Garrett — Another Tribe Without a State

Topic(s): War Journalism | Comments Off on Garrett — Another Tribe Without a State

Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
Another Tribe Without a State
When a soldier on a U.S. tank shot a Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, last month while he was filming the aftermath of a terrorist attack at the American-run Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad, he became the 17th journalist to die in Iraq. Given that there have been fewer than 300 U.S. military casualties since the war began last March, this is a startlingly high statistic.
Even more startling is the fact that five of the dead journalists have been victims of ”friendly fire.” And unlike past wars where such casualties were most often caused by land mines, firefights, snipers or artillery, these five died after they or their offices were made direct targets.
What is evolving is a form of conflict not characterized by armies of ”good guys” and ”bad guys” or ”liberators” and ”oppressors,” one covered by journalists who come from or identify with one side or another. We have instead a new, almost gravityless, world of conflict in which the American military can kill journalists without causing great alarm and ”the enemy” can blow up U.N. aid missions and other ”soft” civilian targets without remorse. All that journalists have to steady them in this bad dream is grit and a stubborn refusal to serve any of the contending masters. What gives their work meaning is a defiant commitment to independence, accurate reporting and an almost existential belief that no matter how debased the world and politics become, the ”real story” somehow still matters.
This new breed of foreign correspondent accepts, even embraces, the challenges of covering regional wars almost as a mutant form of extreme sports — a lonely, exhausting and often horrifying marathon whose payback is not winning or losing but documenting barbarity and experiencing the intense camaraderie that such danger creates. Their dogged camp-following of hellholes from Rwanda to Kosovo and Afghanistan to Iraq seems almost quaint in this era of celebrity journalism, infotainment, spin, big hair and seven-figure TV salaries. But like long-distance runners who learn to crave the burn of oxygen-starved muscles, initiates into this defiant fraternity often flirt with addictions to the thin-ice syndrome.
Dana, a Palestinian Arab from Hebron, who although married with four young children nonetheless continued to put himself in constant jeopardy to document images of war, was a member of this hellhole-forged and as-yet-unnamed tribe. For more than a decade, he defiantly covered the Arab-Israeli conflict, where he was wounded and beaten scores of times. ”If you look at my body, you will not find one centimeter without beating, without rubber or live bullets,” he proudly told an interviewer from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which awarded him its 2001 International Press Freedom Award.
When President Bush declared an official end to major hostilities in Iraq in May, Reuters moved Dana to Baghdad to give him a safer assignment. Then Iraq turned into America’s own West Bank, patrolled by young American recruits made jumpy by the constant threat of ambush. But the correspondents they have killed are more than just accidents of war. They are also milestones marking the media’s passage from an older model of nation-based journalism that once called on correspondents to cover wars against identifiable enemies with the interest of their nations firmly at heart. Journalists are now orphaned from being able to imagine themselves as truly allied to one side of a conflict. (It is not easy to embrace either a terrorist or a ”liberator” if both are shooting at you.) Many have passports from one country, live in another and work for a media outlet in a third and thus convey a kind of androgyny that makes their nationality ambiguous.
Dana represented those reporters whose allegiances are not primarily to nation, patriotism or ideology but to this new independent tribe of cryptic witness-bearing, the antithesis of embedded, producer reliant, flag-waving Geraldos. ”Freedom means to me to work free, no one bother you,” he told his C.P.J. interviewer in his game English. ”We film, and we show the world what’s going on. . . . My motive is to continue my work, even if it costed for me a lot of problems and a lot of injury . . . even if it cost me my life.”
It finally did cost him his life. In fact, his television camera, which recorded the oncoming tank and the shots that struck him before it fell to the ground, may have killed him. For the tank was reported to have justified ”engaging” Dana because a soldier mistook the shoulder-mounted camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
In a way, it is symbolically fitting that Mazen Dana was a Palestinian, a man without a country. Indeed, it is perhaps fitting for foreign correspondents to think of themselves as members of a countryless, nomadic tribe, the better to find a new global orbit beyond nationalism and patriotism, even if such ”self-determination” does make patriotic media executives, readers and viewers uncomfortable. But when it comes to that most difficult challenge of reporting truthfully and independently about such partisan conflicts as Iraq, journalists could do worse than think of themselves as stateless people.