- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

That gruesome day

There are, I understand, some editors and reporters at a few of the nation’s richest newspapers who make a very good living as journalists. But for most of us, there were other career options that would have been more lucrative.

We do this because we love the action, the sense of having a front-row seat when history is being made, of being somehow engaged in the great events of our time.

But occasionally it stops being fun, and Tuesday was one of those days.

The wire agencies’ first bulletins saying an American hostage had been beheaded in Iraq appeared at midday. We knew immediately that it would be a major front-page story, but the full horror didn’t set in until we saw the detailed descriptions of the video depicting the drawn-out execution of a screaming Nicholas Berg. Then came the heart-breaking photos of Mr. Berg’s anguished father collapsing at the news.

But it wasn’t until still later, close to our deadline, than my stomach began to churn.

I had been editing our reporter Joshua Mitnick’s coverage of yet another horror, one that didn’t even make it onto our front page because of the press of events: An attack by Palestinian militants in Gaza had somehow detonated more than 200 pounds of explosives being carried inside an Israeli armored personnel carrier.

The blast had not only destroyed the APC and killed the six Israeli soldiers inside, it had also blown apart their bodies and scattered the remains over a wide area.

At our deadline, Israeli forces were still battling militants in the area as they scoured the alleys and rooftops trying to recover the remains. Some body parts had already been taken by young Palestinians who ran through the streets waving them over their heads.

No sooner had I sent that story over to our copy desk than I turned to the Berg beheading, in this case the Associated Press account from Baghdad. As I began reading reporter Louis Meixler’s description of the video, I began to feel positively ill; it took a concerted act of will to finish editing the story and complete the day’s work.

Detachment

Stories don’t affect me that way very often. You learn how to distance yourself from the things you write about.

Whether the story is about a terrorist bomb in Colombia, vicious fighting in Liberia or a flood that killed thousands in Bangladesh, you turn it into a kind of intellectual exercise, with little more emotional involvement than doing a crossword puzzle.

You stay detached by concentrating on professionalism. You assemble the facts, make sure they are consistent and as complete as possible, and lay them out in a coherent and readable manner. You make sure the most compelling and important facts are at the top of the story.

It’s not that we want the stories to be clinical. We try very hard to find the eyewitness account, the personal recollection, the telling quotation, which humanizes the story and brings it to life for readers. But even doing that becomes part of the intellectual exercise.

It’s a little harder for reporters out in the field. I recall being a correspondent in Africa, walking through acres upon acres of human misery in sprawling, muddy refugee camps, and feeling helpless.

Like most reporters, I sustained myself with the faint hope that the story I wrote about these people would encourage some kind of international relief.

In the case of Iraq and the Gaza Strip, I was back at work on Wednesday and the horrors continued. Another armored personnel carrier blew up in Gaza in the same way as the day before, and five more Israeli soldiers were blown apart. In Iraq, more grisly details emerged about Mr. Berg’s death and photographs appeared on the Drudge Report.

I persisted through the day, and managed to reclaim much of the detachment that allows us to continue. But it just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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