Journalists Are Courageous First Responders, Too
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
When the world takes that unexpected right turn that changes the course of history, they run to the danger.
We expect that of the best known, most respected first responders — police, firefighters, EMTs, the military.
But journalists are first responders, too. Others rush in that moment to save lives and bring order out of chaos. Journalists rush to danger to record that first draft of history, to document those events that can change, in the blink of an eye, everything we know about our world.
Still, sometimes the road to danger is more circuitous though no less perilous.
An American Reporter’s Recent Arrest in Russia
On March 29, Russian security police arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who was reporting a story from Yekaterinburg, one of Russia’s largest cities. He is now being held in the notorious Lefortovo prison in Moscow.
The Russian judicial process is secretive. So, not much is known except that Gershkovich on Friday was formally charged with espionage. He has denied those charges, as have his editors. Monday, the U.S. government declared Gershkovich “illegally detained,” essentially declaring him a political prisoner.
He is the first American reporter arrested in Russia since 1986, in the waning years of the Cold War.
We know that in those moments when history changes, reporters and photographers rush to the danger to bear witness.
Reporting on Historic Events
When Neil Sheehan, one of the heroes of 20th century American journalism, died two years ago, I wrote that his courageous exposure of the Pentagon Papers revealed the government lies that were the foundation of our war policy in Vietnam. A giant of journalism, he was rightly mourned.
Less well known are the American journalists, reporters and photographers, who documented that war over 20 years. They served history just as war correspondents did in World War II, Korea and, later, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far too many died, 63 in Vietnam, according to Reporters Without Borders.
On the morning of 9/11, as thousands fled the Twin Towers, reporters and photojournalists rushed to the scene. Without hesitation. With one thought in mind — to bear witness to the horror.
I was reminded of those heroes and numberless others during the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2021. In the moment when chaos was greatest, it was the work of journalists, outside with the mob and inside the Capitol with trapped lawmakers, whose calling was to make some sense of events.
Their work carried great risk.
The Trump-incited mob viewed the press as the “enemy of the people,” one of the former president’s long-running and most vile declarations. Graffiti left behind included this phrase, scrawled on a Capitol wall, “murder the media.”
When their witness was most needed, those “enemy” news professionals ran to the danger.
Journalists and Their Courage
But bearing witness does not always require physical courage. It takes another kind of resolute courage to speak truth to power, as Sheehan did, or to report from a country where there is no protection for a free press, where secret police still operate with state-sanctioned impunity and arrest those who criticize the illegal Ukrainian war.
Gershkovich demonstrated that courage in his work for The Journal.
He was in Russia reporting on the Ukrainian war from inside the instigator country. He was arrested attempting to report on the state of Russian arms after a year of relatively futile conflict.
He knew there were risks involved.
A journalist for The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa, said as much as reported by ABC News.
“Evan was not unaware or naïve about the risks. It’s not like he was in Russia because no one bothered to tell him it was dangerous. He is a brave, committed, professional journalist who traveled to Russia to report on stories of import and interest.”
Gershkovich knew Americans had been told to stay away from Russia. Most U.S. news organizations had pulled their reporters, knowing Russian President Vladimir Putin was targeting Americans.
In December, the all-star American basketball player Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison after diplomats arranged a prisoner swap — Griner for a notorious arms dealer.
It is possible the Russians hope to swap Gershkovich. But diplomacy required to arrange such a deal may take weeks or even months. Or perhaps the Russians simply hope to make an example of Gershkovich, to discourage other western journalists from doing their jobs.
When History Hangs in the Balance, Who Will Bear Witness?
As with other first responders, journalists train their entire lives for that moment when history hangs in the balance. Most spend their professional lives dealing with the routine — local elections, city council meetings, profiles of exceptional athletes or unexceptional petty criminals.
But there are times when the world they knew in the morning will have changed irrevocably by lunch. That is their moment. That is when they are called.
And for the sake of history, they respond. They run to the danger.
Others, like Gershkovich, take the longer road.
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl walked into danger, reporting the post-9/11 world from Pakistan where he was tracking suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. In February 2002 he was kidnapped and beheaded by the men he tracked.
Pearl walked to danger, aware of the risks, and paid with his life.
Gershkovich walked to danger, knowing the risks, but with one goal in mind.
To bear witness.