A gifted writer once recorded that a famous octogenarian botanist had fallen behind his group in a survey of an Indonesian island when he sat down to rest. Members of his party returning to check on him found only his camera case. A Komodo dragon apparently had devoured the rest of him.
At the site of this disaster, they erected a sign that said in part that he loved nothing so much as nature, which prompted the writer to note wryly that the memorial said nothing about whether that included the last 60 seconds of his life.
This came to mind on the release of freelance journalist Jill Carroll after several months of captivity by Iraqi insurgents. During interviews her friends said she had come to love Iraq and felt completely comfortable there. One could only wonder whether she still felt that way after surviving an ordeal any number of Westerners and Iraqis alike have not.
The truth is that Iraq may be the most dangerous place on Earth today, particularly for ambitious and intrepid youngsters who wander about without the proper protection and support, gleaning what they can to sell to news organizations not willing to spend the money to send their own reporters there or provide the expensive security necessary to those like Carroll with whom they contract.
It is all very glamorous and exciting to be a “war correspondent,” a latter day Ernie Pyle or Marguerite Higgins who wrote for major news organizations in far different kinds of wars. The camaraderie with other reporters and the sharing of danger are seductive. But without the proper backing and understanding of where not to go, it is also foolish and irresponsible and often harmful to others. In this case her unescorted forays cost the life of her interpreter who was shot while apparently attempting to make a call for help while she was being chased.
Carroll, 28, is probably technically a good enough journalist to handle the overseas assignment although her judgment makes that questionable. Traveling the streets of Baghdad or into the countryside with only a driver and an interpreter is proof of that. The fact that she spoke Arabic better than most Westerners and was wearing the headscarf and garb of an Iraqi woman clearly fooled no one. She obviously had been targeted sometime before her capture.
But the message that no one is safe from these criminals shouldn’t have been lost on this young lady considering that even a prominent British humanitarian with a long record of helping the Iraqi people and who was married to an Iraqi was captured and murdered by the religious fanatics there.
That Carroll is bright was made clear not only by her quick grasp of the difficult language but also her willingness to say whatever her captors wanted to save her life and secure her release. She did exactly what she should have and quickly renounced her statements after she was out of harm’s way, hopefully putting to rest speculation about her becoming sympathetic to the cause of those who held her, the so-called Stockholm Syndrome.
Young journalists, as is the case with youth generally, often regard themselves as indestructible and that aura of invincibility increases the more they survive dangerous situations. It is up to the older, wiser heads among their employers to refuse them permission to conduct certain activities and to supply them with the support that gives them the best chance of surviving. The Christian Science Monitor, which was buying Carroll’s material without providing the security and guidance she needed, should not have been. It is just that simple.
Fortunately for Carroll, the Monitor is run by the kind of people who immediately saw their responsibility and never let up in their efforts to secure her freedom. It has been a tough lesson for this distinguished organization and one that hopefully will make it think long and hard about such relationships in the future. Thankfully it ended well.
Covering a war carries with it the potential for disaster under the best of circumstances. Sending men and women into these precarious situations always results in a lot of sleepless nights. Having been there and done that on too many occasions, I can testify to the strain. While no story is worth the loss of a life, it is bound to happen. Lessening the chances of that occurring is about the only thing one can do.
Being intrepid is a great quality in a journalist but too often it is a synonym for being stupid.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)