When it comes to 'Cowards,' we can relate

September 11, 2005|By Susan Reimer

ALL CREDIT TO the Weather Channel's gutsy Jim Cantore, but you won't find me lashed to a telephone pole in 100 mile-per-hour winds while reporting from the teeth of a hurricane.

I'd rather wax poetic about how a rainstorm looks from behind the French doors in my cozy kitchen.

And praise be to my journalistic brothers in Iraq, bouncing through the desert in paper-thin Humvees to bring us news of the war.

I'd rather write something funny about my beach vacation.

It is Ivory Tower journalism for me, faithful reader.

Let me tell you how to raise your kids and plant your garden and roast a chicken. I am not doing any reporting that requires me to visit an Army surplus store first.

As the kids say: Been there. Done that. Have the T-shirt.

I once received a telephone tip and retrieved a letter from the Weather Underground just as an explosion for which it claimed credit blew a gaping hole in Pittsburgh's Gulf Building.

I had an editor insist that I carry a gun while working the night shift.

My very first assignment here at The Sun was to visit the home of a high school athlete who died during a sports practice, and ask the family for a picture to run in the paper.

I once flew to Miami with the Baltimore Colts and spent the entire flight mysteriously locked in the airplane bathroom.

And I covered the America's Cup of yachting while unconscious. I was so seasick that I overdosed on Dramamine, and they nearly had to take me off the press boat in a stretcher.

And that doesn't include former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver and his foul mouth.

After more than a quarter century in this business, I am no longer willing to do the kind of journalism that requires me to buy different clothes, unless it is fashion journalism.

So you can see why I laughed out loud at Chris Ayres' account of his tour in Iraq for The Times of London, recounted in his new book, War Reporting for Cowards (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23).

To begin with, Ayres was a foreign correspondent of a different sort -- assigned to Los Angeles and fully expecting his toughest logistical assignment to be getting a seat at the right table at the right restaurant.

But, hung over and half asleep, he offered up an ill-considered "Love to!" when his editor called one morning and asked if he wanted to cover the war in Iraq.

Iraq is no place for a clueless hypochondriac like Ayres, and a Marine squad that called itself "the Long Distance Death Dealers" is not exactly the red-carpet crowd he expected to hang with.

During a radio interview, he speaks with typical British matter-of-factness of the surreal praise the unit received for the number of body parts that were scattered after one of its direct hits. His mix of humor and horror has a kind of Yossarian quality of disbelief to it.

Ayres compares the assignment to "the worst camping trip of your life." But it lasted only nine days. The military threw Ayres out of Iraq when it was discovered that he had the same satellite phone signal as Saddam Hussein, and every time he made a call, he put himself and the Long Distance Death Dealers in danger of a bombing raid.

He cheerfully packed up his designer camping gear -- including the Day-Glo tent that made him a Day-Glo target -- and his Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East and headed home to write a very funny book.

His is the kind of truth and honesty we need more of in journalism: Reporters who cheerfully admit that their idea of a hazardous assignment is one in which the pressroom does not have an open bar.

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