CBS War Correspondent Bill Downs

A War Correspondent Bleeds Ink, not Blood. Most of the Time.

Wars have been the subject of written records for thousands of years, or we wouldn’t have history books and wouldn’t know what happened in those wars. Generals, soldiers, and outsiders have recorded what happened. Some of the records are more accurate than others, as we well know.

War Correspondents in Reality

A war correspondent is a specialized journalist defined as “a correspondent employed to report news concerning the conduct of a war and especially of events at the scene of battle.”

This job is not for the weak. So what makes a war correspondent put his life on the line to get and record his-story?

As Robert Capa said: “For a war correspondent to miss an invasion is like refusing a date with Lana Turner.” And below are answers to this question from three past war correspondents:

Tim Judah, freelance journalist located in London

“You have to remember why you are in this game in the first place. On the morning of Nov. 13, I walked into Kabul a few hours after the Taliban had left. I don’t think there were any journalists there that morning who thought they’d rather be covering gas station robberies in Boise, Idaho, or courtrooms in the London suburbs. I became a journalist because I wanted to see history being made, and I certainly didn’t want to while away my working years behind a flickering screen in an office while everyone else had fun.”

Byron Pitts, CBS News Correspondent

“Dan Rather has a powerful saying: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and reporters gotta go. Since the beginning of recorded history, men and women have gone to dangerous places simply to be a witness. Like many of my colleagues, 9/11 changed me. Our world is at war on many fronts. Each of us must play a role. I believe mine is to go to places and seek truth. I don’t want to die or get injured. I pray for my own safety and the safety of friends in harm’s way. But at the end of the day, I know tomorrow is not promised, and freedom has never been free.”

Chris Kline, American veteran war correspondent

“War is the ugliest thing human beings do, but it removes all the artifice from one’s perspectives. Weirdly though you see the worst of human behavior, you also see the best of the human spirit that extreme circumstances bring to the fore. A sense of brotherhood and sisterhood you find nowhere else in quite the same way, and it’s a very deep bond. This rather than the adrenaline rush of danger is what I find addictive.”

Reporters at War: Dying to Tell a Story is a documentary that studies motivations of journalists dedicated enough to risk their lives for a story. A common thread among the correspondents interviewed is that they all work on a mission to make known the horrors of war in some attempt to stop it by telling the truth. The documentary is 1 1/2 hours, so before you get started, get yourself a hot drink and get into a comfortable chair. It is not for the feeble-minded.

Women War Correspondents

War correspondents through time are both male and female.

History has overlooked many female war reporters, but some have made their mark, including:

  • Martha Gellhorn, writer, and wife of Ernest Hemingway who reported on fascism.
  • Janet Flanner from The New Yorker who recorded life in France after WW II.
  • Marguerite Higgins, who entered the concentration camp at Dachau.

In this book, The Women Who Wrote the War, Nancy Sorel describes the lives and courage of 100 brave women showing that they were every bit as bold and courageous as their fellow male correspondents.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum is a book about the life of a fearless and perhaps the most famous female war correspondent, Marie Colvin.

A film, A Private War, was released in 2018 based on Marie Colvin’s life, a life driven by an enduring desire to tell the truth and give voice to the voiceless.

No matter the gender, it takes courage and very thick skin to be a war correspondent. It has its rewards, and it occasionally has a gruesome downside. Many have gone from bleeding ink to bleeding blood, sacrificing their lives for the cause they believe in so strongly.

War Correspondents in Fiction

War correspondents have written numerous biographical and memoir books. Their experiences and battles level that of action-packed fictional accounts, so why go to fiction when you can write down the facts? Well, given war correspondent’s dangers, enormous stress, and adrenaline rushes, authors have turned to fictional narratives about the profession. Below are three:

World War II’s horrors transformed British war correspondent Ian Graham to take up Nazi-hunting after the war. He has not been able to track down one ruthless Nazi predator called the Huntress and to find her, he teams up with the only person known to have escaped the Huntress, a courageous and bold Nina Markova from the Soviet Union.

During the war, Nina joined the legendary Night Witches, an all-female aviator night bomber corps that flew harassment and precision bombing planes over invading Germans. After she is stranded behind enemy lines and lands in the hands of the Huntress, only her wits keep her alive.

A shared secret between Ian and Nina could make their mission fail unless they confront it.

It’s 1955, and British journalist Thomas Fowler has been in Vietnam for two years, covering the insurgency against French colonial rule. But it’s not just a political tangle that’s kept him tethered to the country. There’s also his lover, Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman who clings to Fowler for protection. Then comes Alden Pyle, an idealistic American working in service of the CIA. Devotedly, disastrously patriotic, he believes neither communism nor colonialism is what’s best for Southeast Asia, but rather a “Third Force”—American democracy by any means necessary. His ideas of conquest include Phuong, to whom he promises a sweet life in the states. But as Pyle’s blind moral conviction wreaks havoc upon innocent lives, it’s ultimately his romantic compulsions that will play a role in his undoing.

Bat Conroy from L. Ron Hubbard’s Inky Odds, is a born newspaperman—cut him, and he’d bleed ink. Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid—the most remarkable American journalists of the 20th century—all made their names as war correspondents. Still, none of them would have beat out Bat Conroy to a good story. Which makes it that much more perplexing—and aggravating—when an unknown writer, filing under the byline Perry Lane, scoops Bat on every story that comes along. Bat’s always been the go-to reporter covering the Japanese invasion of China until this Perry Lane person came along to steal his thunder and maybe even his job. Now, the biggest story of the war is about to hit the fan, and Bat’s going to get to the source first if it kills him. But the most shocking news of all is the true identity of the elusive Perry Lane.

Just like there is a thin line between fact and fiction in war correspondence, so there is a thin line between bleeding ink and bleeding blood for a war correspondent. One thing remains, this is a profession that takes extreme courage, nerve, and determination.

“And that’s the way it is” —one of many Walter Cronkite quotes.

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