One on One: Run for coverage

NBC's veteran reporter in Israel Martin Fletcher on the dangers of his job.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
July 23, 2008 23:19
One on One: Run for coverage

martin fletcher 224 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

According to Breaking News author Martin Fletcher, when his wife read his newly released book (published by Thomas Dunne) on the dangers and dilemmas of his decades-long career, "she freaked out and banned me from ever leaving the house again." Though one assumes that NBC News's Tel Aviv bureau chief is embellishing on his spouse's reaction somewhat (especially since he met her, in 1994, by picking her up hitchhiking when she was a sergeant in the IDF), the spirit of the sentiment is plausible. Given the chilling content of much of Fletcher's autobiographical sketch of his life in the field, reporting from war-torn, famine-afflicted, disease-infested disaster areas around the world, it would be peculiar if members of his family weren't a touch on the worried side. He has reported on the war on terror in Afghanistan, the conflict in Kosovo, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, the killing of American troops in Somalia and was the first correspondent to enter Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. He covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the war in Cyprus in 1974 and was the first TV reporter enter the American Embassy in Teheran during the 1979 hostage crisis, later covering the Iran-Iraq War. He subsequently accompanied rebel forces during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1981, as well as the war in Lebanon - well, both wars, more recently the 2006 confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah. Oh, and the two intifadas, of course. And this is just a partial list of where the love of his livelihood has taken him. Not that the British-born Herzliya resident's road hasn't been paved with a few professional perks, mind you, among them five Emmy awards. Still, the 60-year-old, married father-of-three and son of Holocaust survivors insists that "fame and glory" are not at the root of his passion for the action. If it were, he says, he'd be sitting comfortably in some studio anchoring his own show - not still smack in the middle of the mayhem: exposed to malaria, at the mercy of murderers and dodging mines, not to mention getting on a plane at a moment's notice. As for having settled in the Holy Land, Fletcher explains that once he and his wife - with whom he had conducted a long-term, long-distance relationship that involved a stint in Paris together - decided to have children, settling in Israel was the only way he could be at work and close to home simultaneously. Is there any place in the world you haven't been? Yes. The places in the world I most want to go to: the North Pole, the South Pole, the Seychelles Islands, Tahiti... That's because I go to the best places in the worst of times, and nothing too bad has happened in those places. You write about your dilemmas as a journalist. What are they and how do you resolve them? One of the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place - more than just tell the story of my career - was to discuss the dilemmas reporters face in the field. One example took place in Afghanistan, where I recently went. One of the reasons I was looking forward to this trip was to do a story on "the last Jew in Afghanistan." There were two Jews left, and one died a couple of years ago. And this one has a wife and two daughters living in Holon. But when I met him, all he wanted was to talk about was money - who owed it to him and what I was going to give him. When it became clear that I wasn't going to fork up thousands of dollars, he asked me if I could bring him a case of whiskey and things like that. This was really uncomfortable, because I had been expecting to present this interesting story of this guy "flying the flag for Judaism among the Muslims," and all he was interested in was money. The dilemma was: Do I do the story as it is, and make all the anti-Semites happy, or not report it at all? I decided on the former, and when it appeared on the Web, I got tons of responses both from anti-Semites and others questioning my having done the story at all. Have you encountered similar dilemmas that involve not your Jewishness, but your political positions? I often think about that question. And I do have strong views, but they don't have an impact on my reports. How is that possible? I guess that's one of the definitions of being a professional, isn't it? We're all human beings; we're all allowed to have political views. But part of being the kind of reporter I am - sort of old school - is to try to be as balanced as possible. The last chapter of the book, Living with Terror, is all about the dilemmas I face trying to report fairly on Palestinian terrorists. I became very familiar with Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade guys and with certain groups in the Balata refugee camp. I went to see them regularly. I came to understand them and got to know their mothers and fathers. Yet they were the people sending suicide bombers to blow up Israelis. So, that was certainly a challenge. And I think I handled it well. Isn't the attempt to balance reportage of morally nonequivalent situations inherently imbalanced? Yes, it's a built-in contradiction. But, no, I wouldn't say that a Palestinian suicide bomber is the same as an Israel Air Force pilot dropping a bomb. I accept the argument that at least the pilot is trying to hit a specific target, even if there are Palestinian civilians killed. At the same time, as the kind of reporter I am - by which I mean that I go out a lot in the field and meet the people - if I go to the site where an Israeli bomb has fallen on a Palestinian house, and everyone's crying that children are dead, it becomes hard to accept the Israeli argument that there is no moral equivalency. I mean, should the Israelis be more careful, perhaps? It's a very complicated question. Because at the beginning of the second intifada, for example, when Israel dropped a half-ton bomb on the entire Hamas leadership and they all got away, the understanding was that if it had been a one-ton bomb, they would all have been killed, which would have saved a lot of heartache down the road. The way I see it is that each side believes it is right and the others are criminals. Personally, I find it hard to judge who is right and who is wrong. I therefore don't try. I try to report fairly on what I see. Have you ever encountered events that were staged for your benefit, due to the presence of your camera crew? Because I've been doing this for 35 years, I'm very aware of those situations, and have strong personal rules about them. So, for example, if we're at the Jabalya refugee camp, and we know that an Israeli patrol is about to come by, we don't take the cameras out. We sort of distance ourselves from where things are happening. Other journalists will take out the camera, and then things will develop because of it. This is definitely among the problems we face, and it happens a lot more than we even know. But the bigger picture is that we didn't create the intifada. And there's a lot more blame placed on TV crews than they actually deserve. Are you ever accused of taking sides because you are a Jew, married to an Israeli, who lives here? I've been accused much more of being anti-Israeli than pro-Israeli. Has your personal safety ever been a factor in whether you cover a story or not? Never, though in individual situations, I have to make specific calculations whether to enter a certain zone at a certain moment. And when I choose not to, I feel bad about it. For example, I remember standing on the border of Macedonia when all the refugees were fleeing from Kosovo, and seeing the burning villages just across the hill. I wanted so much to go in there, but I realized that doing so would have been a death warrant. And this brought up all kinds of mixed emotions, because, aside from my mother and father - and maybe one other relative on each side - our whole family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Watching these people - who, though Muslims, were more like Europeans, with their refrigerators and cars and villas - in that situation and not be able to help was awful. These were people like my family. People like us - not the tough guys in Africa or Asia you really can't relate to in the same way. Have your bosses at NBC ever questioned your decision not to enter a particular zone? Oh no. In fact, they're much more careful than I am. They're much more concerned about safety than we are. This is for insurance reasons, of course [he laughs]. Speaking of which, you have had colleagues kidnapped and killed. Did the [kidnapped and beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter] Daniel Pearl case have an effect on the caution you exercise? Well, yes, and I describe it in the book [in a chapter entitled "Famine and the Warlord"]. In Somalia [in 1992], we had that exact situation, when sent to try and interview hunted warlord General Mohammed Farrah Aidid. I had actually gotten to know him quite well, because my Israeli crew and I had stayed in his house a number of times before that. So, we went to Mogadishu and found people who knew him. They told us to be ready that night, and that they would send somebody to pick us up. A guy arrived whom I'd never seen before. That was a moment during which I had to ask myself whether or not to get in the car with him. I decided we would. So, we got in this stranger's car and drove through all these back alleys at night. Then he took us to a place where we had to change cars, with other people we didn't know. That was exactly what happened with Daniel Pearl. Weren't you afraid? The moment I made the decision to go ahead with it, I wasn't afraid. You know, we fired the arrow; we're on the way; whatever happens happens. I mean, obviously I thought we were going to be OK, otherwise we wouldn't have gone. And it's funny, because the first guy asked us, "Aren't you afraid to be driving with a guy you don't know in Mogadishu?" And I said, "Aren't you afraid to be driving with three guys you don't know?" But, of course, he was the guy with the gun. These are situations we frequently face. I was in Afghanistan when the Russians invaded [in 1978]. I spent three weeks with the Mujahadeen, walking from Pakistan to Afghanistan - just me and 30 of those guys - who became the Taliban of today, and al-Qaida. I had to find out which of them I could trust, and I put my life in their hands for all those days. One of them robbed me, in fact. But I had to be totally committed, because there was no way out. What about the language barrier in all these countries? Have you ever questioned the veracity of what is being said to you through an interpreter? Whenever I have that feeling, we get it translated back in the office by professionals. When that has happened, did you ever discover discrepancies? Actually not. One of the challenges of this field is choosing the right people to work with. The most important of these, of course, is the driver, who takes you around, keeps you safe and acts as your eyes and ears. Translators are very important, too. At NBC, we have the luxury of working with people who have worked with us for a long time. They won't screw around with the facts, because they would lose their jobs if they did. More problematic than accurate translations are the people who guide us around and force a particular story line. That happens frequently among the Palestinians, by the way. Over the years I've worked with people who are constantly showing one side of the story. So, part of my job is to understand this and yank it back to the other side of the street, so to speak. While on the the subject of the "other side of the street," what's your experience with the Government Press Office in Israel? Not much, frankly, but that may have to do with the fact that there's a lot less interest in Israel on the part of the foreign press - especially the American - over the last few years than there used to be. So today, the GPO takes less of an interest in what we're doing than it used to. But it does become very active when there's a major story, such as the disengagement from Gaza or the Second Lebanon War. There were huge press operations which actually worked pretty well. Did you find during disengagement that the government or the IDF was angling for you to present the story from a certain point of view? Well, yes, but that was about the only way to report it, because the security forces were taking huge pains not to engage in all kinds of confrontations. And they handled it very well. Was there no way to present the story from the settlers' point of view? I found that the security forces were going almost too far in trying to be correct toward the settlers. They were almost unmilitary in the way they related to them. I mean, if there had been Palestinians on the other side, they would have responded very differently. This showed that the Israelis know how to deal with a crowd situation very well indeed when they want to, which means that they could be doing better in such situations with Palestinians - not always, of course, but much more than they do in many cases. There's a double standard, and if they treated Palestinian civilians the way they treated the settlers during disengagement, the situation would be much calmer. When a situation is not calm, how do you come to terms emotionally with the pain of the people you are filming? Once, when I was at a medical tent in Sudan, and a guy came carrying his dying infant in his arms. As I was watching him, he looked down at the baby and realized the baby was dead. Then our teary eyes met. But my reaction - which haunts me to this day - was to rush off to find the cameraman. Now, on the one hand, that's why I was there in the first place. On the other, it's objectively a horrible reaction to someone else's tragedy. In order to do good, sometimes you've got to do bad things. Apropos bad things, if you had had a camera crew during the Holocaust, would you have filmed the atrocities? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because they would have gone on anyway, and it would have been my duty to try and show it to the world. No, because the Germans never would have allowed TV cameras to do that. You see the same kind of situation even today. In Rwanda or Kosovo, for example, TV crews weren't allowed near enough. The media are powerful, but they are purposely kept out of many situations. Like in the Falklands? That's a great example. But this isn't only true of war. The cyclone in Myanmar is also an example. I spent two weeks trying to get a visa there. And though others got in on tourist visas, I couldn't because they Googled me and found out straightaway who I was. But you couldn't cover the story in Myanmar. Nor will the Chinese allow us into Tibet. You know, these governments can do whatever they want. Speaking of which, in his book, Double Vision: How America's Press Distorts Our View of the Middle East (1985), former GPO director Zev Chafets wrote about the problem of reporting on a conflict, one side of which is a democracy with freedom of the press - allowing reporters to be critical - and the other side of which terrorizes the media into bias. How do you handle this particular dilemma? Do you think it's worthwhile to report a story, even if doing so requires toeing the radical line of dictators and terrorists? When I read that book, I not only understood exactly what Chafets was talking about, but agreed with him. Though he was referring to the PLO in Beirut during the first war in Lebanon, we face the same problem today with Hizbullah. In fact, I raised this very issue during the Second Lebanon War with NBC - about our getting completely free access to coverage on the Israeli side, while our colleagues in Lebanon were not getting the same access. I questioned whether we could provide balanced coverage under these conditions, and suggested we couldn't. But we had reporters in Lebanon who were being threatened by Hizbullah that if they filmed certain things, they'd be thrown out or shot at. Still, we did have to cover the war the best we could. So I insisted that we announce in our daily reports that this was coerced coverage, and that we were not able to film certain things, because Hizbullah wouldn't let us. Didn't that anger Hizbullah? Well, [he laughs] the reporters didn't say what I wanted them to say. No, they did sometimes. At one point, in fact, while I was reporting from Israel, and my colleague, Richard Engel, was reporting from Lebanon - we reported simultaneously for 31 days straight - I said that it wouldn't be right for us not to tell the viewers that his side was routinely coerced coverage, and NBC agreed. True, we didn't say this every single time we reported. But we did it sometimes, and Engel even did an entire story saying that he couldn't say what he wanted to say. Why did you pick this particular field of journalism? Do you get some kind of adrenaline high from being in danger? I do have certain adrenaline rushes, but I'm not sure it's from the danger. I have asked myself this question, because I do understand why a fireman goes into a burning building to save lives, or why a soldier fights for his country. But why does a journalist, just to tell a story, do the kinds of things we do? It doesn't really make sense. Doesn't it make sense in the context of the fame and glory - sometimes a lot of money - TV journalism affords? Fame and glory it isn't. If it were, I would be doing something else. Because, though being a foreign correspondent is all I ever wanted to be, in America, it's like the bottom rung of the ladder, really. You know, reporters return from the field and become anchors or do their own programs, and that never interested me. Furthermore, I began as a cameraman, so it certainly wasn't for the fame or glory. So, I've never heard a good answer to the question of why we do it. It's a combination of things. Partly it's because I feel that I'm helping people by telling their stories. As [French philosopher and journalist] Albert Camus wrote: "I can't stop the world being a place where children are tortured, but I can stop some children from being tortured."


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