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Putting Journalists in Danger, Enquirer Firings and the Death of Robert McNamara

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 20th, 2009 · On Second Thought

In my University of Cincinnati ethics classes, I argue that the greater the risk to journalists the less necessary the story or image is to their readers, viewers and listeners. My conclusion arises from taking chances, sending colleagues into potential danger and knowing that others do the same, sometimes with fatal results.

I was reminded of this risk/benefit tension by the recent escape of New York Times reporter David Rhode and an Afghan colleague after seven months of Taliban captivity.

And as I wrote this, I wondered how NBC justified the dangers it’s creating for all journalists with its new reality show, The Wanted, which began Monday night. In it, NBC unites a reporter with a former U.S. Navy Seal and a former Army Green Beret in a hunt for fugitive war criminals and terrorists. Dumb. Too many people already see journalists as the enemy to be kidnapped, taken hostage or killed.

I’ve been a risk-taker.

Years ago as a Minneapolis Star reporter, I covered twisters that were heading for the Twin Cities. A colleague and I raced to a suburban Lake Minnetonka community that we expected to be hit. We wanted stories you can’t get when the storm is over.

Driving west to meet the storm, we watched winds lay a moving tractor-trailer on its side. It skidded and ground to a halt so slowly that it was unreal. We drove on after the driver climbed out and waved.

A twister hit moments before we arrived. Dark as it was, we saw century-old trees plucked from the ground. Boats were sucked from their berths and plunged into houses. Utility lines whipped, wrapped and fell. Some sparked. We got our stories. No one had anything like it.

Years later, I had joined The Enquirer and twisters were predicted for Greater Cincinnati. I suggested sending reporter/photographer teams to western Hamilton County to anticipate those tornados. My editor just shook his head, much the way he must have when his eager dog brought all of the morning papers on their street.

It was the difference between witnessing an event and interviewing witnesses.

A corollary to my risk/benefit ethic says that, however much high-risk stories excite an editor’s competitive urge, it’s up to journalists whether to accept the risks. Sending unwilling journalists into danger against their better judgment is unethical. Enquirer photographer Glenn Hartong underlines that point below.

But another corollary undermines my ethical calculus: Journalists who take risks and bring in enviable stories and images will be favored with more desirable assignments. Journalists who refuse might not be offered similar opportunities and could endanger their jobs.

This corollary was clear after BBC producer Kate Peyton accepted assignment to Somalia against her better judgment. Somalia is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. She was murdered leaving her hotel in Mogadishu.

According to the BBC, Peyton’s sister, Rebecca, told the British inquest, “She was utterly clear in her mind that she had to do it, that she had no choice. She had been told there were doubts about her commitment to her job. When it comes to news journalism, you earn a lot of points by going to dangerous places. It is simply how it functions.”

Some journalists are motivated by risk. Too many editors, however, put even willing employees in harm’s way without adequate preparation or protection.

I went to the Congo border as a photojournalist because the 1960s were a decade of African turmoil and bloodshed and I wanted bylines. I’m no war lover, but reporting combat, riots and massacres draws favorable attention in our trade.

I took my chances, and I also edited a new daily paper, sending others into potential danger. Looking back, the stories and images were important and the risks — accepted without hesitation by similarly motivated colleagues — were reasonable at that time and place.

When The Enquirer sent me to Israel in 1979, I was invited to apply for a photojournalist job at another American newspaper chain’s Jerusalem bureau. By then, I was married and a parent. My wife was sure I’d end up badly, given the sometimes heedless way I pursue images.

As usual, she was right. I told the chain’s correspondent, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It wasn’t long after that journalism became increasingly dangerous, if not lethal, there.

That raises a related issue. For generations, journalists were perceived as neutrals rather than targets. It was bad luck when a Japanese bullet killed columnist Ernie Pyle, photographer Robert Capa stepped on a Viet Minh land mine and photographer Larry Burrows died with other journalists in Laos when their helicopter was shot down. They accepted the danger but were not targeted and killed because they were journalists.

That’s no longer the case. There’s a growing sense that journalists are targets whether abroad or at the hands of thuggish cops at home.

It was an unpleasant reality we no longer could ignore when NBC’s Bill Stewart was forced to his knees and executed on-camera in 1979 by a Nicaraguan soldier. Stewart held a white flag and offered his press credentials.

AP’s Terry Anderson spent more than six years in captivity in Lebanon after being kidnapped in 1985.

In 2002, Daniel Pearl, a Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter, was beheaded by Muslim radicals in Pakistan. They posted his execution on the Internet.

American missiles and tank fire killed journalists in Baghdad, and explanations still ring hollow. More recently, the assassination of muckraking Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya created a furor.

Journalism web sites are rich with less tragic stories of American cops intimidating reporters and photographers, sometimes taking their cameras or recorders and destroying images and sound.

It’s still going on. Scores of reporters and photographers are killed every year with little notice outside our trade and their families. There’s a steady toll from Russia, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mexico, Sri Lanka, etc. Most are citizens of those countries. Relatively few are foreigners. Not a few die for writing about powerful and often corrupt countrymen who, for what Americans consider chump change, hire two young men on a motorbike, one with a semiautomatic pistol.

Americans are not exempt. Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was killed by a car bomb in 1976, and 2007 shotgun blasts ended Chauncy Bailey’s investigative journalism in Oakland, Calif.

Meanwhile, smart editors increasingly are hiring protection for journalists in dangerous places or, when that’s too costly, withdrawing them from those areas. That’s why there are so few foreign journalists in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq. In the same way, journalists increasingly are going abroad with training provided by our military or private groups dedicated to their safety.

Even so, when my Enquirer editor asked if I’d go to Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, I said yes even though I was three weeks short of retirement.

It would be a great story. A last hurrah. Dumb.

I checked my passport, cameras, camping gear, immunizations and shots I’d have to get. The paper reconsidered, not least because of the costs and my ignorance of any languages Afghans spoke other than English. Smart.

Risk doesn’t have to be exotic. At The Enquirer, I sent then-freelance photographer Hartong to a Queensgate railroad fire that threatened a propane tanker. “No telephoto shots,” I recall saying. “Get in there with a really wide angle.”

It was a management decision — high risk for a photo that wasn’t worth a life or serious injury — that I deplore today. It’s what I would have done. Had it blown while he was anywhere near, he would have been ashes instead of an Enquirer staff photographer known widely for his photos of firefighters.

Hartong also accompanied Enquirer reporter Cam McWhirter to Sarajevo when that was a very deadly place. They covered a 1996 reunion of Sarajevo residents living in the Tristate and families who stayed in Bosnia during the gruesome civil war. Hartong and McWhirter did a fine job for our readers, but that story wasn’t worth the risk.

I ran this line of thinking past Hartong last week. He responded:

“The railroad tanker was indeed a dangerous thing and I made the photo with a 500mm mirror lens. Any thinking photographer will always take the marching orders of an editor with a grain of salt. Only the person on the scene is able to judge what risk is worth taking.

“Sarajevo wasn’t, to my mind, all that dangerous. … My daily forays into Over-the-Rhine and other areas are equally dangerous, the major difference being the language barrier that foreign countries present. … The most inexcusable part of the Bosnia trip was the unwillingness of The Enquirer to pay for a minder/driver. Nor do they pay for body armor or any forms of training or protective equipment.

“I have gone into collapse zones during fires, walked through flooded waters, chased cops chasing armed criminals, gone into the heart of tornado generating thunderstorms and drove into Adams County during impassable winter conditions. I would do any and all of these things again.

“I believe that, if rescuers put themselves at risk and if people live in dangerous conditions, we, as journalists, must face the same risks to document the story.”

That said, a routine assignment can turn dangerous. A canoe can capsize while a photographer is covering environmentalists paddling down the polluted Mill Creek. That’s bad luck. Every police ride-along has the potential to turn violent.

To minimize a controllable danger, Gannett Co., The Enquirer’s parent company, generally bans journalists from military public relations flights. Ward Bushee, ex-Enquirer editor, was covering a South Dakota Air National Guard flyover when the jet he was in collided with another. Both pilots and Ward ejected. Bushee was badly injured.

I learned about this when I was offered a ride on an Air Force KC-135 tanker out of Columbus with its unique all-female reservist crew. Permission denied. The story wasn’t worth arguing against company policy.

Similarly, higher ratings aren’t worth the risks created by NBC’s decision to turn its reporter into a warrior on The Wanted. No war criminal or terrorist is going to distinguish between the reporter and his armed, aggressive companions.

It’s one thing to accompany soldiers in action, but this stupid show can only blur the already dim line between journalist and armed combatants in the same way 24 Hours sometimes ignored the distinction between aggressive interrogation and unacceptable and probably illegal torture.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Longtime friends and former colleagues were among the 101 fired by The Enquirer this month as Gannett ordered publishers to rid corporate of about 1,400 employees. [Read Kevin Osborne's coverage of the firings here.]

Editorial Page Editor Dave Wells was one of the best reporters I’ve worked with anywhere. His memory for facts and names is intimidating; if he said it was so, it was.

Wells finally won the job he wanted, local news editor, and lost it in the Chiquita fiasco. He was betrayed by reporter and felon Michael Gallagher, who lied to his editors about tapping into Chiquita’s voice mail system. Happily for the Wells and The Enquirer, Chiquita didn’t demand Wells’ head, but he was moved to run the opinion pages. Those pages are being converted to an expanded “community conversation” in which readers fill the space.

Borgman’s gone. Bronson’s gone. Syndicated columnists abound. There is no local opinion page to edit.

Rebecca Goodman was the paper’s obit writer. No one before or since brought her storyteller’s consistently to that vital job. Given time and space, she left you saying of her subject, “I wish I’d known him/her.”

I also knew Goodman for years as a straight-A student at Northern Kentucky University. In its wisdom, the paper accommodated her class schedule as a full-time undergrad and law student. Her strengths as a writer/researcher also were evident in her bicentennial daily history series and subsequent book based on those columns.

Goodman was going to leave sometime to work as a lawyer, but it’s a shock to come to work one day and leave that identity behind hours later.

Peter Bronson also got the chop. I enjoyed reading him. With others of my political ilk, he sometimes left me wondering how anyone so delightful in person and so bright could be so conservative.

He was unfailingly gracious when I’d wander into his office — he was editor of the opinion pages when I was at the paper — and argue about an editorial or some public policy issue. Sometimes we’d talk religion. Again, he’d listen, respond without rancor or the need to persuade.

Bronson likes a good argument, and his writing could be too strong. Cincinnati civility ignores and denies problems or buries issues in studies, Blue Ribbon committees, spineless dialogue and euphemism. Unresolved, the troubles resurface to almost everyone’s surprise.

Bronson’s book on the 2001 riot and looting was a valuable corrective to pious and politically correct bullshit. The Enquirer, long known as the Grey Lady of Vine Street, appears to prefer Earl Grey to stronger stuff.

Sally Besten was the paper’s chief librarian. That’s a person to whom reporters could turn when they needed something from the paper’s files or needed help on deadline checking something.

We learned to call them librarians when we stopped referring to their files of our clippings as “the morgue.” Besten was in the line of bright, knowledgeable and unfailingly helpful colleagues, succeeding Ray Zwick and Fred Morgener.

Michael Perry was a sports editor who took over “non-daily products,” chiefly CinWeekly, the frothy, colorful publication for Bright Young Things who lean against each other and smile at cameras. CinWeekly and its staff are history; Perry went with them.

He was my ethics student at UC and is now a fellow UC adjunct. He’s the rare editor who knows the difference between leading and managing.

CinWeekly likely cut into CityBeat’s readership and ads. I take no joy in its closing and the dismissal of so many people. I hope some readers and advertisers migrate to us.

• If there’s good news for readers in the wake of the latest Enquirer firings, it is Editor Tom Callinan’s continued protection for core reporters, photographers and editors.

• I’m not sorry to see unsigned Enquirer editorials go away. It probably was more rewarding to write them than to read them. Few papers ever had the clout that their publishers and editorial writers imagined, even before TV, talk radio and the Internet.

It was true when I wrote editorials seven days a week for a daily paper I edited. Editorials rarely change minds, although they might confirm readers’ biases. That can be useful to campaigners, but it’s a waste of space for readers.

• I’d bet The Enquirer still is profitable. In a recent letter to readers, Publisher Margaret Buchanan said it was one of the few American dailies not hemorrhaging circulation and its readership is far greater than its sales. Still, The Enquirer takes heavy hits ordered by Gannett when the 85-daily chain with its weeklies, broadcast outlets and other interests don’t make enough money. Back when USA Today was started, the conventional wisdom was that The Enquirer was its cash cow. Our complaint then as now: Bleeding The Enquirer to support corporate strengthens neither.

• Catching up on some reading, I ran into the June 22 New Yorker. In less than one page of its Annals of Crime, it referred to two 2006 Over-the-Rhine killings of white drive-in drug buyers as evidence of a “crime spree.” Crime spree? I missed it.

The New Yorker also said Cincinnati was “engulfed in three days of riots, arson and looting” after Timothy Thomas’ 2001 shooting. “Engulfed”? I don’t think so. Should I follow my advice to others and consider stupidity before attributing this to liberal bias? Also, the writer and editors don’t know the difference between murder and homicide, something a reporter could explain if asked. I stopped reading.

• At the top of this column, I write about the ethics of getting a story or images when that endangers the journalist. Another ethical tension is whether to report a kidnapping or to remain silent until the victim is safe or dead.

In this country, news media generally go along with police or FBI requests for silence during a kidnapping, lest we provoke the kidnapper into further harming the captive.

Abroad, it’s a tougher decision. When The New York Times’ David Rhode and an Afghan colleague escaped the Taliban, they thanked everyone for the voluntary news blackout during their seven months in captivity.

Theirs was the second high-profile blackout in recent months, also reached by consensus among competing news media. Earlier, journalists who knew that Britain’s Prince Harry was a combat infantry officer in Afghanistan kept it to themselves for weeks rather than put the prince and his unit in greater danger.

News blackouts bring ethics problems for news media dedicated to gathering and reporting facts. Critics challenge our selectivity. Why is self-censorship possible when a journalist or prince is involved, but kidnappings of aid workers, missionaries, diplomats, civilian contractors, etc., are instant news? It’s a fair question. The rules can change when it’s family; we define “family.”

The choice of silence or publicity never is made by the victim. Silence could sentence them to death. So could publicity. No one knows whether news stories might increase the bargaining value of a living captive or frighten kidnappers into killing their victim.

Publicity probably protected freelance Iranian-American radio reporter Roxana Saberi when Iranians jailed her this year. She didn’t ask for silence. She was freed soon after her conviction amid persistent reporting on her case.

Finally, Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent and one of the highest-profile TV journalists, told interviewer Leslie Stahl on wowowow.com, “If I’m kidnapped I want you, personally, to lead the charge and make sure people know about it.”

• “Wretched excess” is the only term that comes to mind when considering the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and memorial event. Meanwhile, a man whose errors scarred two generations of Americans died with modest coverage for a couple days: Robert McNamara, one of the Best and Brightest brought to Washington by JFK and retained by LBJ.

McNamara rightly is called the architect of the Vietnam war. At least 50,000 Americans died in that still-longest American war, and I have no idea how many were wounded physically and/or emotionally. Far more Vietnamese and Laotians died in that war to limit Communist expansion.

Those of us who weren’t drafted also were affected by toxic divisions in American society the war created. The military became risk averse and media-hostile. The public began to equate dissent with treason and “America Love It or Leave It” as bumper-sticker patriotism. Too many liberals moved from antiwar to antimilitary and remain stuck there.

If McNamara’s life tells us anything, it is the need for the civilians to be smarter in their use of a strong, well-paid and highly trained military. Similarly, we need a military ready to fight the next wars, not the last. Think Khyber Pass, not Fulda Gap.

The Bush administration didn’t learn that lesson, operating from the same kinds of flawed intelligence and reasoning that got us into Vietnam (Gulf of Tonkin = WMD) with the mainstream news media surrendering skepticism to join the cheerleaders.

Generations grew up and aged with Michael Jackson; generations died young or suffered because of Robert McNamara.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com



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