There was a tragic symmetry to the final dispatches of Marie Colvin, a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London who died Tuesday night on assignment in the Syrian city of Homs. In an on-air chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Colvin related the story of a 2-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,” 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.”
Consideration of that sort is happening across U.S. newsrooms. Douglas Jehl, who heads foreign coverage at The Washington Post, notes that the paper now has no reporters in Syria. Although The Post has made several trips into the country over the past year, Jehl says, “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,” he says.
A spokesman for CNN said the network has no journalists in Syria; two crews pulled out of the country this week. ABC is keeping correspondent Alexander Marquardt stationed on the Syria-Turkey border.
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.” There are but a “few” reporters left in the country, Gelling adds, and even those are doing “brief stints.”
News consumers, accordingly, will be treated to a stream of amateur video of the mayhem on the streets of Syria — that often choppy, chaotic footage that washes up on YouTube and other spots on the Internet. Clearing such material for rebroadcast presents an altogether separate challenge for networks. Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of international newsgathering at CNN, says the network has a “whole verification system . . . in which we have experts and staff from and in the region watching the content. With their language skills, knowledge of the region and contacts, they review the material. Once the content goes through our protocol and is approved for air, we are transparent with our audience that the material is not CNN content and that we can’t fully verify it since our own staff did not originally gather the material.”
Those are unfortunate half measures but responsible ones 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.