Guest Commentary: Images from war zone come at a deadly price

Dec 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A couple of months ago a man named Gervaise Roderick Scott, “Roddy” to his friends, died in combat. He was English and grew up on a farm in North Yorkshire, a descendant of C.P. Scott, a giant of British journalism. He died in Ingushetia, which adjoins Georgia and Chechnya, one of those tiny post-Soviet countries between the Black and Caspian seas. He was filming a TV documentary on the Chechen rebels. He was 31.
Roddy Scott chose journalism after graduation from Edinburgh University. He reported for Reuters and the Middle East Review and free-lanced for a bunch of newspapers. He was a great believer in journalists’ having to see things for themselves. He started taking his own pictures, first stills then film. After reporting from battle zones in Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Ethiopia and other African trouble spots, then in Kosovo and Albania, he became interested in the rebellion in Chechnya. He thought the Western world was forgetting or ignoring the Chechen rebels, and he embarked on the TV documentary that would cost him his life.
Getting the picture
It’s worth thinking about Roddy Scott now that there is talk about war again, a second go at Iraq. The last time in Iraq there were very few pictures; the military kept everything to itself. The news we got was from the Pentagon in Washington or from the military headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Action coverage, such as there was, came from an imposed pool arrangement, a handful of journalists from all the media going where they were allowed to and, in theory, reporting back to all their colleagues and competitors so that everyone would be saying and showing the same thing at the same time. But even with that, the videotape of a major battle got lost or misrouted or delayed or something. And the pictures we saw were the pictures the military took and decided to show, or live, live, live coverage of a briefing room in Riyadh, where we could see and hear today a general talking about what took place yesterday.
After the Hundred Hour War ended, there were lots of pictures, mostly those taken by military photographers, but few viewers. It was over, so what the heck? That is how the press paid for how it treated the brass in Vietnam, contradicting what they said, reporting from the field words and pictures that refuted the official version being put forth at the daily briefings in Saigon, the famous “Five O’Clock Follies.”
The generals of the Gulf War were the captains and majors of Vietnam. Some still believed-today may still believe-it was a winnable war if the press had not had so much access. If young Americans fight again in Iraq, what their families and the rest of us citizens learn about what is going on will depend on officers who remember Saigon. How much will they tell us? How much will they let us find out? Will they let the new Roddy Scotts live and sleep and eat with the troops as they did in Vietnam?
Photojournalism functions only at the scene itself, the shooting, the bombs, the starvation. Reporters can phone it in from a hotel room or stand in a symbolic location to be filmed talking. Those who take pictures must be up close; the closer they get, the better we see. So every war, big or little, gives us at least one Roddy Scott story.
We depend for much of our view of the world, if we care, on that brotherhood of picture-takers, mostly men, mostly single, mostly underpaid, mostly young, who gather every evening in the only bar left standing in some battle zone. They know each other from the last war or the one before that. They are a majority of the up to 50 or so journalists who die each year reporting the news.
Hostile territory
Do you remember Somalia, when it seemed that all the news was about American forces raiding some location looking for the local head thug, General Muhammed Farah Aidid, and not finding him? On one such occasion, the press was being kept back, forced to watch from the roof of a nearby hotel. Then some Somalis offered to take them to the scene, and all the photographers went. But the supposed guides were Aidid’s agents. The American photographers were led into the middle of a hostile mob, where four of them died. Two were 22 years old and one 30; the oldest was 38.
More than the news we hear or read, the news we see is often the kind we would rather not know. When we get fed up, we call such pictures sensationalist or exploitive and wonder grandly what happened to standards. And even the young people who take the pictures allow that they are doing it at least in part for the adventure, for the rush they get from danger. They acknowledge the noble cause of gathering information only after it’s over.
Information we get from pictures differs from information we get from words. It sheds a different understanding. For us to get it, young people put themselves at risk. Looking at those pictures involves no risk. Commentators never die in combat, but sometimes cameramen do.
Reuven Frank was president of NBC News from 1968-73 and 1982-84.