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March 15, 2010
Four war reporters discuss their craft on GW’s Kalb Report.
By Menachem Wecker
Martha Raddatz’s favorite answer she ever received from former President George W. Bush came in response to a question she posed about the war in Iraq at a White House press conference.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, do you believe that it’s become a civil war?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You know, it’s hard for me to say sitting in this big beautiful house. You’ve been there. I haven’t!” said Ms. Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News. “I thought, wait you’re the decider. Come on!”
Ms. Raddatz was one of four journalists who appeared on the Kalb Report program “War Reporting: The New Rules of Engagement” at the National Press Club on March 8. Marvin Kalb, James Clark Welling Presidential Fellow at GW, was joined on stage by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, national editor of The Washington Post; Cami McCormick, CBS Radio News correspondent; and Laura King, foreign correspondent at the Los Angeles Times.
Ms. Raddatz’s anecdote and its implication that civilians cannot grasp the realities of battlefields abroad from cushy American offices reflected the views of the other panelists.
“I could just stay in my little glass office in the Washington Post, but you can’t write credibly about what the United States is doing in Afghanistan without going there,” said Mr. Chandrasekaran. “I feel like I have the chance to do this. I’d be a fool not to. In one day on the ground in Afghanistan, I learn more about what is happening there than in 30 days worth of interviewing people in Washington, D.C.”
Ms. McCormick mentioned a governor in Afghanistan, who had survived three assassination attempts in as many months. American soldiers called him a marked man. When Ms. McCormick asked the governor why he continued to report to work, he said that teachers and soldiers, both of whom were also targeted, continued to do their jobs. A resignation would amount to handing Afghanistan over to the terrorists, the governor said.
“I don’t know what drew me to this type of reporting,” admitted Ms. McCormick, who has also covered natural disasters like Katrina. “In situations like that, which are so intense, you often see the very best of humanity. In a situation that is just hell on earth, in the midst of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I saw some of the greatest acts of humanity ever. As a journalist, that’s really what draws you to a story like this.”
“It’s hard to cover anything else once you’ve done it,” agreed Ms. Raddatz. “I think once you see that and once you’ve been part of it… it’s a little hard to cover a hearing on Capitol Hill. Sorry.”
Despite the “age of predator drones and laser-guided bombs,” the marines Mr. Chandrasekaran observed went to war “the old-fashioned way.” They walked through fields, with mud up to their knees. The crossed canals, where the water came up to their waists, and slept wet in near freezing temperatures, all the while being shot at more times than they could count.
One story illustrates the experience. “We were shot at so many times we were forced to lie in this muck. It took nine hours to move one mile,” said Mr. Chandrasekaran. “I thought to myself, boy, with all of the modern armaments that we have, with all of the technology, there isn’t much difference between what the marines I was with were doing and what was going on in World War II – rifles in hand, walking through fields, trying to dodge enemy fire and taking cover in ditches.”
Panelists agreed that recent journalism graduates should not be seeking jobs reporting on wars. “Don’t go marching off to a war zone shortly after graduation without the requisite training, without the resources of a large news organization to back you up. And quite frankly, a large news organization ain’t going to send you out to a war zone right after graduation,” said Mr. Chandrasekaran. “This is not the place for people to get started.”
“To any young journalist I’d just say think of all the different ways you can tell a story and different points of view that you can bring to bear,” advised Ms. King, a GW James Clark Welling Presidential Fellow.
“In this forum, students heard firsthand accounts from journalists who consistently place themselves in harm’s way, armed only with the tools of their trade,” said Michael Freedman, executive director of the GW Global Media Institute, executive producer of the Kalb Report and professor of media and public affairs. “Through their everyday work, they take us behind the scenes to paint vivid pictures of both the horrors of war and how even the worst of circumstances can bring out the best in people.”
Mr. Freedman, who hired Ms. McCormick at CBS News, stressed that Ms. McCormick went through “rigorous training” to prepare her for war and crisis reporting. “Cami is a courageous role model for all young journalists both in terms of best practices and the realities of being a war correspondent.”
“Discussions about the transformation of journalism in the 21st century generally focus on new technology and the incredible rise of social media,” he said. “At its core, however, journalism has always been -- and always will be -- about people who choose to use technology to inform, to educate and to enlighten. We had five great examples of the best in the business on this panel – four war correspondents and Marvin Kalb.”
The Kalb Report series is produced by the GW Global Media Institute, The National Press Club and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
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