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,” says 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,” Nagorski says. “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 after the interview. But, as Nagorski notes, the mission was “complicated.” Although 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,” according to an ABC News dispatch, “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 we think the situation within Syria is too risky to be in there unilaterally,” Rhodes says.
“We are constantly evaluating the situation and that could change,” he adds.
In a New Yorker piece Wednesday, David Remnick wondered whether the attack was evidence that the regime had taken to targeting the news media. Says Rhodes: “That’s a possibility that we all have to consider very carefully.”