Journalists under fire

April 06, 2003

MICHAEL KELLY had gained quite a bit of fame as a journalist, but even as a noted Washington commentator, his work reflected the fundamental reporter's credo that there's no substitute for being there. He reported deeply from the first Persian Gulf conflict, and it was characteristic that he chose to be in Iraq now.

It was a choice that cost him his life. Mr. Kelly, The Atlantic Monthly's editor at large and a Washington Post columnist, became the first American journalist to die in this war Thursday when a Humvee in which he was riding near Baghdad fell into a canal. Mr. Kelly, who earlier in his career worked for The Sun, will be remembered as a dedicated reporter, gifted writer and courageous man.

His death is a reminder of the profound changes that hundreds of journalists who crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border with U.S. and British troops are bringing to the ways in which war can be witnessed all over the world. In the past, correspondents sent frontline dispatches, but not in such numbers or with technologies enabling virtually real-time reporting. By and large, they have been performing to high professional standards while often in harm's way.

The Pentagon's decision to "embed" them among coalition troops, with restrictions, has yielded at times some gung-ho reports. But as the drive to Baghdad became more difficult, reports from the field sometimes challenged the Pentagon's version of the war. And concerns that reporters would be compromised by their closeness to troops haven't materialized.

What's more, the speed with which their dispatches appear on cable channels or the Internet sometimes enables the news to reach the public before military reports reach the Pentagon. In a democracy reliant on a free press and an informed electorate, the importance of providing that raw reality cannot be diminished.

As such, journalists in the Iraqi theater are part of a grand tradition. World War II reporter Ernie Pyle, for example, was widely known for his compelling portraits of front-line soldiers before he was killed on a Pacific island beach. Earlier, he had questioned U.S. policy toward enemy sympathizers in North Africa - because he saw with his own eyes how that policy was being carried out.

These are still the early days of this war. The longer it persists, the more important it is to independently monitor its course and the more dangerous it may get for reporters, as Mr. Kelly's death sadly demonstrates. He died engaged in work essential to this democracy, highly hazardous work being carried on by hundreds of others.

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