The Digital Journalist
Caught in the Act
December 2004

by Ron Steinman

I'd like to say a few words about Kevin Sites.

Caught in the act - usually a fearsome happening for most people - is, for a journalist, something we live for, if the result reveals the unexpected, and makes news. We do not live in a perfect world. If we did, there would be no need for reporters. Most cover ordinary life. Investigative reporters search for what people keep hidden. They do not spend much time in war zones. Those who cover war are reactive reporters who must always be on alert for the unexpected. Without the presence of a reporter, the unusual or untoward would disappear as soon as it happened. Few would know about it. We would be protected and immune from the unusual, the terrible, and the wonderful. Our knowledge and perception of where and how we live would be duller and sorely lacking in energy, empty of the world's marvels and horrors. Our responsibility as journalists who cover hard news is to the moment. We must react before we think. If we think before we act, we fail in our mission.

The world has always been the same size, but in reality, it has become smaller because of the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of the media. If something unusual happens, there is no place to hide it. In the realm of mediacrit, a rising industry of its own, no act nor how it came about can remain for very long behind closed doors. Nor should it. Media plays a dominant role in our lives. Until recently there were no Web sites, blogs, camera phones, or digital cameras. Today these are ubiquitous. And the people, many non-professionals, who make use of them find their moment of fame more quickly than in the past. The need for instant gratification by news companies abounds. We should be thankful for the amateurs who took the Abu Ghraib photos, and those who took the photos of dead American servicemen and servicewomen arriving unceremoniously in the United States from Iraq. Where there is tragedy, pictures now always follow. Though the quality of the work produced is usually not very good, these images provide information, often stark, which we would never have had. They add immeasurably to our understanding of events, especially of the war in Iraq.

Kevin Sites, a freelance cameraman for NBC News with long experience covering war, was, as a photojournalist, in the right place at the right time. He had his equipment and instinct running at full bore when a Marine shot and killed an Iraqi inside a building where they had been clearing the enemy. On his own Web site, Sites is defending his actions. Justifying what he did, he makes two important points. He describes the situation the Marines were in and he goes on to tell about one Marine in particular.

"Through my viewfinder I can see him raise the muzzle of his rifle in the direction of the wounded Iraqi. There are no sudden movements, no reaching or lunging. However, the Marine could legitimately believe the man poses some kind of danger. Maybe he's going to cover him while another Marine searches for weapons. Instead, he pulls the trigger. There is a small splatter against the back wall and the man's leg slumps down. 'Well, he's dead now,' says another Marine in the background. I am still rolling. I feel the deep pit of my stomach."

Kevin Sites is troubled and, because of what he did, he is seriously misunderstood. Suddenly he is in the hot seat because he was present to record the event. He says, rightfully, "I can't know what was in the mind of that Marine. He is the only one who does."

The action over, Sites starts to wonder about what he saw and what he filmed. However, his responsibility as the pool cameraman comes first. It means he must distribute, that is share, his videotape to all in the press who are part of the pool. He does that, but he says he "was heartsick" over what he had seen and photographed. I understand his feeling. But what took place was not his responsibility. His only responsibility was to the moment.

Others properly would judge the validity and then the effect of his pictures. We know that video, and all pictures from whatever medium, really, affect people in different ways. I believe and I challenge Kevin Sites to tell me exactly what was in his mind as he looked through his viewfinder when the Marine pulled the trigger. We do not know what the Marine was thinking and it is not possible to know what Sites was thinking. When covering news, if too much thought intrudes on the moment and you do not react quickly, the moment passes, and the world is poorer for your hesitation. Sites may disagree, but what he recorded is important to our understanding of men in combat.

Sadly, after the footage played around the world, Sites came under attack as an anti-war activist and an opportunist out only for his own gain. We know that to be untrue because he is an experienced war correspondent and does not have to apologize for his actions. He would be open to criticism had he not filmed the Marine pulling the trigger.

However, I believe there is a larger problem here that we must consider. It is the embed system that is the culprit. We should rethink how the military uses it, and the reporters who have become a part of it in Iraq, a system I never favored from its inception. I feel certain that the military in its wisdom understands that by embedding reporters, these men and women are in danger of losing their objectivity. Getting close to the action is one thing. Getting to know the troops you are working with is important, but if you get to know them too well, it changes your role, how you think and even how you might react.

In World War II Ernie Pyle, perhaps the first of the self-embedded reporters, had a genius for getting inside the heads of the men he covered. However, Pyle lacked objectivity. It does not make him any less the beloved and respected icon he became. Much of what he wrote still stands as story-telling about men in war and how they survive under the worst conditions. With Pyle, you do not learn much about firefights and tactics. Reading Ernie Pyle even today you learn much about men in war and the effect of war on men. In the end, that is possibly more important.

In Vietnam, hardly any daily journalism or journalist captured our imagination about that fractious war. As in Iraq today, there was no front. There were rarely trenches. Almost all actions were small unit. To best tell the story, you had to become a documentary producer instead of a working journalist, as we saw in John Laurence's fine set of pieces from Vietnam for CBS News, "Charlie Company." That series was a rarity. Despite its brilliance, I do not believe Laurence was truly objective. He had to get very close to the men he covered, and in doing so, I am sure he lost some of his detachment.

Oddly, but maybe not, because of the nature of the war in Iraq, though there have been excellent examples of good reporting, and even some unique reporters, no single correspondent leaps off the page to capture the public. And despite what some may think, hardly any outstanding images define the war. Could it be that our eyes have become too accustomed to any defining words and images? Is it that there is so much going on, filling the airwaves and news pages, that the story of the war is beyond our ability to process it?

In Vietnam, with more than half a million troops on the ground and with the odds of hundreds of actions a day, it was impossible to get too close to the men in the field. It was also not desirable. In Vietnam, rarely did any of my teams at NBC News go out with the same combat unit twice. Some of the best stories produced by my bureau were about men surviving war. Firefights were always exciting, but when over, the jungle or street took on a strange silence. Only spent shell casings littered the ground as tired men waited to return to their base. Men waiting to fight and then after a fight tell more about war than any battle does. It is then we wish we could get inside the heads of the troopers. It is then their eyes often reveal the angst inside their souls.

After Vietnam, we looked on war differently. We looked on the troops differently, too. There was an unwritten but tacit understanding that the American people, and working journalists, would not criticize the troops doing the fighting. The prism through which we view this new war in Iraq, though, is cloudy, too often very dark, and almost never clear. It is understandable that it is impossible not to feel for the troops you cover when you live with them in high danger 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Based on this we should try to understand what Kevin Sites is experiencing. He shot the video because he is a professional. We may never understand the incident. It happened under extreme circumstances. The fog of war is not a cliché. It is real and daunting. War is chaotic. It fully inhabits the combat zone and always inhibits clarity.

Eddie Adams's name always comes up in this context. Let me lay something to rest or at least try to put it into perspective. Eddie Adams was upset years after the [Pulitzer Prize-winning] General Loan shooting incident, not during it and not immediately after. He took his pictures based on instinct tempered by experience and talent. I believe originally that he did not want to talk about those photos because he did not want that incident to rule his life. He went on to cover other wars and revolutions, other disasters in the 20th century and then to become an original and often quirky portrait photographer. Years later, when Eddie Adams got to know General Loan, he thought that the pictures he took not only changed his own life, they had a significant and negative impact on Loan's life. Eddie and I rarely if ever talked about that defining moment in his life. It was in the past. Eddie had other places to go, things to do and fortunately, for us, and him, he did them.

Kevin Sites covered that Marine unit as a pool cameraman, but he knew that unit probably better than he should have. Sites is understandably upset that he might have betrayed those Marines who allowed him into their lives. He bonded with them in unexpected ways. I told my staff in Vietnam and in every bureau I ran never to refer to "we." It must always be "them," never "we marched," and "they shot at us." The temptation is too great to be part of the action and bring along the audience with you as a reporter. It should be a temptation and nothing more. There must be a separation between the journalist and his subject even when you come under fire. It may sound as if I am advocating denial, but there is safety in objectivity. It is also sound reporting.

As much anguish as Kevin Sites has, he should not allow it to haunt him, even in the face of the attacks against him. He should not feel guilty. He did his job and did it well. If any of us as professionals become upset each time we reveal something unusual, sordid, ugly, even evil, we would not be able to function on any level. The experience he had should not be a deterrent for where he goes next. He will discover - and it will not be easy - that the past will always be with him. He must learn to live with it, if he is to have a life. Perhaps like Eddie Adams and others who have had similar experiences, he will find himself scaling new heights and looking forward to new challenges that will continue to expose him to the unknown and all it holds.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.