George Lewis: Recovering War Junkie

Recently retired NBC News correspondent and “recovering war junkie” George Lewis has a nice piece for Zocalo about the changing landscape of war correspondence. Lewis remembers the days when journalists didn’t need to be embedded with military handlers to do their jobs, without fear of becoming cannon fodder.

If the U.S. government has changed how it treats war correspondents, so have many of the combatants. When I started out, hostile forces rarely targeted journalists. In November of 1979, I covered the taking of U.S. hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran, and even there I was rarely in danger. We’d talk to Iranian militants who’d threaten to imprison or kill us if we didn’t report the story their way, but they never followed up. Once, during a demonstration near the home of the Ayatollah Khomeini, my cameraman and I were accused of being spies and carted off to a military headquarters, where angry, bearded revolutionaries leveled their assault rifles at our heads. It was frightening, but once the demonstration ended, we were released.

Today, reporters are hunted, kidnapped, and killed in conflicts from Iraq to Mexico. News organizations send their people to “boot camps” organized by private security firms to get basic instruction in subjects such as how to act if you’re taken hostage, how to negotiate a mine field, and how to apply a tourniquet or administer CPR to a wounded colleague. (I went through one of these courses a few years ago and learned just how many things I’d done that could have gotten me and my team killed.)

With cutbacks to news budgets, much of the reporting in the Middle East has been outsourced to freelancers, many of whom operate without all the resources we had in wars past. We also use increasing numbers of local “fixers” who interpret for us and handle the logistics of coverage. They shoulder many of the frontline risks, often without any sort of insurance should they get killed or wounded.

The whole piece is worth the read.