The Digital Journalist
Novels of War
March 2004

by Ron Steinman

It never occurred to me that being a journalist carried with it individual and collective guilt. According to three new novels written by journalists, however, guilt, specifically a lack of it followed by responsibility for the actions of others, governs the protagonists, and in all cases drives the men to find answers for lives they feel they wasted by "only" covering stories, without being involved. These novelists believe there must be more to life than reporting. The guilt they create in their protagonists causes each enormous pain. Harm comes to them, either through their actions or because something debilitating is visited upon them. Everything and everyone they touch, particularly those they love and who love them, suffers. Whether because of emotional weakness, an incapacitating physical disorder, or through a spontaneous, and ultimately foolish, act, each man finds himself struggling for answers as to why he is a journalist. Understand this is not a book review in the traditional sense. Rather it is a review of attitudes about journalists by journalists, and an academic who is a sometime journalist. You can say I am defending the faith, my faith. For that I plead no contest. After all, for more than four decades it has been the only serious belief that, despite its flaws and warts, I continue to trust. I am not an apologist for a business and craft with many problems, especially on the corporate side. It seems now journalists who write books about other journalists, or books in which journalists play a leading role, cannot write without feeling responsible for the terrible state of the world, something they had no hand in creating, but feel they somehow need to put right.

In these novels, people wantonly kill each other, often dredging up ancient hatreds. The novelists treat death and destruction as if they are drugs. For some that is true. War is a heady experience. The problem for the writers is their characters are unable to commit to changing the evil around them. Being an observer through training and experience, the way a reporter should work best, is a new sin. The authors believe it leads to illness, disability, death and perdition.

Each novel is set in exotic locations that make headlines. Each has powerful love stories. Each has journalists of different ages, from the young to men supposedly past their prime. All take place in modern war zones --- Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda, Mogadishu, Luanda, Kabul, South Africa. After reading these books, you know you have been on a grand tour of the world's most troublesome spots. Each covers the small wars, mostly civil, and the revolutions that affect our society, perhaps the real epidemic of the last sixty years since the end of World War II. The endless killing and destruction completely fill our lives and etch their way deeply into our consciousness. Foreign correspondents who cover war, and choose to do so, always find themselves in situations not of their making, often difficult to understand and sometimes hard to care about. These authors say that journalists waste their lives because too often they are observers, not participants. The authors are challenging the assumption that objective reporting is desirable, an honorable end in itself. Being an observer and a good one is not enough. Be completely involved, they say. Have compassion, they maintain. Above all else, understand everything, but mostly the underdog, and, through your empathy, make the audience know they should care, because you care. You care, the way I see it, when you allow your words and pictures and whatever combinations they form to speak simply and directly to the audience. I thought I did that, as did most of my colleagues, throughout our careers.

Reporting war is no longer honorable for these authors. They want reporters to be involved emotionally in the conflicts they cover. To do so, they cripple each of their main characters. They bankrupt them as people --- spiritually, physically, and psychologically.

Joe Shelby in A Walking Guide, by Alan Cowell, works for a magazine similar to Time, discovers he has a damaging neurological disease, which he refuses to accept. When he can no longer continue his profession full bore, he tries to rediscover himself by climbing a mountain in Scotland and nearly dies. Before that, though, in a futile attempt to prove his worthiness to himself and maintain his self-esteem, he pursues one adventure after another, finally, along the way, bringing down the two women who love him. Early in the book, Cowell, long with Reuters and The New York Times, has Shelby say, "We want to peer into the mirror of war and see our own reality reflected back at us, our frailty, our cowardice, the fear that tells you that --indisputably-you are living on a higher plane than all the others. We love war because in these battered, broken places we find our freedom. The only rule is survival. The only fuel is adrenaline. When we return with our notebooks and camera we are blessed, suffused in this so special knowledge that we entered a world where the carnage and the bloodlust freed us from petty considerations. We are gods because we emerged unscathed, sated from the table of the warriors."

Cowell is right. Every words he says rings true. Yet being there and doing that is not enough for him and his hero, something I do not echo.

Charlie Johnson, in Charlie Johnson in the Flames, employed by a CNN or Fox News look-a-like, has both his hands seriously burned when he tries to rescue a woman set on fire by out of control soldiers somewhere in Bosnia. His severely burned hands require a very long time to recover, but the device gets him out of the action and that supposedly gives him the time he needs to figure out who he is and where he is going. After a long list of where Charlie and his cameraman, Jacek, have been, Michael Ignatieff says this, "all the assignments lined up in his mind like so many rows of tape. They were holidays from hell every one of them, and Jacek seemed to survive them by keeping everything contained within the black frame of his viewfinder: "They had seen the world together, though they'd seen it too close to know what it really meant. Sometimes they both felt like spectators at a terrible and violent play. Sure, they wanted to go on stage and stop it. But these plays couldn't be stopped."

All true, but wait one minute. It never was my responsibility to wave the flag of surrender or even caution. Had I done that or had anyone working for me done that, we would have lost our credibility as journalists, something I jealousy guard.

There is more from Ignatieff. Again, talking about Charlie and Jacek, Ignatieff says, "Everybody said they had interesting lives, which was true, and it seemed pretty stupid to complain, but after a while it just became a series of assignments, a set of stories you told when you got home but which left you feeling that their reality had escaped you. ' We suffer from too much experience,' Jacek said once. 'We have more than we know what to do with.'" Here he is right, but it does not mean we should exclude objectivity from the way we work.

Arthur Cape in War Torn is a young reporter based in Berlin who appears confused as to what he is doing there. There were those of us thrilled to be working overseas and whatever doubts we had with the home office disappeared with each new assignment. Not Arthur Cape. Working for weekly news magazine that is cutting back on foreign coverage, he wants desperately to be a war correspondent to save the world instead of reporting it. Along the way he falls in love, founders through one experience after another, and grows spiritually weaker all the time, falling into a kind of malaise until I wondered why I cared about him at all. Clumsy in mind and body, author John Marks uses Arthur Cape as a device in his attempt at a novel of ideas. Arthur, like the journalists in the other books, is also lost. However, there is a glimmer of hope when at the end of the book he and his lover head out in what I believe will be their fruitless search for her lost son. Is the search his redemption, or is it symbolically the redemption of all journalists, a message that there is a greater calling than simply being a reporter?

Most war correspondents are not crippled. Some may have problems because of who they are, not because of what they cover. Their troubles started long before they found themselves ducking bullets in a war zone. Do these authors somehow reflect their own guilt? If they do, there is no hint of their reasons for writing as they do. I am not nave enough to believe all journalists are good people, honest beyond reproach, not ego driven and willing to compromise the issues for the sake of a good story, in other words, Boy Scouts. I am also not foolish enough to believe all journalists are only ego-driven, in the field just for adventure and blind to the cruelty and terror around them.

I have no guilt over of the wars, riots, destruction and death I covered. I have no regrets about where I went, the positive or negative effect my coverage had on the audience. I have been to similar places, seen much of the same as the three protagonists in these novels, but I do not have the same wounds or permanent scars. All I have tried to do is open eyes to the conditions I saw around me, conditions I was fortunate enough, yes, fortunate enough, to witness and pass along to people who did not have the opportunity to go where I went and to see what I saw. That is what I was there to do, and I still believe it, despite the changes in scenery, attitude and the increasing horror of these many and intense ethnic wars in every corner of the globe.

Read these books, journalists or not. As a journalist, you might say, yes, they got it right, except for the brazen subtext of guilt. If you are an outsider looking in you will gain insight to an often-mysterious process. Read with caution, though. Draw your own conclusions. Do not be swayed by this trend, however small, to knock the craft from the inside. Despite the realism in these books, each author refuses to make a leap from his imaginary world to the real world. Journalism exists in the here and now, not in an alternate universe. The real world is tough enough for the professional without having doubts as to why he is a part of it.

© Ron Steinman

Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War