In praise of those who “go”

Many years ago, I was watching a televised roundtable on the media when Dan Rather, then a rock star among CBS correspondents, was asked why he had the good fortune to work in Washington while other journalists labored in, say, Tulsa. “Because,” he replied, “when things happen, I go.”

I’m reminded of Rather’s response in light of the recent deaths of the London Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin, French photographer Remi Ochlik, and the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid – all extremely talented, all highly decorated, all extraordinarily brave. Things happened. They would “go.” Most recently, they went to Syria, the world’s latest horror show. It would cost them their lives.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the death of journalists on dangerous assignments hit its highest level on record in 2011, while the jailing of journalists hit its highest level since the mid-1990s. This is no job for the weak-kneed, for those who value safety and crave comfort.

To be sure, the “media” has its problems. With newspaper readership shrinking and more people getting their news from Facebook, YouTube, and other such outlets, reporters increasingly compete by focusing on trivia and sensationalism, converting journalism to infotainment. But, for one slice of media – the men and women who risk life and limb to bring us news from the world’s most dangerous hotspots – the only thing that’s changed is that the dangers seem to be mounting.

How important are these people? How influential are they in raising consciousness and even, at times, forcing global action? French President Nicolas Sarkozy had it right when, in paying homage to Colvin and Ochlik, he said, “[I]f reporters were not over there, we would not know what is going on.”

Consider the riveting first-hand accounts from Colvin, a journalistic legend who proudly sported a black patch over her left eye that dated back to a shrapnel injury that she suffered in Sri Lanka in 2001:

“I watched a little baby die today,” she told the BBC on Tuesday while reporting from Homs. “Absolutely horrific. There is just shells, rockets, and tank fire pouring into civilian areas of this city and it is just unrelenting.”

Of Homs, she wrote last weekend in the Sunday Times, “It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember… The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.”

Consider Colvin’s extraordinary courage in reporting from Syria:

She worked this week from a building that had already been hit by artillery fire, its top floor blown off. Government forces may have pinpointed the journalists by tracking satellite telephones and then struck to stop the information flow. The same attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik reportedly wounded two other journalists.

Consider the dangers Colvin faced in other hotspots over the years:

She covered the 1991 Persian Gulf War from behind enemy lines, covered guerilla fighters in Kosovo in the 1990s, covered rebels in Chechnya in 1999, and, also in 1999, covered a militia attack on a United Nations compound in East Timor with more than 1,000 refugees.

Consider Colvin’s passion:

At a 2010 tribute in London for journalists who were killed on the job, she said, “Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.”

Colvin was born on January 12, 1956, 11 days after I was, and grew up on Long Island, as I did. We both began our careers in journalism, though she stuck with it and I went on to do other things.

Early in my career, I wanted to go to Washington, where politics was interesting and life was safe. She wanted to “go” where the action was, to the hottest of hotspots, to dodge bullets and eat the same food, feel the same cold, and suffer the same indignities as the people caught in the middle.

She was driven by one thing – the burning desire to alert, to raise consciousness, to force action, to alleviate horror.

To Colvin as well as Ochlik and Shadid, to the many others who have died, and to those who will ignore the risks and continue to “go:”

We are in your debt.

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