Recalling journalists who died in conflict


October 01, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

President Bush doesn't read the newspapers or pay much attention to other media reports, he told Fox News Channel's Brit Hume last week. The president said aides deliver the news themselves.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't much care for the state's two largest newspapers. They invariably seek out ways, he believes, to say bad things about his administration.

In returning from Iraq early last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives promptly denounced the media's coverage of the tenuous postwar period as unreasonably gloomy.

It's common and easy to slap the press around as a way of dismissing unwanted developments. Easy and often cheap. Some reporters who travel to distant lands to cover war may be seeking to make their careers. But it is serious and dangerous work - far more perilous than, say, the experience of lawmakers shepherded around relatively subdued areas with a heavy military consort.

"I don't think a nation ever is as focused as when it goes into war," says Tom Brokaw, the anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News. "It affects to one degree or another every family or American.

"In the end, journalists are there to let their readership and their television viewers know what is going on in their name," Brokaw says.

Up in Crampton's Gap this morning, on a sliver of federal land near Gathland State Park where the Battle of South Mountain was fought in 1862, Brokaw and Ehrlich will join with U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to honor four American journalists who died covering conflict since the 9/11 attacks. The event is to be open to the public.

Three of the reporters died while covering conflict in Iraq. They were Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly, a columnist for the Washington Post and a former Sun reporter killed when the Humvee in which he rode capsized in a canal while trying to avoid heavy fire; Elizabeth Neuffer, a correspondent for the Boston Globe, who was killed in a car accident; and David Bloom of NBC News, who suffered a pulmonary embolism while traveling in a small military tank.

A fourth, Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, was killed after Islamic extremists abducted him in Pakistan. He had been researching the links between Pakistani militants and a British-born Muslim who sought to blow up an airplane using explosives in his shoes.

Los Angeles Times correspondent Mark Fineman, who died last week after collapsing from a heart attack in Baghdad, will be acknowledged as well. However, his death occurred too late to be included in the plaque commissioned for today's event. A memorial service will be held honoring Fineman next Tuesday evening at the National Press Club in Washington.

Seventeen journalists have died in Iraq since the start of this spring's U.S.-led invasion, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Twelve suffered combat-related deaths. Four were American, and a fifth was working for a U.S. network. Just last week, a bombing targeted a Baghdad hotel serving as the headquarters for NBC's operations there.

"This is one of the most deadly conflicts [for journalists] in the past decade," says Joel Simon, deputy director of the journalism group.

A visit a few days ago to the Civil War Correspondents Memorial near Burkittsville yielded a distinctive, which is to say, peculiar sight. The memorial is a freestanding, 50-foot-tall brick monument bordered by different-sized turrets on each side. The design was inspired by a B&O Railroad depot and a firehouse in Hagerstown. Three small arches are arrayed above a single large one. An alcove houses a restored statue of Orpheus, the mythic singer of ancient Greece who could charm all with his music and tales. One inscribed tablet reads: "Speed"; another: "Heed."

The memorial was the vanity brainchild of George Alfred Townsend, a Union loyalist who covered the Civil War for the New York Herald. As The Sun described the unveiling on Oct. 17, 1896, the memorial honored the 157 writers, photographers and artists "who followed the fortunes of the blue and the gray in `late unpleasantness.'"

One of Ehrlich's predecessors, Gov. Lloyd Lowndes, untethered florid praise.

"[T]o be successful, they must have had the elements of courage, industry, knowledge and the power of vivid description," Lowndes said, as recorded by The Sun. "Justice has never been fully accorded to that class of devoted men who risked their lives and health that the truth might be written and the story of the army correctly told."

According to many historians who study the era, those correspondents were high on pluck and low on accuracy. "By today's standards, they were brave and they could endure a lot of hardship," says James Roark, professor of history at Emory University. "The newspapers in the Civil War were extensions of antebellum newspapers. They were all political rags. Their real specialty was rumor and gossip."

It was, however, a start, Roark says. "There was a free flow of information, with almost no censors anywhere."

Bush and Ehrlich have been among those who have lauded the efforts of journalists such as Bloom in covering the war in Iraq. At the heart of the work of those correspondents is the fundamental mission that should be common to all reporters: discerning the truth and then airing it, even when it might offend the sensibilities of the powerful.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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