Remembering those fearless journalists who sacrificed their lives in war-torn arenas where regimes have generated “fake news” long before it became fashionable, and where the concept, “freedom of the press,” is a mockery.
Here’s a confession: I am still stunned when I hear people, from our president on down, rail about “fake news.” Indeed, in the eyes of more than a few of my friends, the descriptor “fake news” encompasses entire media operations (i.e., CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post).
I earned a degree in journalism at Northwestern University in 1981, and worked in that craft, primarily as a magazine editor, for 24 years. Based on my experience in the field, I can attest to the two things that journalists most fear:
1. Putting a “story” or “piece” (the generic labels for every variety of journalistic output) into the public domain and realizing you, along with those charged with proofing your copy, have omitted some piece of vital information (i.e., a subject’s age in an obituary, or a spokesperson’s job title in an unsolved murder case).
2. Getting a fact wrong.
The initial reaction of a reporter upon seeing his or her piece in the newspaper or on the Web, and realizing that a key fact is wrong is generally as follows: “Holy Shit! Now I have to face the music. I don’t want to face the music! Maybe I should just resign!”
A former volunteer with Teach for America, James Foley became an embedded journalist with USAID-funded development projects in Iraq. In 2011, he started freelancing for the GlobalPost, The New York Times, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presses. In November, 2012, while covering the civil war in Syria for Agence France-Presses, Foley was kidnapped by Shabiha militiamen, a group loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. His captors demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom, which his family could not afford to pay and which the U.S. government was unwilling to pay. However, in July, 2014, after Foley had been held for nearly two years, President Barack Obama ordered an ambitious rescue attempt involving multiple branches of the U.S. Special Forces. Unfortunately, Foley and several other hostages, now under control of ISIS, had been moved to a different site. Foley was beheaded less than a month later, purportedly to avenge U.S. bombings in Iraq. The appearance of the video depicting Foley’s execution on jihadist websites marked mainstream America’s introduction to ISIS and it’s brutal, demonic concepts of “justice.”
Fortunately, (because, otherwise, newsrooms would be emptying out) editors recognize that numerous factors, particularly deadline pressure, virtually assure that even veteran reporters will occasionally “get it wrong.” Rest assured, however, everyone in the newsroom is keeping score. Reporters who force an undue number of “retractions,” likely will find themselves covering high school sports or having to accept reassignment to the features department, home of the “puff piece.”
Steven Sotloff, (right), was a freelance photographer with dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, whose parents were both Holocaust survivors. He developed a sizable network of sources (almost exclusively Muslim) while covering the post-“Arab Spring” conflicts raging throughout the Middle East. As a consequence, the Jewish Sotloff took to identifying himself as a Muslim, even purportedly undergoing a “quicky” conversion to the Muslim faith shortly before he was captured and subsequently beheaded my ISIS militants in August, 2014.
Which brings us back to “fake news.” In my opinion, when most people dismiss a piece of reporting as “fake news,” what they are really saying is that they feel the piece is biased one way or the other. Fair enough! We all understand, for instance, that CNN “tilts” liberal, while Fox News “tilts” conservative. In fact, I’ll go a step farther and assert that the world as perceived by viewers of Fox News is radically different from the world as perceived by viewers of CNN. But, c’mon folks! Neither Fox News or CNN traffics in
“fake news.” When these respective cable news stations transition from reporting the day’s news to convening their panels of “experts” they are sending a clear signal to their viewers: Okay, you just heard the news, some of which turns our stomachs, but, hey, what can we do? These are the facts as we know them, but please relax dear viewers, because now we are in “opinion” mode. Couch-riding Television news junkie that I am, I sometimes have to remind myself
The beheading of Steven Sotloff, August, 2014.
Associated Press photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for the work of her and her AP team in Iraq. She was killed on April 4, 2014, while covering the presidential election in Afghanistan. Niedringhaus and her friend, fellow reporter Kathy Gannon, were waiting at a checkpoint when an Afghan police commander (later sentenced to death) opened fire on their car, killing them both. Niedringhaus was 48.
that what attracted me to journalism in the first place is the promise that if you are persistent, patient, and in some cases, courageous, you will find the truth of something.
Journalists plying their trade in the U.S are relatively lucky. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), from 1992 to 2017 only seven have been killed in the line of duty, two of whom were killed by a disgruntled colleague recently fired from the same station in which they worked. (Adam Ward and Allison Parker, WBDJ Television).
Reporting on the news elsewhere in the world is considerably more dangerous. According to CPJ, 2,192 journalists working outside the U’S. ( including American journalists posted overseas) have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1982.
Those of you who, emboldened by the man currently occupying the White House, relish mocking and marginalizing members of the press need to be aware of two things:
- Our Founding Fathers took pains to enshrine in the very first of their amendments to the newly minted U.S. Constitution what they considered the most fundamental of our god-given liberties, the twin pillars of which are freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
- Political leaders, whether freely elected or dictators and regardless of ideology,are powerfully vested in self preservation. Hence, they are not inclined to share that which they wish to to remain secret. Those of you who follow world events likely will agree that the first recourse of despotic regimes under threat is to stifle their news media, which can range from censorship to imprisonment to murder.
The journalists honored in my blog were fearless. They chose to work in the world’s most volatile regions — Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Ukraine. Their determination to strip away the hubris and uncover the truth of a thing, whatever the cost, explains why I feel so hopeful about journalism’s future. Do you presume for a moment that these courageous men and women cower over threat and intimination? And for that matter, do you presume that the thousands of working journalists here and abroad wil stop doing their jobs because mobs of wannabe petty tyrants are out for their heads? Well, if I can just step out of retirement for a moment and pin my press credentials back on…Try us!
French photojournalist Camille LePage, whose work appeared in the French newspapers Le Monde and Libération as well as major U.S. outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, was committed to the deep documentation of under-covered conflicts in eastern and central Africa. Last seen on May 6, 2014, traveling in a jeep with rebel militiamen in the war-torn Central African Republic, Lepage’s body was discovered about a week later in what U.N. authorities described as an “unsolved murder.” She was 26.
The work of photojournalist Andrei Stenin, appeared not only in leading Russian magazines, but also in international news agencies including the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence Presse-France, and TASS (Russia’s leading news agency). A fearless chronicler of the Conflict in the Ukraine, Stenin was last sighted in eastern Ukraine on August, 5, 2014, In mid-August, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said that Stenin had been arrested by the Ukrainian Security Service for “aiding and glorifying terrorism.” He later backtracked on the statement. Stenin was finally confirmed dead on Sept. 3, 2014. The Russia news agency RT News reported that Stenin was in a vehicle traveling in a convoy of escaping civilians when it came under heavy fire.
At Michel du Cille’s memoriam, his son Leighton described du Cille as “a quiet man who spoke loudly with images he shot, as well as a closet Trekkie who binge-watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The three-time Politzer Prize winner, currently with The Washington Post, was coming off a 21-day Ebola quarantine and a few weeks of rest when he decided he had to go back to west Africa to continue documenting the devastating effects of the virus. He collapsed while walking on foot from a village in Liberia’s Bong County, and died of an apparent heart attack on December 11, 2014. He was 58.
Simone Camilli, an Associated Press videographer, was reporting in Gaza over the summer of 2014 when he was killed along with his translator Ali Shehda Abu Afash by an unexploded missile thought to be of Israeli origin while it was being defused. Hired by the AP in Rome in 2005, Camilli frequently covered Israel and Gaza, basing himself recently in Beirut. He co-produced a 2011 documentary with Pietro Bellorini, About Gaza, which detailed the roots of the conflict and featured interviews with Gazans about life in the region. He was 35.
Andrea Rocchelli was in Sloviansk, Ukraine, covering skirmishes between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russia separatists, when he was killed by a mortar shell along with his fixer and another journalist. He founded the Italian photo agency Cesura in 2008, and contributed to Newsweek and Le Monde, among other publications. He had also covered the conflict in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Libya. He was 31.
Specialist Hilda Clayton, combat photographer, was in the Army’s 55th Signal Company and deployed in the eastern Afghanistan province of Laghman in 2013. Her job came at a critical time in the United States military as it focused more on training Afghans and as American women were poised to play a larger role in combat deployments. It was the same year that the Pentagon said it would lift a ban on women serving in combat roles. On July 2, 2013, Specialist Clayton was sent on a live-fire exercise to train Afghan soldiers in combat photography. At one point, one of the Afghan soldiers dropped a mortar round into the tube and a malfunction occurred. Suddenly, flames billowed. Debris and shrapnel sprayed. An Afghan soldier put his hands to his ears — those were the movements that Specialist Clayton captured. Clayton, along with four Afghan soldiers were killed in the blast, but her camera survived, enabling her images to be retrieved. Specialist Hilda Clayton was 22.
Canadian-born freelance journalist Ali Mustafa went to Syria to cover the gaps he felt were missing in mainstream media. As he has said “The only way I could truly get a sense of the reality on the ground was to go there to figure it out for myself.” Beyond his photographic contribution as a SIPA press photographer, he also kept an active Instagram and Twitter account. One of his last posts on Twitter, dated soon before his March 9 death, links to a photo of a young boy carrying a sack of objects near a demolished home. He has stated that his aim was to portray “the way war impacts us as human beings.” He was killed during an airstrike in Syria on March 8, 2014. He was 33.