Volume XI, Issue 15 ~ April 10-16, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Farewell, Mike Kelly
He was a reporter and war correspondent
in the tradition of Ernie Pyle.

Look at an infantryman’s eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen.
— Bill Mauldin’s caption for one of his World War II
Willie & Joe cartoons

No question but that Bill Mauldin’s words still hold true. But after watching more television the past couple of weeks than in the previous decade, methinks that the brand of war correspondents we have in Iraq and elsewhere these days would not only like to tell the world where the dogface has been but precisely where he’s going, when and how.

The story above all.

Which brings to mind a World War II poster that warned “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” The same holds true for war on the ground and in the air. Yet some covering the war in Iraq give the impression that they are more interested in either a story or personal glory than in avoiding putting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine in harm’s way.

Kelly Was the Real Thing
Surely, not all journalists are so inclined. The acquaintance and former colleague lost the other day in a Humvee accident near Baghdad was not of that ilk. He was neither anti-war nor seeking any opportunity to take a crack at our president, our troops or our country.

Mike Kelly, who among his other writing and editing duties was a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, was a unique war correspondent in his time. He was a true journalist who admitted to harboring emotion, likes and dislikes, to being basically a human ‘take me the way I am sort of a guy. I am a reporter. I write about what I see, how it strikes me. How it really is or was.’

Though relatively young at 46 to have earned prestige and the respect of others in his field, Kelly had the reporting philosophy of the best war correspondent of all time, Ernie Pyle, who died from a Japanese sniper’s bullet in 1945 in the Okinawa campaign. Mike Kelly wanted to be where the action was, to see it, to feel it and to write about it.

He followed the tradition of Ernie Pyle, who in his best-selling book Here Is Your War, published in 1943, wrote “I write from the worm’s-eye point of view.”

I could not be considered a friend of Mike Kelly, for our paths didn’t cross that often. He was on The Sun of the morning, and I was with The Evening Sun, but now and again on his way to the morning paper’s niche, he passed my desk and we chatted. I read the stories he wrote, and I appreciated both their and his integrity.

I continued to follow Mike’s writing for The Sun in the 1980s. In reading big stories such as the Iran-Contra affair or stories not so newsworthy, you felt you got the story from the proverbial horse’s mouth; better still, from the fly on the wall.

Like Ernie Pyle, Kelly must have cringed when classified as a “journalist,” that high-faluting description for a patch-in-the-pants reporter. He was a reporter, and a damned good one, in these times when radio, TV and the print reporters refer to each other as “journalists.” Since the war started, I haven’t read or heard the words “war correspondent” — but in a way, that’s appropriate.

The Preening Rank and File
From those in the field to those safe as anchors in studios far from the action, many of the guys and gals covering the Iraq Freedom Campaign don’t churn out stories about people, the human side of the war. They are more into analysis of the big picture, focusing most every report from an armchair-general approach, second-guessing the chain of command from a lieutenant leading a platoon to the commander in chief. Many never pass up an opportunity to criticize the way the war is conducted.

One gets the impression these so-called journalists place more emphasis on the application of their hair spray than in the preparation of a good newsworthy, well-researched and accurate story.

What we need more than another opinion on how the war could be won more quickly, and why our armed forces are not doing just that, is timely, objective and factual news from the battlefields and the remainder of Iraq. We don’t need any more “journalists” playing generals. We’ve got enough signed on for network appearances.

Kelly would not have been among those in the press corps who ask all those silly questions that Sadaam Hussein and his generals would like to know the answers to. Some of those questions are little more than statements that would comfort the enemy’s armed forces and citizenry. Where is common sense among the press corps from whom we expect credible news of a war on the other side of the globe?

The Opposite Extreme
Is it not plausible to think that Fox’s Geraldo Rivera should have known better than to sketch in the sand with his finger a map indicating his location when it was no secret he was on the move with the 101st Airborne Division south of Baghdad? As if that wasn’t enough, on the video screen he also provided logistics for an alternate supply route constructed by the armed forces.

Whether an honest mistake or not, whether the Iraqi forces already had the information or not, Geraldo had to go. Poor judgment is no excuse. It can’t be left to war reporters to determine on their own whether the story they’re working on could supply even a shred of evidence on troop movements, plans or problems.

Rivera called it quality journalism, but he had few if any supporters, even among his journalist colleagues. He is gone, and maybe his departure will spare the lives of some troops of the 101st (or other units) as they press the campaign. Loose lips sink ships.

Perhaps the biggest fiasco of all time among war correspondents was Peter Arnett’s re-run of the Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose broadcasts of World War II. Here was NBC’s top dog in the field giving an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV — and criticizing his own chain of command for underestimating the determination of enemy forces. He talked of how civilian casualties were boosting the arguments of anti-war protesters back here, and he complimented Iraq for its determination and discipline.

His excuse? It was done as a professional courtesy. But might I ask, a professional courtesy to whom? Iraqi TV? Sadaam himself? His troops? Iraq’s propaganda specialists? Or others who are frantically trying to keep the support of the citizenry as the noose tightens around Baghdad?

As a media member going on 56 years, I have vigorously supported all efforts within the ranks for freedom of information. But there are times when restraint or even censorship (perish the thought) are in order … times when reporting can give information, encouragement and support to the enemy. It’s a fine line, but during war, it’s a line that can’t be crossed if we are to minimize casualties among our troops and hasten the end of hostilities.

Enough said …



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Last updated April 9, 2003 @ 3:57pm