Sunday, July 31, 2005

#5: On Combat Journalism 1/1/2004 – Aired as part of “No Peace on Earth” In 1998 journalist Martha Gellhorn died after reporting at least 18 wars & conflicts in her long career --from the abuses of the Spanish Fascists of the 1930’s to Vietnam, where in 1966 she covered elements of the US war effort, including civilian casualties, that other journalists wouldn’t touch for several more years. At age 83 she was trying to get some paper to send her to the Gulf War. Gellhorn’s friend, British journalist Victoria Glendinning, says that “now if you look at TV and the newspapers, there are actually more women war reporters than men, or at least as many.” It would be hard to tell this from watching the movies! “Combat journalism” is what reporter Peter Arnett calls his job in the film LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, about how CNN happened to be inside the Al-Rasheed Hotel when those neon green smart bombs started falling in the first Gulf War. Of the ten or so films about reporters I’ve watched lately, it’s one of the best. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour has described the significance of that first live TV transmission from behind enemy lines as “electrifying,” & the movie showing how they pulled it off is riveting. For one thing, it has Ingrid Formanek, a producer whom reporter Robert Weiner wanted on his team when CNN first let him go to Baghdad in the fall of 1990. In a professional culture where other reporters assume they’ve slept together in the pressure-cooker of stress, danger & alcohol, Robert & Ingrid are actually colleagues - both tough, bright, resourceful. They deeply respect, trust, even love each other for their good work. Though all of these film were compelling in some way, most didn’t accord women reporters such competence or centrality. Some themes emerge, however: how women are portrayed within the culture of journalism at war, professional ethics & why they matter, how journalists relate to the host culture (in particular film shorthand for this is the native helper & the native lover), how war & violence themselves are changing, & what journalism has to do with the so-called export of democracy. Women as real journalists are few & far between. A woman shows up doing the real work of reporting in WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (1997), although this character’s work is a brief subplot. The 1996 film UP CLOSE & PERSONAL fictionalizes TV reporter Jessica Savitch’s career, though she’s initially so ditzy & her mentor so cool & such a technical wizard in his creation of her public personna that I wound up uncomfortably reminded of the wizard of Oz. In HARRISON’S FLOWERS the reporter’s wife has press credentials so she can improbably sneak into Yugoslavia & rescue him after he’s presumed dead, but only because men rescue her repeatedly along the way. In 1999’s THREE KINGS the press is literally in bed with the military right off the bat; George Clooney’s character has both women reporters either cat-fighting or driving around in circles in the desert until he needs press coverage for his own ends. There are no women journalists in 2002’s THE QUIET AMERICAN, about the early days of CIA involvement in Vietnam. The American Pyle says that Vietnam is like a woman who can only be Europe’s mistress while the US can marry her. 2001’s WAR PHOTOGRAPHER, a stunning documentary about James Nachtwey – who incidentally did the photo essay on Person of the Year in last week’s issue of TIME – features other women journalists, like LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, as real colleagues, consistent with its thoroughly thoughtful treatment of the work he does. Is there any movie where a woman is the main character? Only in VERONICA GUERRIN – though she’s crusading against drug dealers in Dublin I’ve included this film because it portrays a depth of urban violence born of drugs & crime that approaches war-time conditions. Indeed many of these films importantly portray that war is really no longer conventional in any setting, focusing on the difficult & traumatic daily life of civilians during sieges, the moon-like desolation of a countryside destroyed, & the far-reaching layers of violence that populations endure down generations. James Nachtwey remarks that famine is the world’s oldest weapon of mass destruction & also photographs industrial pollution as a form of war on the poor. Movies about journalists can signify the issue of professional ethics dramatically with a fight in the men’s room after an awards ceremony during which one reporter accuses another of selling out, usually with the consequence that innocent life has been wasted for profit and fame. This happened in HARRISON’S FLOWERS, but more memorably in the classic 1984 film THE KILLING FIELDS, about NYT reporter Sydney Schanberg & his assistant Dith Pran, whom he left behind during the evacuation from Cambodian capitol. THE KILLING FIELDS has a single woman reporter in the entire film. 2003’s SHATTERED GLASS isn’t about combat journalism at all, but it’s worth including here for the sharp portrayal of the importance of truth in journalism & how it can go awry in the real story of Stephen Glass’s 27 fabricated articles in THE NEW REPUBLIC. Notably, also in real life & perhaps in some future film, last month an international court in Tanzania found three Rwandan journalists guilty of genocide. They worked for a newspaper & radio station in 1994 that whipped anti-Tutsi fervor & called openly for genocide during the 100 days when 800,000 of the Tutsi minority were slaughtered. The relationship journalists have with their hosts – often as assistants or lovers – certainly changes from THE KILLING FIELDS & THE QUIET AMERICAN to more mutual respect & partnership in films such as WELCOME TO SARAJEVO & LIVE FROM BAGHDAD. However, the movies show us privations the American journalist characters often don’t grasp in the moment – for example, in WELCOME TO SARAJEVO how the interpreter Goran’s friends all help him make himself presentable to get the job. These shifting relationships signal on a personal scale how we may be doing in exporting our democracy despite the best intentions. We’ll also look forward to director Jonathan Demme’s upcoming film THE AGRONOMIST, about Radio Haiti’s husband & wife founders Michelle Mantas & Jean Dominique. Radio Haiti has stopped broadcasting now after the third staff assassination, according to Michelle Mantas, news director & widow of the station’s founder. (1048)