National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At war
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003


Eye on the Media
Five scenes in a week


I. An ethics case

Sydney Schanberg stands up in a boat smoking a cigarette crossing the Mekong River, Cambodia, 1975 (The Village Voice, March 26- April 1). His article, “The Itch,” explains why a reporter is drawn to war.

Schanberg is a “case study” in my media ethics class. We read his New York Times Cambodia dispatches from the Vietnam war and watch “The Killing Fields” and consider the moral choices journalists face when their lives -- and the lives of those they love -- are at stake.

In the British documentary “The War Reporters,” a variety of photojournalists and freelance war junkies and idealists talk about the adrenaline rush, the salary, their careers, their desire unto death to simply record human suffering so that, they hope, the next generation might suffer less. No journalist, says Martha Gellhorn, can fully capture the horror. But we must try. We must scream!

The Independent’s Robert Fisk, speaking of his experiences in Belfast and Beirut, reminds us that all governments lie. Journalists must dig and dig to get the truth.

Last week Fisk, now in Baghdad, was the prime example of what he preached. American spokesmen refused to acknowledge that the missile that killed 62 Iraqis in the Baghdad marketplace was ours. Fisk went to the site, got a piece of the missile with the serial number 30003-704ASB7492 MFR 9621409, made by Raytheon in McKenney, Texas, which last year had a $16.8 billion contract with the Pentagon.

If that story has appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox, CNN or in any major American newspapers, I’ve missed it.

Schanberg concludes his Voice article: “If ours is truly a democracy, the people should be told and shown -- even if they wish to turn their eyes away -- exactly what is being waged in their name.”

Next week I’ll show my class the documentary, “Fear and Favor in the Newsroom,” where The New York Times fires Schanberg for criticizing the Times’ editorial page in his column.

II. Jessica tortured

The face of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch on the New York Daily News, Page One (April 3). The blurry green night scope flickering pictures of the rescue stretcher hustled across every TV screen.

The Rescuing Jessica story was that much-needed good-news break that pushed the previous day’s bad news out of the public mind.

“I saw the heads of my two little girls come off.”

A Shiite family of 17, fleeing their farm southeast of Karbala, which had been hit by bombs and rockets the day before, packed themselves into a 1974 Land Rover, and thought they were being waved through a checkpoint when our troops were actually waving it down. Without a warning shot, we opened fire with rifles and canons.

We killed 11. The father lost his daughters, two older brothers, their wives and two nieces. The previous checkpoint had waved them through. The mother repeated: “My girls -- I watched their heads come off their bodies. My son is dead.”

But rescuing Jessica is the stuff of movies. Indeed it was videotaped in process. It is certainly a big event, demonstrating the American determination -- in contrast to other nations -- to “leave no one behind.”

Except that our understanding of just what happened depends on which members of the media we can believe.

One report has her standing up like Rambo firing away till her last round was spent. But a defense official cautioned that she was “not Audie Murphy.” The Daily News said she had been tortured -- they broke her arms and legs and slapped her in the hospital. The Times reported that there was no evidence she had been tortured.

Finally someone, Daily News columnist Karen Hunter, asked the obvious: What’s a 19-year-old girl doing in combat anyway?

She joined the army to get money to pay for college.

Could we compare the cost of sending this young poor woman to college in order to make her a productive citizen to the cost of training her as a combat soldier in order to fight a war that is not important enough to call for sacrifice from the citizens who have the money to send their children to the best schools?

Now she has been promised a scholarship. And a book contract that will make both her family and her agent rich. Do we feel better?

Viewers of Mother Angelica’s conservative EWTN network feel better. On Friday night retired Admiral Jeremiah Denton told his host that he used to be against women in combat, but once he heard about Jessica with her submachine gun standing up there and firing away and “killing guys” he changed his mind.

What about the pope’s position on the war, EWTN’s host asked. The pope, said the admiral, really left it up to the various governments to decide, because the pope doesn’t have all the facts. The host nodded. So much for EWTN following the pope.

III. Aiding the injured

In a five color-picture spread across the top of two pages of the The New York Times (April 3), a 10- or 11-year-old Iraqi boy, in shorts, shirtless, his right arm enveloped in bandages, with no idea what is happening to him, is led into the operating room. The aides mop up the blood from the previous patient. The doctors remove his arm.

The Times’ John Burns is known for documenting the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime. At one stage it seemed his visa would not be renewed. But he remains in Baghdad as a tough voice describing the city’s misery and the tyrant’s struggle to survive.

His story, written with Tyler Hicks, of their visit to the Hilla hospital as it dealt with 180 wounded and 33 dead from an American tank, plane and cluster bomb attack, should make a strong man cry. In the pictures, women relatives, who seem dressed like nuns, wait for word of the dead. Men cover their noses to screen out the stink from the morgue.

Robert Fisk asks what are cluster bombs doing in a war where the leaders allegedly don’t want to kill civilians?

IV. The salute

Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., greet the commander in chief. President Bush, with his wife Laura, heads to the stage to talk of “impending victory and appreciation for their service” (Newark Star Ledger, April 4).

The picture fills half a page. The president’s backdrop is hundreds (thousands?) of men in battle garb saluting their commander. Two do not salute. One of them is taking a picture.

A journalist friend sends me a Bush quote from Bob Woodward’s book, Bush at War: “I’m the commander. ... See, I don’t need to explain. I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

V. Michael Kelly

The round, cherubic face of Michael Kelly, editor and columnist, appears on the obituary page.

Kelly had a dream career in journalism, accomplishing by the age of 46 what scores of talented men and women would love to do or be in all their lifetimes: New Yorker Washington correspondent, Washington Post columnist, editor of the New Republic -- where he was fired for dumping on the owner’s pal, Al Gore -- and editor of the National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly.

His journalist father, like mine, took him to the office as a boy to give him the smell of the newsroom. He held opinions (he hated Clinton), many of which I don’t share. Still, people described him as “warm and funny,” the kind of guy writers wanted to have a beer with. He said what he thought no matter what.

He covered the first Iraq war on his own and won awards and was determined to cover this one, embedded, because he believed the war was just. His wife was not worried. He had made it back the last time. But his Humvee came under fire and went off the road into a canal.

The new Atlantic (May) has his last words, written in March from Kuwait: “No one argues much now about whether these forces are capable of crushing even very serious opposition, and almost no one argues that Iraq offers serious opposition. Rather, the argument concerns whether the employment of this almost unfathomable power will be largely for good, leading to the liberation of a tyrannized people and the spread of freedom, or largely for bad, leading to imperialism and colonialism, with a consequent corruption of America’s own values and freedoms. This question is real enough and more: Probably the next hundred years hinges on the answer.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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