Behind Deadlines with the Producers

A photojournalist captures images from the trenches of the Vietnam War. How did journalism on the battlefield get its start?

Martin Hinton: This is the first episode we've done on combat journalism. For myself and Jason Kopp, who produced part of the show, it really was an eye opening project. I can't speak for Jason, who is away on his honeymoon, but I was amazed by what I learned researching this show. The history of independent war reporting is 150 years old and the chronology of wartime press is a very rich story. In 1854 a man named William Howard Russell went to cover the Crimean War. He was the first independent journalist being payed by a newspaper to cover an event. Prior to that it was done by a general or an officer on the army’s staff who could write letters to the local newspapers. People don't realize that in the beginning, that’s how news got home. It all changed very quickly after the Crimean War. The American Civil War was a huge news event, and "The New York Herald" sent 60 reporters and spent a million dollars on their coverage. Very quickly it became clear to the newspaper companies that people were very interested in war. Generally, we go to war over things that matter, and even if we don’t the outcome of the war and its progress are important to every single one of us. People say “war sells papers” in a very cynical way, and I think that’s a little unfair to the business of journalism. The reality is that it matters. Where did your research begin?

Hinton: The book that I first read was “The First Casualty” by Phillip Knightly, which is a take-off of something U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson said: "When war comes, the first casualty is truth." This book was 200,000 pages of reporting history, and it takes you from the early newspapers when there was no sense of immediacy to the present where we now see fighting in real time. Does a war correspondent have additional considerations to keep in mind before filing his/her reports?

Hinton: Dwight D. Eisenhower said public opinion wins wars. Photos and images are very powerful. In the show we interviewed Kim Phuc, the little girl who was famously photographed running naked down the streets of Vietnam. Being in that photo changed her life. She was manipulated by the Communists as a propaganda tool and she ended up defecting to Canada. Like the flag raising on Iwo Jima or the famous photo by Eddie Adams of an execution during the Tet Offensive, what is the most interesting is the story behind the photo. While a photo may say a thousand words, it by no means tells you everything you need to know. With the Kim Phuc photo, most people think that the American Air Force dropped those bombs when in fact it was the South Vietnamese Air Force. What was the most censored war?

Hinton: Ollie asks Phillip Knightly which war was reported most accurately as it happened. His response was, “none of them.” I think that’s pretty telling. Censorship is not the only explanation for that. It comes back to the fact that war is a chaotic event. The bigger picture is something that’s hard to discern when you are in the middle of it. The important thing is that the truth is being recorded so that in time we can go back and piece it together.  Ollie says in the episode that the reporting of war has awakened the public conscience. We’ve become aware that war is not a glorious event between knights in shining armor. It is a brutal, horrible hell on earth.  A huge amount of that is the result of journalists documenting events. Ollie interviews Rupert Murdoch (CEO of News Corp.) about his father who was an early war reporter. What did you find the most interesting about his story?

Hinton: During World War I, the British and the Allies landed in Gallipoli and were planning an operation to defeat the Turkish (who were allied with the Germans), and open a supply line to our allies, the Russians. The battle was a disaster to say the least. 120,000 men on both sides were killed. At the time, the general had complete control over information flowing out of Gallipoli and nobody in London — where the politics were being decided — had any idea how bad things were. Keith Murdoch and Ashmead Bartlett got together and decided someone needed to find out the truth. As a result the general was sacked and the troops were withdrawn. An immensely ugly chapter in the history of World War I ended sooner than it maybe would have if Murdoch and Bartlett hadn’t gotten involved. To go against a general at that point in history when the aristocracy in the military establishment was that powerful was really quite noble. He was a young journalist from Australia, which at the time was part of the British Empire and was viewed as a lesser entity. So he really went up against the system to save the lives of his countrymen. What are the most difficult challenges for any war correspondent?

Pamela Browne: I speak as someone who has covered four separate conflicts; Gulf War I, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. During wartime, the onus and responsibility to get information back home to family members and to the general public is huge. Yet you also have the responsibility of not compromising an operation. In the case of Gulf War I, it was an antagonistic relationship between the press and the military. It was “payback time” for Vietnam. All our materials that were shot in the field had to go through a military censor. It created a lot of bad feelings. The real shame of it was, for so many of those operations, the military missed out on having documentation of some really amazing feats they accomplished in taking on Saddam’s army. It was like, "did you see our tank fight?" "No, we weren’t allowed to be there!" That was frustrating. At ABC during Gulf War I the only way we could get into Kuwait City was to hire an Egyptian tank to take us in. So we had to be very resourceful. In the end it became very clear that the two have to work together. I think it is healthy for the press to question military leaders, and on the flipside I think it's healthy for military leaders to question the motivation of the press. What can today's reporters learn from their predecessors?

Browne: Not to sacrifice quality for speed. Mr. Murdoch says in the episode, "the truth will always get out, there are just too many witnesses on the battlefield," which I think is extremely perceptive. Sometimes the media rush to say they know everything, but I think it is perfectly o.k. to say, "here are the pictures we're getting in and we’ll try to get you some more information." That is the heaven and the hell of live television.

Hinton:  Another interesting thing he said is that war is best reported in books. When it's happening it's chaos. A journalist on the ground can only count on what he sees.

Browne: A new development today too is that areas around the world have become very savvy, and people are now very intelligent when it comes to the power of the press, which is even more of a reason for today's reporters to take their time. Everyone in the field with a camera has the added responsiblity of making sure they’re not being used or fed mistruth. If anyone comes to me in a war zone and wants to show me something, I will go and shoot it because tape is cheap. It doesn’t mean it's going to be broadcast. I'll wait and do my own homework on it. I will examine their motivations. What are some tried and true combat journalism guidelines?

Browne: One, always question. Two, when there is outgoing fire, there is always incoming fire. Three, always remember that the military you are covering will know more about the weaponry than you do, so pay attention and listen to them. And four, when they say no lights on nighttime operations, they mean no lights!

Martin Hinton is the co-producer of "Deadlines on the Battlefield." Pamela Browne is the Senior Producer for the critically acclaimed "War Stories" series.

Visit Kim Phuc's  website for more information about her foundation.