There was a tragic symmetry to the final dispatches of Marie Colvin, a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London who died last night on assignment in Syria. In a chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Colvin related the story of a two-year-old Syrian boy who had died after a shell exploded on his home.
That night, the same fate befell Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Taken together with the death of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who suffered a fatal asthma attack last week after a reporting stint in Syria, this turn of events puts outlets in the most unenviable of positions: Send reporters into the war zones at an almost impossible risk level, or stay on the margins and try to get the story indirectly.
“As tragic as Marie Colvin’s and Remi Ochlik’s deaths are, we’ve been in this sort of difficult conversation in this newsroom for months,” say Tom Nagorski, ABC’s managing editor for international news. A big component of the calculation, he says, is figuring out just what getting inside the country will deliver to viewers: “We’re very careful to assess what it is we will bring to the reporting by saying we are inside Syria,” says Nagorski. “It’s quite literally a new assessment almost every morning and every night.”
In December, ABC’s Barbara Walters scored an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the network did some reporting on the ground following the interview. But, as Nagorski notes, the mission was ”complicated.” Though Assad had personally guaranteed the ABC crew that it could roam the country at will, the journalists encountered a different reality on the ground:
Not only would our team not be allowed to travel to Dael, but our car would be joined by eight others full of uniformed and plainclothes police, as well as Syrian state media, which filmed and photographed us all day.
That’s a nutshell explanation of why news organizations have taken to sneaking into Syria, the better to cover the nearly yearlong uprising/revolution without the “aid” of Syrian officialdom. That’s why Shadid took a perilous route over the Syrian-Turkish border to get in and out of the country; that’s why CBS’s Clarissa Ward waded through mud and peril to get the goods as well — she went in unescorted twice, and came away with juicy features on the violence, the human cost and the chaos in the streets.
CBS News President David Rhodes terms Ward’s reporting missions sans official Syrian accompaniment “unilateral” efforts. Despite the rewards, unilateralism at CBS is going to take a hiatus, at least with regard to Syria. “It is the case that today that we think the situation within Syria is too risky to be in there unilaterally,” says Rhodes. “We are constantly evaluating the situation and that could change,” he adds.
In a New Yorker piece today, David Remnick wondered whether the attack was evidence that the regime had taken to targeting the media. Said Rhodes : ”That’s a possibility that we all have to consider very carefully.”
Consideration of that sort is happening across American newsrooms. Douglas Jehl, who heads foreign coverage at the Washington Post, writes via e-mail that the paper currently has no reporters in Syria. Though the Post has made several trips into the country over the past year, “the nature of the conflict and the very limited access allowed by the Syrian government have made it extraordinarily dangerous and difficult for news organizations to cover the conflict. We continue to seek access to the country, and have sought permission from the Syrian government to send a reporter to Damascus to cover the referendum scheduled for this weekend.”
A spokesperson for CNN said the network currently has no journalists in Syria; two crews pulled out of the country earlier this week. ABC is keeping correspondent Alexander Marquardt stationed on the Syria-Turkey border. Other news outlets hadn’t responded to inquiries before posting time.
The drain of reporters from Syria means that the truth will be harder to glean from less direct accounts of the conflict. Says Peter Gelling, a top editor at Global Post: “It’s become very difficult, if not impossible, for a foreign reporter to base themselves in Syria — a reality that makes reporting this story accurately very difficult,” says Gelling, who says that there are but a “few” reporters left in the country — and even those are doing “brief stints.” “We are forced primarily to rely on reporters in Beirut or Istanbul who have strong networks of local contacts inside Syria to help them with the on ground the reporting. But nothing beats the firsthand account.”
Keeping correspondents away from the shelling is the only responsible call nonetheless. After all, Colvin declared on CNN not long before she died: “This is the worst” situation for personal safety. “There’s nowhere to run.” Thankfully we have her compelling last dispatch to prove how right she was.