In his State of the Union address, President Bush had an opportunity to salute the highly visible sacrifice of war correspondents who risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, to bring us news from the front. He didn't.
Journalists embedded with Army units have generally been considered safer than freelancers. In Iraq, we'd argue, there's no “safer” for anyone. Kidnapped freelancer Jill Carroll, without official protection, has been held hostage and threatened with death. ABC World News anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt were embeds. They are now recovering from serious injuries. All took risks that frequently go unacknowledged until driven home by tragedy.
Carroll, Woodruff and Vogt are prominent symbols of U.S. sacrifices in this war, yet President Bush, in a speech heavy on references to sacrifice and the march of freedom, made no mention of them. “Iraqis are showing their courage every day,” said the president. So, we would remind him, are journalists.
“Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time,” said the president, before continuing on about the number of democracies in the world in 1945 versus today. Here is what we wish he had said:
“Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. But without someone to tell that story, to chronicle that struggle, it would be lost to history. We want to remember in our thoughts and prayers three American journalists who have put themselves in harm's way to report on our efforts in Iraq, exercising a freedom denied by dictators and prized by the democracies we seek to foster.”
It was a missed opportunity from an administration with a thinly disguised disdain for a free and open press in this country and even in Iraq.
That silence notwithstanding, our union is stronger because journalists are willing to report from dangerous places and to bring us more than the government-issue, and sometimes government-purchased, story.
Before the Carroll kidnapping, it was reported by the Los Angeles Times that the U.S. Army, as part of its propaganda effort, had paid for pro-American stories to appear in Arab-language papers. We worried then about the problems that could stem from compromising a freedom the U.S. was touting to Iraqis as one of democracy's features.
We were reminded of that government-inflicted wound to our credibility by reports last week that Iraqi newspapers were urging captors to free Carroll. But now that Iraqi readers may feel Americans have manipulated their press, our propaganda has come full circle. Who can be believed?
Someday, we hope, journalists won't be treated as pawns in the war in Iraq. That could start with better treatment from the administration.