... The New York Times, and other major news organizations, have no choice about covering these wars, and covering them comprehensively, if we are to be true to our tradition; with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers committed to battle over the course of the wars, more than 5,000 servicemen and women already dead, and closing in on a trillion dollars of American taxpayers’ money spent, how credible would be our claim to be one of America’s leading newspapers if we absented ourselves?
In fact, we have done the opposite, spending large sums of money, at a time of severely straitened finances for all newspapers in America, to cover the wars as fully as any publication. And a large part of doing that has been taking every reasonable precaution to protect our correspondents, photographers and local staff. Until recently, the larger risks were in Iraq, where we built what amounted to a fort for ourselves in Baghdad, with blast walls and gun towers (happily never used), armored cars, and our own guard force to protect us within the walls and beyond them. As the war in Afghanistan has worsened, we have turned our attention to improving our security there, too.But just as we have to cover these wars, we have to go out of our compounds to experience the conflict at first hand if our reporting is not to quickly descend into “hotel journalism.” Some of that, indeed much of it, has been done on embeds, where our protection comes from the military units we cover. But an essential part, too, comes from going in search of the war that embeds don’t reach – the “other side” of the war, often enough; the war as it is experienced by ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, the civilians who have done most of the dying. That was what Stephen Farrell was doing when he and Sultan set out on Saturday for the site of the fuel-tanker bombing south of Kunduz. Claims by local people put the number of civilians killed by an American F-15 Eagle bombing strike at 80 to 90, making it, if those figures were true, one of the most tragic incidents of its kind in the war. Getting to the site – to the site of any such incident –- is all the more important for the fact that rumor and ill will – and the general “fog of war” –- have played so large a part in obscuring the truth in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then there’s the other inevitability, the one that led to the death of Sultan. The Times has some New York-based reporters who speak Arabic; to my knowledge, none who are conversant in Dari and Pashtun, the two principal languages of Afghanistan. If we are to tell the story of the wars, we have to engage local staff who can accompany us as interpreters and drivers, and who can “scope out” the landscape, political, geographic and cultural, to help us fix the context of what we see and hear. That’s not an option, it’s a necessity, and one that is common to all major news organizations at war...
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
what it takes to cover war
In the wake of the deaths in Afghanistan of reporter Sultan Munadi and a British paratrooper sent to rescue him, NYTimes war correspondent John Burns writes about reporting from a war zone: what it takes to do it right, and why newspeople make the choices that they do -- often in the face of sharp criticism, as in this case, from their readers. And no, it's not about selling papers. It never is.