The Tug of War
In the aftermath of Michelle Lang’s death, a reflection on the journalistic impulse to go into battle
Outside, a C-130 Hercules whines on the runway—probably American, thinks Matthew Fisher, a Canwest correspondent. He’s inside the Canadian media tent at the Kandahar Airfield in mid-January, telling me about the old days of war reporting. His tone is matter-of-fact, the result of working in over 14 war zones in 25 years. Back in the Balkans, Rwanda and Iraq, dead bodies littered the streets. There were no friendly forces in Rwanda. Forget about electricity, food or drinking water. You couldn’t jump into a conflict zone and call yourself a war correspondent. You had to prove yourself. In comparison, he says to me, Afghanistan is the “Cadillac” of war zones. “War reporting lite,” he calls being embedded. “It’s laid out like a banquet. There’s a way to file, internet’s provided, there’s electricity, there are meals.” A jet—an Aleutian 76 transport, he can tell from the reverse thrust—lands, interrupting his musing.
Fisher’s chatty mood is in stark contrast to two weeks earlier, when the 55-year-old veteran war reporter rushed back to Kandahar from Ottawa after his colleague and temporary replacement, Calgary Heraldreporter Michelle Lang, was killed along with four Canadian soldiers in a landmine explosion. In the following weeks, many, including Fisher, found solace in the knowledge that Lang—driven, curious and passionate about telling the stories of Canadian soldiers and Afghani citizens—had volunteered to go to Kandahar “for the right reasons.”
That, of course, implies that there are wrong ones. Fisher sees war reporting as a dichotomy: there are old war correspondents—vets who’ve slept in cars and dodged Molotov cocktails—and rookies. But nothing is ever that simple. There are no right or wrong reasons. Motivation to go to war, like all motivation, is complex. Yes, every journalist is there to do a job, but some also do it for ego—the glory, to say they’ve done it. Some do it in hopes of career advancement. And others are adrenaline addicts, going from conflict to conflict looking for a bigger high. Self-interest can affect coverage—reporters driven by ego are less likely to stay for the long haul. But judging one reason against another doesn’t make sense. Just as wars aren’t won based on morality, we judge journalists by their work, not their motivations.
When I first heard about Michelle Lang, I thought, “In a few years, that could be me.” As a young journalist at the beginning of my career, I wondered how I’d react if an editor asked me to go to Afghanistan. I hoped that by talking to others who’d gone, I could understand how to make the same decision for myself. Because unlike law enforcement officials, firefighters or soldiers, risking our lives is not part of the contract. Yet journalists do it. Many even yearn for the chance, and I wanted to understand why.
* * *
Brian Stewart became a journalist to work as a foreign correspondent but, now, driving in the El Salvador countryside in the midst of a civil war, he’s scared to death. It’s the early 1980s and he’s in the middle of what he calls a war of murder. Every day, right-wing death squads are hunting and massacring local peasants and villagers. They’re targeting reporters, too. A four-person Dutch TV crew has just been killed. Before that, three American nuns were raped and murdered. It’s a weird sensation, driving out toward danger rather than away from it. He’s careful to return to the capital by nightfall. Staying on the roads at dark is suicide. Some days, he curses ever taking this job.
Long before Stewart set foot in El Salvador and long before Lang landed in Kandahar, war reporting was dangerous. Ask the 66 journalists who were killed covering World War II, according to Freedom Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based press advocacy organization. Ask the 12 killed in the Philippines last November by gunmen in a single roadside massacre. Some were mutilated before they were murdered; others simply beheaded. Closer to home, ask Mellissa Fung, who was kidnapped by bandits and held in Afghanistan for almost a month. Even if you’re not captured or killed, you see things. Smell things. You leave with scars.
War reporters aren’t extraordinary people. Fung grew up in Vancouver, wrote for the same student paper I did at the University of British Columbia, then studied journalism at Columbia University in New York. Lang, whose parents named her after the Beatles’ song, was a graduate of Simon Fraser University, where my sisters went to school, and was excitedly planning her wedding. They’re ordinary people, lying on their cots, hearing the jets overhead and thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
* * *
Reporters in Afghanistan love to talk about accountability, one of those right reasons for going to war. By the end of February, Canada had lost 140 soldiers in Afghanistan. And by the end of the mission in 2011, we’ll have spent at least $12 billion doing it. “There’s been so much blood and treasure extended in Afghanistan by Canada that there has to be some kind of reckoning, some kind of accounting of what’s transpired here,” Fisher says. He hears all the time that Canadians feel they don’t know enough about what’s happening there. I tell him I’ve heard the same.
Others talk about bearing witness—the instinctual, almost perverse voyeuristic desire to see the big story. After all, war is inherently tragic. Inherently dramatic. And curiosity is, without a doubt, part of a journalist’s makeup. Reporters who grew up reading Ernest Hemingway’s war coverage—he stormed Omaha Beach with the American troops and took up arms in Rambouillet in World War II—may crave the adventure they’ve read about. “I wanted to see it with my own eyes and taste with my own tongue, what was going on,” Canadian Press reporter Colin Perkel says. Bob Bergen, professor at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and former military journalist, calls this the Siren song. “It’s a terrible song,” he says, “but you want to hear it… It’s a terrible beauty.”
Accountability, curiosity—the reasons everyone talks about. But I can’t help but doubt how comforting they’d be if I were sleeping on the floor in a town I’d never heard of. Or lying in a hotel crammed with 500 journalists all trying to scoop one another. Accountability? Not very comforting when bullets are flying.
Stephen Thorne covered the Kosovo War for CP and did three stints in Afghanistan before his bosses transferred him back to the copy desk in Ottawa. War reporting was his calling. Afghanistan was a chance to do something important. But there’s also the adrenaline rush. In 2002 in eastern Afghanistan, Thorne was the only daily reporter on board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter with a Canadian reconnaissance team of eight. They ended up finding a bunker and cave with Taliban inside. Someone called in U.S. forces. One hundred troops. One hundred metres away. They blew a guy’s head off. All the while, Thorne was on the phone with the radio desk, doing a play-by-play. It’s addictive.
For some correspondents, war becomes all that they know. They embrace this addiction, substituting conflict for normalcy back home. Many of them pay for it, too. Thorne suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Then his wife left him. “It was worth it, I guess. I didn’t want my wife to leave me, but that’s life.”
* * *
It’s 1965 and Cliff Lonsdale is 20 years old. He’s been reporting since he was in Grade 10, but England’sSouthern Evening Echo has just given him a big break. To the guys in the newsroom, he’s the new kid. Hiseditor approaches him one day: a car accident. “Go see the mum and get the picture.” Great. Another one of those tests. A knot forms in his chest as he knocks on the door. A woman answers. “Yes?” she asks brightly—smiling, even. She doesn’t know yet. He tells her, and she collapses. He wishes the world would open up and swallow him whole. Instead, he leaves with a picture.
Back at his desk, he hears two of the older reporters talking. “Hey, did you hear what happened to the new guy? Got the picture anyway. He’s one of us.” Lonsdale wants to say something, but instead shuts up and keeps writing. Part of him is pleased. “Oh good, they think I’m tough,” he realizes, not entirely bitterly.
“Macho” may be a sexist, passé term, but the sentiment remains. Journalists—often younger journalists—want to prove themselves. And that can be a dangerous dynamic: Vets tell us that time in a war zone will help our career. Maybe keep our jobs, even. And in a tough time for the industry, it doesn’t seem like such a bad deal: Take on this risk and earn some credibility in the newsroom. A six-week rite of passage? Not so bad, some of us figure.
* * *
But this notch in the belt comes at a price. Soldiers know the difference, vets say, and when a rookie enters the field unable to tell a major from a sergeant major, all journalists lose credibility. When a gung-ho type enters the field unprepared or unaware of the risks, everyone is at risk. And when a correspondent enters the field with little interest in war reporting, coverage suffers.
The Canadian Forces Media Embedding Program sets out strict criteria for incoming journalists. In addition to bringing mandatory items (a Kevlar helmet, level IV body armour with ceramic plates, ballistic eyewear and their own eating utensils), reporters embed for a fixed time—in most cases, about six weeks. The military says those who stay longer tend to burn out. True, maybe. But short stints are also in the forces’ own interest: experts, after all, ask tougher questions.
The real problem lies not simply in the gung-ho or the self-promoters. After all, as Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford tells me, “It’s not like they go as tourists. They work when they’re there.” But those only interested in punching their ticket are more likely to do just the one rotation, then never return: “parachute journalism,” in other words. “What this story has badly needed is people who saw it in the beginning, saw it in the middle stages and now see it in the latter stages,” says Fisher. “That’s where you really get an understanding of what’s happening. If you just come here once for a few weeks, you don’t get that sense. Afghanistan is a hugely complex environment.”
As with any beat, reporters who are familiar with the players and issues do the best job. But war correspondents often don’t pass on their knowledge once they return home and incoming reporters must fend for themselves. “Journalists are like cats,” Bergen says. “A cat lives a life and it dies, and another one starts and it’s no wiser for being there.”
Well aware of this problem, large media outlets assign reporters to be there “permanently” (often six weeks on, six weeks off): Fisher for Canwest, James Murray for CBC, a small group of reporters rotating one at a time through the country for CP and, until last year, Paul Workman for CTV and Graeme Smith for the Globe. Despite this, there’s no easy fix. Fatigue is a real problem. Most of the vets from past wars didn’t have to deal with a 24-hour news cycle, or filing for the web, radio and television along with print. Older correspondents had time to work and time to rest. Plus, asking journalists to essentially abandon their lives for years at a time is, admittedly, a hard sell. A single six-week rotation is one thing, but doing it for years on end, as Fisher has done since 2002, is a different challenge entirely.
* * *
For reporters simply out to get a victim’s picture, the motivations have little to do with moral duty. After working at the Toronto Star and the Victoria Times Colonist, I know, because I’ve done it. When reporters break a political sex scandal, the public’s right to know may be part of the motivation. But it’s not the only one. Selling the newspaper, scooping the competition or simply raising your own A1 count are just some of the others. And as long as your work is good, no one in the newsroom will question your motivations.
Sure, journalism is crucial for a functioning democracy, and some of the best work exposes injustice, corruption and gets people talking about important social issues. But the daily stuff-—the nitty gritty “I’m-working-to-deadline-and-nobody’s-calling-me-back” stuff—that’s about fear and ego. That’s about “I have to get this interview. I have to get a quote. I have to at least match what the other guys had.”
When reporters are five minutes from deadline, behind on a story and have an editor breathing down their necks, how many can say they’re thinking about the public’s right to know? I certainly can’t. I’m thinking about saving my own skin. I’m thinking, “I hope the editors won’t think less of me if I don’t get this story.”
Maybe that’s not what journalism is supposed to be about, but that’s what daily newsrooms are like.
When it comes to motivations to do almost anything, that “public’s right to know” is almost always on top of the list. And no one’s lying—most of us believe it. We like to believe we’re doing good. But the in-the-moment reasons are often very different from the big-picture reasons.
Not to say that one is better than the other. Calling some reasons right and others wrong is simplistic. Newsrooms don’t reward morality over all else. Some journalists will point their fingers at others—“bang-bang journalists” who create pornography of violence and death, for example—as being reprehensible. But the bang-bang journalists show us the gruesome realities of war.
Separating one human impulse from another is impossible—like pinching at a tightly wound spool of thread. There’s no point. They’re connected. Same with soldiers, aid workers and anyone else drawn to war: the reasons are varied and convoluted. Even for those journalists who claim they’re going to war for the “right” reasons, there’s almost always ego at play. Many journalists say they want to see Afghanistan with their own eyes. It’s genuine curiosity and passion, they say: a right reason. But why them? It’s not just that they believe the war is the biggest, most important story; they also think, “I deserve to be the one telling this.” Pure ego.
Many of the vets say they went to war for the challenge. They like to cite the harsh conditions Fisher describes from the old days—rationed food and drinking water, sleeping on the floor for up to 37 consecutive days, being bitten by rats—and equate the challenging circumstances with the right reasons.
After all, they’ve taken on one of the toughest assignments there is. That’s heroic, isn’t it? But then they talk about the personal challenge that war represented. They wanted to test themselves. See how well they could do. Ego again. Those young kids, they don’t have nothin’ on us.
* * *
Fisher hopes to stay in Afghanistan until the last soldier leaves. According to the government’s current plan, this means he’ll be there until the end of 2011—more than nine years since he first began covering the war. He wants to keep doing what he does for as long as possible, but he’s getting older and is under no illusion he can continue forever. He wishes there were more journalists like Lang to whom he could pass the torch, but acknowledges that not everyone is up for it. “To soldiers, it’s their job,” he says, pausing for a moment before continuing. “We are there willingly.”
Willing, perhaps. But maybe not for the reasons he thinks. Journalists do things for myriad reasons—ones we’re proud of, and ones we’re not. Usually, they’re tied together in incomprehensible ways. Newsrooms aren’t set up with moral calculators or run by some divine law. Motivations mean little in newsrooms. Nobody is perfect, of course, least of all journalists.
As we near the end of our conversation, Fisher pauses. “What are your thoughts?” he asks, rather pointedly. “Is this the kind of work you’re interested in doing?” Silence. I hear nothing but the roar of the airfield. I don’t know how to answer his question. If I say yes, would it be for reasons he’d think were the wrong ones? My interests. My motivations. I wonder if he will judge me.
But then I realize I’m judging myself after all.