"Those who ask why someone would risk his life for a story should ask themselves if they really prefer to live in ignorance."


Winter/Spring 2002

A Man's Life

What is a Story Worth?

by Dean Reynolds ’70
National Correspondent, ABC NEWS

REPORTS OF ATTACKS AGAINST JOURNALISTS in Afghanistan and kidnappings in Pakistan took me jarringly back to some of the more harrowing moments I’ve experienced in—and out of—war zones. I have seen my share of blood and death. I’ve heard the bullets ping off the walls near my head, and I’ve spotted the odd sniper looking directly my way.

But the fascinating thing about these episodes is that they only seem terrifying in retrospect.

One of the more inexplicable facts about journalists is that regard for one’s safety is almost always a secondary consideration. That’s not because we scribes are heroes, but because we have a kind of tunnel vision. We see only the story in front of us and feel the need and responsibility to report it. It is a kind of out-of-body experience.

PEOPLE OUTSIDE THE BUSINESS often ask me to name the scariest place from which I’ve reported. I reply without hesitation: Sarajevo, 1992-93.
There were no green lines— streets or neighborhoods readily identifiable as belonging to one faction or another—in the Bosnian capital under siege from Serb forces. The city was bristling with snipers shooting in all directions at all times of the day.

My first ride from the airport to the Sarajevo Holiday Inn was a fitting introduction. The bulletproof vests we’d been promised were waiting for us—at the hotel. Our driver slumped low in the front seat, his head barely showing through the windshield as he floored the accelerator and our tires screeched through streets littered with exposed electrical wires, abandoned cars, and other debris torn from buildings by the regular Serb bombardment. He knew snipers were about. He knew headshots were a favorite way to pass the time. The wounded people we saw lying in the streets attested to that.

The hotel lacked much of one side—the side favored by the drunken Chetniks [Serb militiamen] lobbing mortar rounds indiscriminately into town. There was no electricity in the building for much of the day, so the elevator seldom ran. That was just as well. When the elevator worked, its interior light was visible to snipers at every floor when the doors opened. This prospect of being such an inviting target kept most of us in the stairwells.

Shelling was constant. During the day you heard the “woomph” of the mortars and their thunderous impact from our office in the battered Bosnian television station. Returning to the hotel from the station at night, we watched the tracers from rifle fire running horizontally across the street we barreled down. Failure to alter your route could be fatal— a CNN car that braved the tracers one night drove into the crosshairs and a camerawoman had half her face blown off.

Another night at dinner the shells were landing in the parking lot and the devoted hotel staff urged us to head for the shelters. But many guests stayed in the dining room, singing “On the Street Where You Live” at the top of their lungs.
Were we frightened? Not really. We had a sense that “it can’t happen to me, a reporter.”

IF ANYTHING, THE SHELLING AND SNIPER FIRE made most of us more determined to get the story out. We were gathering ample evidence of the carnage the Serbs were causing.

One day it was a marketplace full of the bodies of shoppers victimized at midday as they ventured out for food. Another day there was the bloody aftermath from the pediatric ward of the local hospital, specifically targeted by the militiamen.
Most of all, there were the mothers in the cemetery, burying their children. Serb snipers spoke openly of the “rush” they got from seeing mothers’ expressions after the child at their side had been shot and killed. The mothers and other mourners weeping at the gravesite were often targeted by snipers looking to complete the circle.

It was during this period that a friend of mine, an ABCNEWS producer named
David Kaplan, spurned a vest protector and was shot on that road from the airport. He died from loss of blood within minutes. A veteran producer who worked with my father, Frank Reynolds ‘46, and later with me, Dave had been all over the world on assignments great and small. He’d covered presidential campaigns and presidents. He was a very quick worker in a business that demands speed. He smoked and drank and loved it all.

I am certain he shared our belief that “it can’t happen to me.” I learned then that it could.

Dave’s wife, Sally, worked in the ABC Washington bureau, so his death was really like a death in the family. A few days after he died, we placed a note for Dave in the Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Many of us around the globe paused to remember him. Then we moved on to the next dispatch. That may seem heartless, but a journalist has a responsibility to keep going.

MY FIRST SON, DANNY, was born near the time of Dave’s death. My wife and I have had three more children since, and there is no question that their existence might have tempered my zest for the battlefield in later years. There’s an old saying that “journalism is a young man’s game.” And so it may be. But I have a lasting memory of one night in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. I walked by our workspace where a satellite telephone had been set up. With local telephone service long dead and cell phones unresponsive in the Balkans, the sat phone was the only way to communicate with the outside world. A man was leaning over the phone when I passed by—a fellow scribe speaking with his hand cupped over the mouthpiece so as not to be overheard. But I heard him. As the mortar rounds pounded nearby, he was saying good night to his children.

MY OWN CHILDREN came after my years reporting on the Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, but you didn’t have to be a father to be angered by the suffering of the children there. I admit that, at times, a crusading quality weaves its way into my stories. That notion of righting wrongs plays a part in one’s perseverance.

In Gaza and the West Bank I was caught in the midst of countless battles between rock-throwing prostesters and the Israeli army. There was shooting there, too. Rubber bullets, plastic bullets, and real bullets. The Israelis were not terribly happy with our coverage and tried to limit our mobility. The Palestinians were not terribly happy with the coverage either and often lobbed rocks at us as if we were combatants.

There was a day in Hebron on the West Bank when a small group of us huddled against a garbage can and listened to the ricochet of bullets as the Army fired away at demonstrators behind us. Clouds of tear gas, the effects of which were dissipated a bit by the onions the villagers threw to us, followed the salvo. The onions were for your eyes, believe it or not. My cameraman, an Israeli, was shot in the forehead with a plastic bullet from the guns of his own army. Twice. He survived and continued working.

Once we were confronted with an angry mob of Jewish settlers who would have physically attacked us had it not been for the intervention of the same army that was so hostile on other occasions. At the time, none of this seemed particularly reckless. It was something “you had to do.” But I recall being surprised to find that I was unable to purchase life insurance because of the job I was doing. I suppose I should have thought about that for a bit, but I didn’t.

Nor did I think much about our “odd” behavior during the Gulf War. I was stationed in Israel for that conflict, too. Whenever the Scuds were launched from Iraq, the air raid sirens would scream across the country and send people trampling each other for shelters. But the reporters ran up to the roof to get a better view of the incoming missiles. It would have done us no good at all to be holed up with a bunch of civilians avoiding the attack. Who would report it if not us? Put that way, there was no hesitation on our part as we threw open the rooftop doors and took up position.

This is not to say that only journalists have tunnel vision in times of crisis. During those scud attacks, the late, great violinist Isaac Stern was performing in Tel Aviv. As Stern and the orchestra launched into their program, the sirens sounded. The orchestra took that as a cue to hurry off stage. All but Stern. He donned a gas mask and played on. And he played on before a packed house of Israelis who also sat still with their masks on and enjoyed an incomparable moment.

Was it frightening? Again, not truly. Actually, it was exhilarating. And it was my job.

THESE ARE EXPERIENCES MANY OF MY COLLEAGUES can identify with. I'm sure the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl must have felt similarly, with the the same “it can’t happen to me” feeling and the same determination to recount the horrors of war. It may provoke a lot of head-shaking by those not in the business. But in our fraternity of reporters it prompts a lot of knowing nods. May Danny Pearl's unborn child understand one day that his father was a fine example of a craftsman doing his job.

Sure there are charlatans in journalism who go into places like Afghanistan because they think of it as a self-promotional vehicle. But they are in the minority.

Most reporters are in the business because they see it as a noble calling, and each has his or her own personal reasons. For me, living in Israel, where memories of the Holocaust are so clear, had its impact. I’d interviewed many Jews from Eastern Europe who’d survived Hitler. Their stories both awed me and left me with a responsibility not to let genocide go unreported. The work of Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer covering World War Two also affected me deeply, and reporting the wars was my chance to do something in that vein. Finally, I knew my father would have approved. He would have told me to keep my head down for sure. But he would have seen covering war as an obligation of a professional newsman.

Information is vital to democracy. An uninformed electorate can take a nation in dangerous directions. Those who ask why someone would risk his life for a story should ask themselves if they really prefer to live in ignorance. People who hate the news media and reporters are often paradoxically the most determined viewers and readers. Would they prefer a vacuum—one that could be filled by a latter day Milosevic, Hitler, or Saddam Hussein?

I vote for information. Watching the committed journalists who are my colleagues search for that elusive truth in news events is often an inspiring thing. A lovely thing, worthy of praise.


Dean Reynolds is National Correspondent for ABCNEWS. From 1986 until May 1995, Reynolds was ABCNEWS chief correspondent in Tel Aviv, providing coverage of the Palestinian uprising, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the Gulf War. His work in Israel earned Reynolds three Emmy Awards.

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