Courage Isn’t Enough

Learning from other people’s mistakes

It all came back to me in March 1984 when standing in the CBC national newsroom in Toronto: someone handed me a wire story out of El Salvador reporting that the American photographer John Hoagland had been caught in a cross fire and killed.

It was Hoagland, on assignment for Newsweek, who had upbraided me when I met him earlier that year outside of the Camino Real Hotel, one of those hotels forever linked in journalists’ minds as the Salvador war hotel. I was then a senior journalist and field producer for a CBC TV news team that had been in San Salvador long enough to get press credentials, a translator and a van that we’d loaded with our gear. We were ready to roll out and find some “bang-bang.” I introduced myself to Hoagland and asked him a few questions about where the fighting was taking place. But what I got in return were expletives: “You fucking TV guys. You come in here and think that you can just head out somewhere without first doing your homework,” or something to that effect.

“Do you have any idea where you are going? You are heading right into a contested area that is dangerous!” He shook his head and abruptly walked away. I was shaken. I should have known better. I was also jolted back to reality. I realized that, in my eagerness to demonstrate my gutsiness to our correspondent who’d never been to Salvador and our TV crew, I was about to put us all at risk. It was a sobering exchange, so instead of looking for bang-bang that day, we spent our time cruising the outskirts of San Salvador.

Yet the irony wasn’t lost on me when I thought about that incident and then about Hoagland’s death. He knew what he was doing—he didn’t take foolish chances—and still he lost his life because he’d got himself caught in a cross fire trying, like most remarkable still photographers, to get as close to the action as possible. Our Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial that honors journalists who’ve been killed on assignment carries this note about Hoagland: “The last two pictures in his camera show the ground swirling up to meet the falling photographer, who kept his finger on the shutter until he died.”

If ego got in the way of the safety of me and my crew in El Salvador, then it was stupidity that nearly did me in at the conclusion in 1983 of the bloody Shouf war in the mountains above Beirut. Again on assignment for the CBC, breaking from my inside responsibilities as the executive producer of our flagship news program, “The National,” I wanted to test myself back in the field. I volunteered to relieve the CBC’s exhausted field producer who had done a long and dangerous stint in Beirut. At the time, well before the Balkans had replaced the Middle East as the most unstable region of the world, the Lebanese civil war, fought against the backdrop of an Israeli-PLO showdown with its TV pictures of the ruins of Beirut, dominated international news coverage.

But several weeks after arriving there, a cease-fire was negotiated, and the fighting among the warring factions in the Shouf Mountains, once home to popular ski resorts, was finally called to a bloody halt.

On the day that the cease-fire went into effect, the correspondent and I decided that the story could best be told, and given an important Canadian angle, by driving to the mountain village of Kfar Matta, where some of the most ferocious fighting had taken place and where the Canadian correspondent Clark Todd, who worked for a rival TV network, had been killed—perhaps murdered—earlier in the war. If peace was restored there, we thought, there was indeed some hope that it might last.

But to get to the village and back in time to edit and feed our piece by satellite that evening, we had to leave early, shoot quickly and race back. My colleagues back in Toronto had heard me rail about the sin of missing a feed deadline, and I felt under enormous self-imposed pressure to make sure that we delivered this story on time.

While driving up into the mountains we spotted what appeared to be a convoy of open trucks, filled with refugees and their belongings, headed for their home villages. It would make an excellent opening establishing shot, and our cameraman and soundman jumped out to record it.

Suddenly the convoy came to a halt. Across the road from where I had remained by our van, I could see that our cameraman and soundman were now being held by someone, not a fighter, who appeared to be waving a pistol at them. He gestured quite wildly and seemed to demand our camera. While it didn’t appear that any of us was in danger, this disruption was eating into our scarce time to get to the village. While our cameraman and soundman tried to reason with the man, I noted that our camera was unattended and that I might just be able to retrieve it. But as I made my move, the man wielding the pistol moved rapidly in my direction and pointed the pistol at me. He fired, I dropped—as I understand is a natural reflex—to a fetal position. I assumed that I’d been killed or was about to be. But the man had fired off to one side.

Alive and in shock, the next thing I knew we were all surrounded by members of one of the warring Shouf factions, a jeep full of armed Druze militia. They had watched this drama unfold and swept in once they saw what was about to happen.

The man, a thieving carpet merchant who didn’t want pictures of his booty or him recorded was disarmed and taken away. Hours later we got our camera back, slightly damaged and inoperative, and we were released from custody. There was now no prospect of traveling on to Kfar Matta. We returned to the famed Commodore Hotel to regroup and to see about getting our camera repaired.

I am uncomfortable telling these stories. They undermine the pride I felt at the time, thinking that I enjoyed a reputation of sorts for being willing to put myself at risk in these dangerous war zones, and they highlight the clumsiness and inexperience that marked my forays into hostile environments. As I reflect on these ventures, I think that what propelled me was a mixture of motives, ranging from a personal need to come to terms with never having served in Vietnam, owing to a medical deferment, to a professional sense of curiosity about what was really happening in the trouble spots of the world. Both of these impulses sent me toward zones of danger, but neither would have given me the slightest sort of survival skills once there.

Also, when I look back on what took me to a war or two as a producer for the CBC and a risky stint at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station that was presumed about to blow up, I was, even at the time of these episodes, aware that it wouldn’t hurt my news career to be on these high-profile assignments. I had already figured out that those who’d been in the field enjoyed more status than those who’d never put themselves on the line covering conflicts. That was a conventional journalistic wisdom of the times, and in most major news organizations—whether it was The New York Times, CBS News or the CBC—you could often trace how national editors or executive producers had held foreign bureau positions or been on major international assignments before assuming managerial positions.

As I moved up the CBC executive ladder myself, I shared that viewpoint. When I became chief news editor of the CBC, I tended to appoint to senior positions those journalists who were aware of the risks and dangers that they were asking others to take in the field. I also shared a view common for those times that someone’s refusal of any assignment to a potentially dangerous area smacked of cowardice, especially if that person willingly accepted pleasant assignments to exotic locales. In fact, I was determined to fire the French soundman who worked out of our Paris bureau because he had refused to accompany the cameraman to several conflicts. But the sound recordist had French law on his side, and I proved unsuccessful in sacking him.

Looking back on those two experiences in El Salvador and Lebanon—and there are other examples where I also did ill-advised things—I realize that the willingness to go into dangerous places was not enough to guarantee my safety, the safety of anyone who worked with me or our ability to capture an important story and bring it home to our viewers. We all desperately needed the kind of training for “hostile environments” that is now readily available in Britain for journalists who are about to be dispatched to their first conflict.

Until the BBC developed these courses—working closely with ex-British soldiers who realized that there was a genuine need (and good business opportunity) to sell their soldier survival skills to journalists—there was nothing in the way of training for anyone heading out the door to cover a civil war or a natural disaster. If you’d been in the military yourself, you had some sense of readiness, or if you were an avid camper, you had some idea of how to protect yourself and handle adversity. But in the words of British news photographer Gary Knight, if you were neither, “You became experienced by surviving your first assignment.”

If you were lucky, you were never confronted with life-and-death decisions that tested your resourcefulness. But if you were unlucky or stupid—as I’d been in Lebanon—you called on reserves that simply weren’t there.

But Andrew Kain, an ex-Special Air Service soldier who can rightly lay claim to being the founding father of these battlefield-training courses, feels that too many deaths of journalists attributed to “being at the wrong place at the wrong time” are in reality a result of misjudgments, the kind of misjudgments that I made. Too often, Kain feels, journalists tragically “took the wrong road” or didn’t pick up danger signals that are part of a hyperawareness that the training courses help to engender.

Kain acknowledges that some of the highest-profile journalists take excessive risks but that those who live to report their stories make careful calculations and also may just be plain lucky, even if they’ve never sat through one of his courses. But Kain, an amateur military historian, quotes Otto von Bismarck: “Only a fool learns from experience. I learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Kain and I talked about the differences between time-honored (and prize-honored) journalistic risk taking and dangerously foolish courage at the end of a Marshall Center-organized conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on “military and media relations.” After Kain and I parted, I returned to my room and resumed reading former foreign correspondent Peter Maass’ book, Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, about the Bosnian war. (I was about to go to Bosnia for the first time, having been stuck in London as bureau chief along with other CBC duties.)

I resumed reading precisely where Maass describes his decision to drive down a dirt road that a Muslim villager told him would lead to a Serb-run prison camp. “We returned to the car and discussed the desirability of heading down the dirt track. Should we give it a shot? The answer was obviously no.” Maass then says, “And so we headed down the dirt road.”

Maass and his companions were soon spotted, and he was convinced they would be executed in the remote surrounding cornfields. But miraculously, they were released. Maass in telling the story says: “I was also dismayed by the realization that I had the capacity to act like a crazy SOB, despite my better judgment. The degree of stupidity in heading down that dirt track cannot be measured.”

But Maass said that he, like so many other driven journalists, was like a “bloodhound on the scent of a fox” and was determined to get to the camps to see for himself what was being done to Bosnian Muslims. He did later accomplish that mission and gave the world the benefit of his eyewitness reports.

During the kosovo conflict, all Western journalists, save one—Canadian Paul Watson reporting for the Los Angeles Times—did the sensible and safe thing and stayed out of Kosovo once NATO started its bombing campaign. But Watson felt that in good conscience he couldn’t remain outside and went right back in and continued to file throughout the war. Said Watson (who was awarded the George Polk Award in 1999 for his reporting of the war in Kosovo) in a piece reflecting on what he’d done: “The few colleagues who knew what I was doing said I was insane. My wife understood that I had to go back. So I went. It would probably take a psychiatrist to really understand why I felt compelled to return and offer Serbs an easy target for revenge against Westerners but everyone has his own ghosts.” And Watson is one of the few correspondents who says openly that some stories are worth dying for. In a March 2000 Freedom Forum debate in London on the coverage of Kosovo he said that “I don’t wish death on anybody, but in this business if you choose to do it, the first decision you have to make is: “‘I’m willing to make the sacrifice.’”

I did put the question to a Canadian psychiatrist, one who himself has been under fire and is fascinated by what motivates journalists to take the risks they do. Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a South African by birth, served as a medical officer during the bloody Namibian conflict in 1984. He kept a diary, later published in a small book called In Conflict. Feinstein, who distinguished himself in his medical work in the conflict, is greatly admiring of those journalists who do feel a higher calling and are willing to put their lives on the line: “I would put it to you that journalists who go to extraordinary lengths to report the truth obviously show a greater degree of personal courage and are motivated by a strong sense of personal justice.” Dr. Feinstein, who practices psychiatry at the University of Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital, does worry, however, about the long-term consequences for many journalists who have witnessed too much horror and destruction. He and The Freedom Forum are about to embark on the most ambitious study yet done of journalists who may be suffering from what is referred to as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

For Andrew Kain, the ex-soldier, and for me, the former CBC producer, some of the most impressively brave journalism is practiced by local journalists who somehow find the inner strength to continue publishing newspapers and broadcasting reports that daily put them in harm’s way. When I met up with Kain in Dubrovnik, he had just arrived from Podgorica, Montenegro, where he’d staged a version of the safety course, underwritten by The Freedom Forum, for 10 independent journalists from Serbia—many of them from the embattled B-92 news group of Belgrade (now called B-292) and five from Montenegro. They are at the knife edge of the Balkans conflict and face daily unrelenting pressure, physical intimidation and death threats. Kain is in awe of their willingness to keep going, especially given how little they’re paid—well under $100 a month in most places. On Kain’s “courage meter” this kind of risk taking ranks higher than any other journalism that he’s encountered. But can it be foolish as well?

When Kain and I were having our conversation in Dubrovnik, a young Bulgarian correspondent, Boyko Vassilev, from Bulgarian National Television joined us. He has covered, along with a cameraman, the conflicts in the Balkans by driving from Sofia, Bulgaria, staying in hostels and transporting his own canisters of gasoline. He speaks seven languages so he doesn’t need to hire translators.

Asked whether what he was doing was courageous or foolish, Vassilev whose first name means war in Bulgarian, said that “true courage is never foolish.”

“It’s a calculation you make,” he said. “And when it’s 50-50 or worse, then you don’t go.”

John Owen was chief news editor of CBC Television News and chief of foreign bureaus based in London before joining The Freedom Forum as European director.

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