or suffering, with no one to tell their names. Through their work, the correspondents validate the lives of these victims and explain the inexplicable.
I have no idea what drove Foley and Sotloff. Maybe all these motives. Maybe just a desire for fame: being a war correspondent can be a good career move, if you survive.
But I’m sure they never considered themselves as official representatives of America or its government. Like most reporters, they probably had gone to places where the United States government didn’t want them to be and reported things the government wished unreported.
This tension, this adversarial relationship, is crucial to good journalism. In some wars, such as World War II, American journalists took sides. (Also, their stories were censored.) But in Vietnam, the reporting by American correspondent was crucial to eroding public support for the war: at one point, Secretary of State Dean Rusk cried out to a reporter, “Whose side are you on, anyway?” The proper answer: “Not theirs, sir, and not yours either.”
In Iraq, reporters endangered this independence by embedding with US troops. Later, though, the same reporters told the country how badly Washington was mishandling its mission there. Soldiers and diplomats who hated the press and complained that reporters made their lives more difficult had a point: the reporters are there not to help the troops but to tell Americans what’s being done in their name.
It would be easier if the United States was always right and its policies impeccable. But in war and peace, this is seldom true. Journalists work to reflect reality, no matter the danger.
‘Twas ever thus. But it’s more complicated now. If journalists haven’t changed, journalism has.
In previous wars, correspondents like Arnett and Hedges worked fulltime for big corporations who felt an obligation to do everything to protect their reporters. When a Chicago Tribune colleague was arrested in Sudan, the paper hired a private jet: the editor and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a friend of the Sudanese president, flew to Khartoum to free him.
The Tribune doesn’t have foreign correspondents any more. Most news organizations don’t send staffers to cover wars. Instead they rely on free-lancers, intrepid reporters who want to cover a war but aren’t employed full-time, because there aren’t many full-time jobs these days. They get paid by the piece and, if they get into trouble, they are on their own.
Foley and Sotloff were free-lancers. They tried to find stories that various publications back home would print. But they had no salary, no health insurance, no institutions looking out for them. They weren’t working for the government: in fact, they were going where the administration fears to tread and reporting on the failure of America’s Mideast policy, knowing that if they got into trouble, they couldn’t call on the government for help.
And they did get into trouble, big trouble. They became what any journalist fears to be, which is part of the story. They would be appalled to think that their fate required a government response.
There could be more Foleys and Sotloffs, because they are the only way the rest of us find out what the world is really like. As Mort Rosenblum, one of the best foreign correspondents, wrote: “To report, you have to be there. Reporters must get up the road. If they’re not there, neither are we.”
Obviously, the concept of “an informed electorate” has no meaning unless someone does the informing. Our future depends not on tweets and twitters from random sources but on solid reporting by professionals who know how to get to the scene and to understand what they see there. At the moment, few American media outlets are willing to pay such people to do this and to protect them when trouble looms.
The government won’t do this, and shouldn’t. The price – the loss of independence – is more than any reporter wants to pay. But unless American journalism recovers this sense of mission, there will be ever fewer Foleys and Sotloffs willing to do this vital work.