Monday, July 29, 2013

One Story I never told

by Manfried Rieder Starhemberg
My story starts on the morning of August 20, 1968 when the editor of the Austrian newspaper I had been writing for ordered me to "proceed to Prague because there were rumors of a Soviet invasion". Prague, under Alexander Dubcek was in the midst of what western writers would call the "Spring of Prague", an uprising against the communist oppression.
I went, saw the troops enter on the 21st , photographed the tanks, eventually got captured along 34 other foreign journalists and got myself imprisoned. Six days later the Russians let us go, many of us with broken ribs, me with a broken nose administered by an "interrogator" who did not like my talking back in bad Russian laced with expletives learned from my Russian speaking grandfather.
Back at the newsroom. I composed, I wrote, I edited and I submitted the story to my editor-in-chief. Twenty minutes later I almost got fired. "What is this drivel about how they imprisoned you guys and beat you up", he yelled. "I am just glad they did not kill you because I would have to waste a quarter page of good space on an obituary. This story is not about you, we sent you to do a story about the invasion, the grief, the tears of the people, the shattered dreams. You have two hours to give me that story  or you can start writing for the local church newsletter".
Lesson almost learned, I wrote "And the Walls Come Tumbling Down" in which I predicted the eventual downfall of not only the Soviet empire but the Berlin wall. The story actually earned me my first journalism award but far better from that, it tought me an incredible lesson in humility. I had committed the first cardinal sin of a reporter: I tried to be the story instead of compassionately and objectively write about others. Even in three years of reporting from Vietnam I never once used "I saw" etc. in any of the thousands of pieces I wrote.
Why do I violate this rule in this piece? Because right now the walls are falling down again, from Tunis to Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Bahrain. We are once again on the brink of happenings like the downfall of the Soviet Union and every day, thousands of reporters write about those events. Sadly, approximately one third of the stories are about "how they are holed up in a hotel fearing for their life" or "three journalists were arrested today by (insert whatever country you want)...members of the ruling party. Obviously a lot of my colleagues out there did not have the dressing down I got from my boss otherwise they would have learned to not flash their press cards, ask for access to people whose least desire is to speak to someone from Agence France Presse or Die Presse or have cameras and microphones pushed into their noses.
The good folks from the fourth estate have become the story lately. They have forgotten to report with integrity and honesty. I still remember Wolf Blitzer on top of that hotel in Baghdad on the eve of the beginning of the first Gulf War. This report made his whole professional career and now every aspiring reporter wants to be like him or Christine Amanpour. The revolutions that are happening around them? They get reported breathlessly, often inaccurately with all the "unnamed sources to protect their integrity" thrown in.
A friend of mine is doing this just now. He is in touch with someone in Syria by satellite phone and writes about the unrest and the "mood of the people". The "people" is just one disgruntled guy, but my friend is sending out "interviews" from a setting in front of a tent set up behind a hotel in Alexandria, Egypt. I hope he does not get a Pulitzer.
I wish I could be there. I would pretend to be a sales rep for some nice Canadian company and listen to the moods, let the spirit of the people guide me in what to write and hopefully, I would be open to listen to both sides before I offer one word to my readers.
It is too late for me but my fervent wish is that some good editors out there have a word with their cargo panted, coiffed and press credentialed reporters that they are mud in the eyes of the world. It is the starving peasant on the corner that counts or the store with bare shelves. After all, those are the things that are left behind when the "Journalist" flies home first class...

Manfried is a free lance writer and owner of Maple Leaf Press Agency in Newport, Vt.

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