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Journalists also face dangers

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In the seconds after the rotor blade of the U.S. Navy SH-60B Seahawk helicopter in which he was riding while on assignment in the Persian Gulf last September accidentally struck the mast of a Syrian freighter, KCBS-TV cameraman Larry Greene had the presence of mind to switch on his camera. “Larry never left an assignment undone,” said investigative reporter Drew Griffin, who worked with him at the Los Angeles station. “Even when he was hit by the tail rotor, as [the helicopter] turned and curved, he let it roll. He got the shot. He did complete his last assignment.”
He got the shot. That was one of the most important things in Mr. Greene’s life, along with his wife Diana and two sons. This was one time, however, his shot was never aired.
Instead, last week Diana Greene was joined by many of her late husband’s colleagues and many friends in the broad, sunny hallway of Manzanita Hall, which houses the journalism, cinema and television arts and communication studies departments at Cal State Northridge and is home to a special plaque.
The large bronze plaque, with squares noting the name, media outlet and date of passing for each journalist, pays tribute to members of the media in Southern California who died while doing their job. It was first established by the Los Angeles Press Club in 1979 after several NBC newsmen were murdered by a cult in Jonestown, Guyana, as part of a mass suicide. There are now a total of 20 names on the Fallen Journalists Memorial, where journalists honor their peers. It was moved to its new permanent home on the campus about two years ago.
At a time American journalists are marching with U.S. combat troops, it is a reminder that the producers, reporters, cameramen, soundmen and other support personnel in the shadow of this looming war may also be in considerable danger. Being a TV journalist who has to haul around everything from a camera to a portable satellite transmitter can be especially difficult, as we have learned reading TelevisionWeek’s War Journals.
Like Mr. Greene, most journalists are not daredevils. “He never took unnecessary risks,” recalled Randy Paige, who was on assignment with Mr. Greene that fateful day and watched with horror from the deck of a guided missile cruiser 200 yards away. “He died in a freak accident that could not be foreseen.”
Even in the 21st century, electronic journalism can be dangerous. It is not just the risks of war either. Many in the media are in danger every day, covering things like high-crime neighborhoods, racial incidents, organized crime and all kinds of politically charged situations. A camera can become the focal point of an unruly crowd.
It is even worse outside the United States. The Freedom Foundation listed the deaths of 23 journalists killed around the world last year for doing their job. That doesn’t count dozens more who disappeared, and hundreds injured or threatened.
It is no surprise then that sending a newsperson to cover a war is also a very serious business. That was on the mind of KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV’s VP and News Director Nancy Bauer Gonzales as she attended the memorial for Mr. Greene. Her station was recently given the opportunity to “embed” journalists with U.S. forces in the Gulf. “A journalist today knows he is in a dangerous profession,” says Ms. Bauer Gonzales. “I think before people go to war, they must look at everything. They look at company benefits. They talk to their families. They make a conscious decision.”
For KCBS-TV, the two volunteers shipping out are Dave Bryan, who is going to be on the ground with the Marines, and Linda Alvarez, who will be aboard a U.S. Navy ship.
“I send them off with tons of knowledge,” says Ms. Bauer Gonzales. “They have gone through special training. They have the best equipment and safety gear. And still there is a certain part of me that is frightened. They are on and communicating with us all day into the night, but they are still half a world away.”
The ironic thing is some in his own profession would say Mr. Greene wasn’t even a real journalist, because he carried a camera instead of standing in front of it. They didn’t know that he also produced many of his segments, and regularly did research and suggested ideas to his correspondents. “They absolutely are journalists,” says Mr. Griffin. “They see what the viewer sees. They are the real reporters at the scene of an event. They take what happens and put it in the camera and deliver it to the audience.”
The late author and lecturer Helen Keller, who knew a lot about overcoming obstacles, might have been thinking of journalists like Mr. Greene, and today’s world, when she said: “We still have it in our power to rise above the fears, imagined and real, and to shoulder the great burdens which destiny has placed upon us, not for our country alone, but for the benefit of all the world. That is the only destiny worthy of America.”