On the last day of my second spring break last week, I glued myself to my 13-inch television screen and watched a city burn. I watched explosions on a scale never before seen in real life. I watched buildings crumble and fires rage, and I’m pretty sure I watched people die.
After the bombs over Baghdad stopped falling, I also watched a trusted news anchor weep on national television.
Tom Brokaw could barely contain himself while talking to Nancy Chamberlin of Winslow, Maine. Her son, Marine Capt. Jay Aubin, was one of the first Americans to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Brokaw and his panel of generals and military analysts blinked away tears as this mother spoke of her son’s sense of duty to his country.
Chamberlin recalled how she couldn’t afford to send her son to college, so he signed up for the Marines, and fell in love with the military.
“When he left he reminded me that . . . if he died he would die doing what he absolutely loved and believed in,” she said.
The hard-core military brass wept openly. Gen. Barry McCaffrey dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief. Lt. Gen. Michael Short also cried, looking at his hands, while Adm. Dennis McGinn stared into space, obviously aggrieved.
After Brokaw, in a broken voice, thanked her for telling the country about Jay, Chamberlin asked if she could add one final comment.
She said she appreciated all that he and his television news colleagues were doing to bring the war home to Americans.
“But for mothers and wives it is murder,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. We can’t leave the TV, because with every tank and every helicopter, you’re thinking: Is that my son?
“I just need you to be aware that . . . there are moms, dads and wives out there suffering because of this. That’s all. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Brokaw had a clearly difficult time dealing with his reaction to her speech.
The exchange was heartwrenching, and it was admirable reporting. Unlike William Hurt’s character in the 1987 movie “Broadcast News,” who can cry on cue, Brokaw’s reaction was raw and real.
Journalists are people, too, despite what some may claim. We have emotions and human reactions to the people and events we cover, so why should we hide them?
There is some value in reporters having a tangible human connection to their subjects. It doesn’t necessarily create enough bias to detract from the report; rather, empathetic and compassionate coverage provides a more understandable version of the story. Viewers, listeners and readers will connect to it on a greater level.
Journalists must indeed walk a very defined line between covering a story and becoming part of it. This is undoubtedly very difficult for embedded reporters in Iraq right now.
But how can you dictate a story through a gas mask into a night vision-enabled videophone while sirens wail, and at the same time suppress the tremors in your voice? It is impossible, and it should be. Reporters are not trained military troops, and they will react the same way any frightened civilian would.
This natural, instinctive reaction is a realistic view of the war, and Americans can all benefit from it.
When Brokaw partially composed himself after Chamberlin hung up, he told his audience: “Just because you don’t have someone directly involved doesn’t mean you’re not involved. No matter how you feel about how we got involved in this war, we all have obligations to each other.”
Chamberlin’s point, and Brokaw’s, should be well taken by all of us.