Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Moment in Baghdad

Our thoughts and prayers go out to CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier, who was seriously wounded in an IED attack in Baghdad on Monday. Our condolences to the families of CBS News camerman Paul Douglas, sound technician James Brolan, and an unidentified U.S. soldier, who died in that blast. At least six other U.S. soldiers were wounded in the attack; keep them in your prayers, too.

The incident is still under investigation, but here's what we know so far: Dozier and her crew were embedded with members of the 4th Infantry Division, on patrol in Baghdad. The patrol had stopped to inspect a check-point manned by Iraqi soldiers when a car packed with explosives was detonated, killing Douglas, Brolan and the solider, and wounding seven others, including Dozier. According to a CBS spokesman, Dozier was working on a story about Memorial Day in Iraq at the time of the incident.

We may never know what motivated Ms. Dozier and her crew to leave the relative safety of an armored HUMVEE and accompany the soliders to that check-point. Perhaps it was a desire to see things for themselves, or get better footage for a "package" that would be featured on The CBS Evening News. By most accounts, Dozier, Douglas and Brolan were used to taking risks; Dozier has spent more time in Iraq than any other CBS News Correspondent, and Douglas and Brolan were veterans of battlefields from the Balkans to the Middle East. They understood the risks associated with climbing out of an armored vehicle to have "a look for themselves."

My own, brief career in journalism never carried me to a war zone, but I've talked to plenty of reporters who've been there. Many talked of developing a "sixth sense" about certain situations or environments, and knowing when to back away. Balancing that against a desire to get the story is a tough job for any journalist, especially someone trying to negotiate the cut-throat world of network television news. According to her CBS bio, Ms. Dozier earned her job the hard way; she went to the Middle East as a reporter, not for the network, but as a "bureau chief" for CBS's New York affiliate, WCBS-TV. Her early work for CBS News was on the radio side (hardly a "star" assignment), and she slowly worked her way into a TV correspondent's job, doing the tough, dirty jobs that few others volunteered for.

From what I've read, putting herself in harm's way (or potentially, in harm's way) was something Ms. Dozier did on a regular basis. In hindsight, it would be easy to second-guess her decision--and grossly unfair. Ms. Dozier and her colleagues made a choice, based on their assessment of the situaition. Unfortunately for them (and members of the 4th ID), there was danger lurking on that Baghdad street, with devastating consequences for both journalists and soldiers alike.

While I often disagree with the tone of network news reports from Baghdad, I do admire men and women who are willing to get out on the streets and report the story. But, from a style standpoint, I do have a minor beef. Watching today's TV reports from any war zone, you'll note that most end with the correspondent doing an on-camera "stand-up." The stand-up serves two purposes; first, it allows the reporter to sum-up his piece, and (secondly) it gives the correspondent some needed face time on camera, allowing him (or her) to "connect" with viewers back home and their bosses back in New York. Wars have made the reputation of more than one broadcast correspondent, including the patron saint of CBS News, the late Edward R. Murrow.

But it hasn't always been that way. A few months ago, CBS News Sunday Morning paid tribute to the network's retiring Far East correspondent, Bruce Dunning. Mr. Dunning spent years reporting from Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and in homage to his career, Sunday Morning replayed one his most famous reports, filmed on the last plane out of Da Nang before that city fell to the North Vietnamese. The flight--and Dunning's report--are harrowing, even through the prism of time. The charter 727 was grossly overloaded; frantic South Vietnamese tried to storm the plane, in an effort to get out, only to be beaten by equally desperate security personnel. Others clung to the aircraft's rear stairway as it took off, losing their grip and plunging to their death in the jungle below. The CBS camera caught it all, and Dunning's precise, understated narration captured the mood exactly, without fancy graphics, computer animation or phony histronics.

Dunning's flight out of Da Nang should be required viewing for any television reporter aspiring to be a combat correspondent. It's straightforward journalism; no ambivalance, no moral equivocation, no references to the North Vietnamese as "insurgents." By today's standards, it's a bit quaint, even unsophisticated. Perhaps that's one reason that Dunning's career never advanced beyond CBS's Tokyo bureau. But you cannot dispute the power or truth captured in that report from South Vietnam in the spring of 1975.

For Ms. Dozier and those wounded American soldiers, we wish full and complete recovery from her injuries in Iraq. And for Mr. Dunning, a long, happy retirement, and a faculty slot at a first-class journalism school. The next generation of TV war reporters could learn a lot from him.

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