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Why do war correspondents do what they do?

The improvised explosive device attacks on ABC News anchorman Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt raise the question: Why do war correspondents do what they do? NBC News’ Tel Aviv bureau chief and lead correspondent sheds light on the answer.
/ Source: NBC News

The improvised explosive device attack that seriously injured ABC News anchorman Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt raises the question: Why do war correspondents do what they do? What keeps them going into war zones day after day, story after story?

NBC News’ Tel Aviv bureau chief and lead correspondent answers a few of those questions for

Besides the Mideast conflict, what other conflict zones have you covered and in what capacity? Knowing the risks involved, what keeps you going as a war correspondent?

First, it should be stressed that there is no mystery about why correspondents go day after day, story after story to war zones.

It's because that's where their bosses send them, day after day, story after story.

Believe me, I'd much rather cover the Paris Fashion Show or the Sundance Film Festival.

But American television news has an extremely myopic view of international affairs, and it almost exclusively revolves around war, natural disaster or any other catastrophes that capture the imagination.

One of the rare exceptions is the British royal family, and frankly, I'd rather cover a war.

Once I was working in the NBC London bureau and I had to cover Prince Charles falling off his horse. It was excruciating. Who the hell cares? Then, blow me down, he fell off his horse again, and again I had to report breathlessly to the American nation.

Anyway, to the questions at hand.

How many wars? Far, far too many.

My first was the Israel-Arab war in 1973 when I was the only foreign cameraman to cover General Sharon when he crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt.

Then the next year, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus when my soundman was killed standing next to me, and after that it became a blur of Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola, Zaire, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Lebanon, Iran-Iraq, Israel again, Lebanon, Israel again, and now Israel again.

None of that includes revolution, drought, starvation, floods, hurricanes, tsunami or even the Paris Fashion Show, which as a matter of fact I did cover once and that was the only time I ever got hurt. I slipped off the ramp and twisted a knee.

I don't mean to be flippant. Several very close friends have been killed and numerous acquaintances.

But if you ask most war correspondents, cameramen, etc. how they last so long, many, if they're truthful, which is unlikely, would reply, "Oh, no problem, a combination of drink, drugs, divorce, depression," which I notice here all begin with D, as does death.

What keeps me going? I don't drink, smoke, do drugs, or get depressed. I have no idea why I am so unaffected by all I have seen, although my wife is sure I'm simply suppressing it all.

I do have endlessly violent dreams and I sometimes get up in the middle of the night to walk the dogs.

But, what really keeps me going is that I think I'm doing a lot of good. Albert Camus wrote, "I can't stop the world being a place where children are tortured, but I can stop some children from being tortured." I feel the same. I can't change the world, but I can help a few people every day, and I try to.

One of my favorite memories is a story I did in Poland during the Solidarity movement. People were cold and hungry, and I did a story about a Swedish family that adopted a Polish family, a person-to-person financial aid program. After that aired, hundreds of Polish families were adopted in a similar way. That made me feel good.

Oh, in what capacity? I started with NBC as a cameraman, and then became a producer, and then a correspondent. So I've done everything, and the one thing I still hate to do is carry the tripod.

Why do you feel that it is important that people continue to venture into dangerous territory to ‘get the story’?
Because that's where the story often is. That said, the best stories are usually not in the dangerous areas.

In Kosovo, for two days we followed a freed Albanian who had been used as a slave-worker by the Serbs. He'd never seen his newly born first child. And we stayed with him until he walked back home to find his wife and infant son.

There are many such stories. But war correspondents gravitate toward the front to get the action because that's what gets on air.

Trouble is, the closer you get to the real action, the harder it is to actually film anything or see anything. It's just too damn dangerous, especially these days.

In former wars if there was shooting you could hide behind a wall. Today, with the new weaponry, a few well-placed shots and the wall will be gone in seconds.

So my battleground philosophy is to stay the hell away. But as that wouldn't satisfy my voracious editors, we get as close as we need to, get the story done, and get out as quickly as possible.

Still, I should also say I do believe strongly that where people suffer, the press should make every effort to be there. Minimize the risk as much as possible, but get there and bear witness.

That's very important and an honorable occupation. If we don't, terrible things happen. We can stop some of that.

Most of my family was wiped out in the Holocaust. I like to think that if a few TV crews had been able to wander around those areas, the world would have moved in.

In 1942 a British parliamentarian described reports of slaughter as coming from "those whining Jews." If there had been pictures he may not have said that and Britain and America may have acted.

How could the Hutus wipe out 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in two months without the world knowing or caring? It seems inconceivable. But there was no TV coverage.

When did the world step in to stop the starvation in Ethiopia? Once TV filmed the tragedy, and not before.

Being a husband and a father, how do you explain your sense of journalistic duty to loved ones who may worry about you?
Here I'm lucky. In 30 years of this kind of work, my wife never asked me not to go somewhere. She knew I loved my work and that she could trust me.

Then NBC asked me to go to Iraq. My wife asked me not to go. I'm Jewish, she's Israeli, living in Israel, etc. Because she asked me, I said “no” to NBC, and they never asked me to go again. There was no pressure of any kind. I've done my bit.