The Heroes Who Can Save Journalism

From David Rohde’s escape from the Taliban to citizen journalists in Tehran, Peter Osnos says recent acts of journalistic bravery offer lessons for the flailing media industry about how to reconcile professional news providers with amateurs.

Charles Krupa / AP Photo; Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP Photo

New York Times correspondent David Rohde’s thrilling escape from his Taliban kidnappers, NPR and BBC contributor Roxana Saberi’s release from an Iranian jail after months of detention and trial, and Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s 12-year hard-labor sentence in North Korea are reminders that choosing to cover what are among today’s best stories around the world is a very serious business.

Journalism of the sort practiced by the intrepid correspondents working in the most difficult of circumstances is an essential factor in shaping the outcome of turmoil and conflict.

I use “business” advisedly because so much of the attention around journalism today is about the reduced resources to fund it. What the Rohde-Saberi-Ling-Lee cases underscore is that the thugs, theocrats, and autocrats couldn’t care less who is paying the reporters they manhandle. It is the very considerable threat journalism represents to these regimes and movements that make them ready to use whatever means they can—including murder, in the case of The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl—to block the gathering of news.

When the Iranian leadership moved to shut down the protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of their first steps was to limit foreign reporting, refusing to renew visas, expelling the resident BBC correspondent, and ordering the remaining journalists to stay away from demonstrations. The triumph of “citizen” reporting distributed via Twitter and YouTube provided glimpses of what was happening. But the cumulative impact of professional coverage was drastically reduced. At last count, the Iranians had arrested 40 journalists, including several who had written for Western publications, and were holding one reporter with British-Greek nationality. Iran’s ayatollahs, like their counterparts elsewhere around the globe, may claim spiritual or doctrinal supremacy, but they are terrified of what reporters can do to their power.

The summary of facts and perspective above are well-known to the media world and the part of the public that understands or cares about what journalists do. But this message cannot be stated too forcefully or repeated too often: Journalism of the sort practiced by the intrepid correspondents working in the most difficult of circumstances is an essential factor in shaping the outcome of turmoil and conflict.

Reporters in war zones always have been physically at risk. What has become much more common in recent years is the entrapment and persecution of correspondents to intimidate opposition at home and abroad and secure an international spotlight for a chilling but cheap display of force.

The Rohde case thwarted that objective for the Taliban because of the extraordinary discipline shown by The New York Times and other media organizations in refusing to give the kidnappers the satisfaction of turning the case into a cause célèbre and thus drive the price of ransom ever higher. Details of the various efforts by the newspaper, Rohde’s family, and others to secure his release remain deliberately vague. (Rohde actually was on leave working on a book when he was captured, but there has been no word of any part played by his publisher, HarperCollins, which presumably will get the benefits of his terrific story.) His successful escape with his Afghan “fixer” was, from all available accounts, an act of daring and desperation rather than the result of anything that others did on his behalf.

Rohde, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Balkans, where he also was taken hostage, was part of a team of Times reporters who won a Pulitzer in April for their work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That recognition of his work came as The New York Times Company struggled with what are undoubtedly among the worst economic conditions of its illustrious history.

The problems the company confronts, especially losses at The Boston Globe, to one degree or another are the same as those facing nearly all news organizations: the dwindling resources to pay for what they do. Given the scale of the challenges, it can’t be said often enough that journalism is much more than stuff appearing between advertising and commercials. With the newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast news divisions that were mainstays of professional coverage pulling back so sharply, the issue of how to replace them deserves much more attention than it is already getting. Free news on YouTube and the Web from Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere definitely is worth more than you pay for it, but cannot begin to provide the depth, range, and insight that journalism at its best represents.

Wherever reporters gather, particularly those drawn to conflict, the subject is who will support their work. Nonprofit organizations like Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have developed a generation of courageous investigators whose on-the-ground research is increasingly important, but most of it never reaches large audiences. The BBC, Associated Press, and National Public Radio are great nonprofit news gatherers. But most news is still in the hands of businesses that are inevitably focused on their troubled bottom lines. Those reporters kidnapped and imprisoned in pursuit of stories can’t solve the business crisis in journalism, but what they do is of the highest possible value, and the costs of losing their kind of work would be incalculably high.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post.