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HARPER: No more wars for a real pro; rest in peace, Tom Aspell
Tom Aspell covered almost every war fought in the past 40 years.
He was the type of journalist we need to see more of. Unfortunately, we are seeing fewer.
News organizations have fewer reporters covering international news. It is too expensive and most people don’t care about the stories, news executives say. It is a shortsighted view. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. public needs more, not less, information about international events. After Vietnam, we turned inward and failed to notice important international trends. Terrorism grew more prevalent. The Soviets killed our ambassador in Afghanistan, the last such event until Benghazi in September, and then invaded the country. Many people did not pay attention — until it was too late — to the events in Iran, which led to a significant change in the state of the world, including the hostage crisis.
I met Tom Aspell in 1979 at the Commodore Hotel bar in Beirut, where journalists gathered after a day covering the continuing civil war in Lebanon. At the time, he worked as a cameraman for CBS News. I was a reporter for Newsweek.
A native of New Zealand, Tom covered the fall of Saigon and stayed behind to report on the events after the Americans left — a dangerous choice. A slender, handsome man with dark hair and an ingratiating smile, he understood but usually ignored danger. After CBS News, he worked as a producer for ABC News and as a correspondent for NBC News.
Why do people work as war correspondents? It’s a tough question to answer. I was a reluctant one; wars scared the hell out of me. For Tom Aspell, however, it was his mission. He was like a soldier. Someone had to tell these stories, and he made sure he was there to tell them. Tom and I spent many days together, including one in a trench with Iraqi soldiers. His humor in tough places like that almost always saved the day. After we made our way off the battlefield and back to the Shatt al-Arab Hotel in Basra, he said, “At least we have a frosty beer to come back to after a day covering the war. Think about the guys back there.”
I worked for ABC News and was expelled from Egypt for my coverage of President Anwar Sadat and his problems with Islamic fundamentalists. Tom, who was my producer at the time, said I had to do a report before I got on a plane to leave the country. I told him he had to do it; I couldn’t report on myself. He told me he was a producer, not a correspondent. He reluctantly agreed to file something for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” After that, he spent nearly 30 years reporting on various conflicts as a correspondent for NBC News. I am proud I had a small part in his success.
Although he may not have been a household name, he was the Ernie Pyle of television news. Behind the camera and in front of the camera, he reported on the most important stories in the world.
Many current foreign correspondents earned their stripes by being embedded with U.S. troops. Almost every story from those embedded with U.S. military must be approved before publication. That often meant only the American view got told. That was not what Tom was about. He wanted to be on the front lines to report what was happening without such interference.
That’s why reporters of his caliber, who worked with neither fear nor favor, are so important.
He died last week — not from a bullet, but from cancer. Like many of us in war zones, Tom smoked too much and drank too much. He was only 62 and left behind a widow and two children.
I had the honor to share some memorable moments with him. I will miss him and the information he provided. So, too, should the viewers of television news and the American public. He was one of the best.
There is a short report about Tom’s career at http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/longtime-nbc-news-foreign-correspondent-tom-aspell-dies_b166767.
About the Author
Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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