Many reporters find themselves in a dilemma when the press comes under attack. Our pride, our institutional and tribal loyalties, all clamor for a retort. We may be the bearers of bad tidings, but we are not their cause. If the truth is inimical to you, we want to argue, assailing us will not alter it. But then the reporter’s half of the brain pipes up. Our instinct is (or should be) to stay out of the fray, to remain impartial, not to become part of the story. If we claim the right to question those in authority, why should our power, our institutions, our work be above challenge and criticism? Why should we demand special treatment? And who better knows the failings of the press than we do? Above all, if we have become the news, have we not failed in our primary task of covering the news? These conflicting instincts often make us reluctant to write about the travails of our trade.
I think we would all agree that if we deliberately impose ourselves on a story, we have failed. But in many years of covering places such as the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, I have found that those reporters who are harassed, jailed, or killed are rarely those who chase after glory, danger, or ratings. Many of them are people who did not choose risky assignments but whose countries or beats were caught up in conflict, tyranny, or lawlessness. Telling the real story became dangerous, but they told it anyway because they believed they had to do so. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was not kidnapped and murdered because he was foolhardy or careless; he was in Pakistan because that was where the most important story in his beat was developing, and he was killed by extremists who hated him for being a journalist, for being an American, and for being a Jew.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” said Respublika editor-in-chief Irina Petrushova, a soft-spoken mother who has been threatened, harassed, and attacked for writing about government corruption in Kazakhstan, after receiving a CPJ 2002 International Press Freedom Award. “Like hundreds of my colleagues in other countries around the world, I fear for myself and my sons. I am even more afraid that my children will have to live in a totally corrupt society. I fear they will have to lie, to offer bribes, to grovel in order to be successful in their lives. I fear the arbitrary rule of bureaucrats and police, who are not accountable to the people, and who are gradually turning Kazakhstan into an authoritarian state.”
I was sitting next to Petrushova’s husband as she spoke. “This will really make them angry,” he whispered. “Will that make it worse for her?” I asked. “No! No! This is what they need to hear,” he replied.
That brought me back to earlier years, when Petrushova’s spiritual predecessors among Soviet dissidents would risk their freedom, and even their lives, to smuggle information to Western reporters, convinced that giving voice, or glasnost, to the realities of the Soviet regime was the ultimate weapon against its tyranny. Many of those dissenters were also unwilling heroes, people who had come to the painful conclusion that they had no moral choice but to tell the truth. In the end, it was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s official embrace of glasnost–more than all the other weapons of the Cold War–that brought the communist system crashing down. And however sad the revival of despotism across so much of the former Soviet empire may be, it is heartening that people such as Petrushova have not lost their voice.
More recently, I spent several months covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2002, the West Bank ranked at the top of CPJ’s list of the “worst places to be a journalist” based on the number of documented attacks on the press. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very difficult story to cover because of the ardent passions that every report arouses among readers and viewers. Journalists are constantly accused of bias or of violating restrictions. Yet after watching so many reporters and cameramen surmount dangers, hatreds, and barriers day after day, I am convinced that the vast majority of them do so because that is the only way this story can be told, and because they believe it must be told. Their reports may infuriate one side or the other, but in the end, no one can claim ignorance of what is taking place in that sad and shattered land.
In the end, that is the answer to the dilemma. The response to those who killed Daniel Pearl, or to those who harass Irina Petrushova, is to ensure that the stories for which they suffered, their stories, get told–not out of vengeance or spite, but because they need to be told, because we ourselves need to hear them. That, ultimately, is our only real defense, and the real tribute we can pay to our colleagues.
Serge Schmemann is a member of The New York Times’ editorial board. He has covered South Africa, the Soviet Union, Germany, post-Soviet Russia, and Israel. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his coverage of Germany’s reunification.