Courage as a Story Needing to Be Told
‘Unlike love, which may be an emotion only, courage must manifest itself in action.’
Courage is one of the cardinal virtues (the others are justice, wisdom, temperance) and one of the human mysteries. It is hard to define, risky to predict. Courage is not bravery exactly. Not fearlessness precisely, for fearlessness may be amoral, even psychotic. Nor does the word fortitude quite cover it. Courage suggests a deeper moral or spiritual dimension — the strength of the heart (coeur). Courage may be entirely irrational — a matter of the good heart overriding the prudent mind and rising sometimes to an almost mystical level of human possibility. More profanely, it may be a strategy of careerism — courage is not always unselfish — and an aspect of professionalism, a habit of calculated risk.
John Kennedy considered courage to be the first, the indispensable virtue; with courage, he said, anything is possible; without it, nothing. Unlike love, which may be an emotion only, courage must manifest itself in action. Unless courage actually does something, and does it well, it is just bragging. Courage may not be indispensable to the practice of journalism, but it has become an increasingly pertinent and vivid theme in the dangerous, instantaneous world of the early 21st century. Seventy-three journalists have died covering the war in Iraq; elsewhere 171 journalists have died doing their work in the past six years.
The journalists' reflections on courage collected here explore manifestations of courage not only in the face of physical dangers that threaten journalists but also in less violent environments — the political and corporate — that may endanger journalism itself.
One of the more interesting and anxious questions people ask themselves, especially when young, is whether they have courage. Journalists, as soldiers do, have gone to war to learn the answer. But the exoticism of battles in far-off places may have faded somewhat, and journalists reporting the world of terror, suicide bombings, and tribal genocides (Bosnia, Rwanda) are less likely to think of young Winston Churchill covering the battle of Omdurman as they are of young Daniel Pearl dying in a room in Pakistan. Churchill inhabited a world of chivalry, of "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," (the Roman poet Horace's line, known to every British schoolboy). Churchill said that nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.
A journalist assigned to cover Iraq or Afghanistan or Chechnya or the drug wars of Colombia or northern Mexico finds the residual jauntiness and bravado draining off pretty quickly. The psychological effect is not exhilaration but a terrible corrosion of nerves and spirit. Merely to work becomes an act of courage, and the work stirs one of our deeper anxieties — the thought of dying a meaningless death or a death of which the rest of the world is unaware: merely to vanish as, say, thousands of the "disappeared" did in Argentina. Journalists may risk that possibility in order to live a meaningful life: to do valuable, useful, important work.
My model of journalistic courage in such a world is Paul Klebnikov, the 41-year-old editor of Forbes Russia who, on the night of July 9, 2004, was gunned down on a street in northeast Moscow as he walked from his office to the Metro station. An ambulance took him to the hospital, and he died on the way to the operating room when an elevator stalled between floors. Klebnikov was the 15th journalist killed in Russia since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. The grandson of Russian émigrés who fled after the Bolshevik Revolution, he had the ingredients of an ideal journalist: fiercely focused energy, great intelligence, education (a PhD from the London School of Economics), and passion for the story (the emergence of the new Russia — part Wild West, part thugocracy). Klebnikov fearlessly made enemies of the crooked and powerful, publishing two books about Russian plutocrat/gangsters. Prosecutors said the hit was ordered by the head of the Chechen mafia, Khozh-Ahmed Nukhayev, the subject of Klebnikov's second book, "Conversation With a Barbarian."
The Tin Woodsman needed a heart; the Scarecrow, a brain, and the Lion wanted courage. "The Wizard of Oz" dramatized an ideal trinity of virtues — heart, brain, courage — that combine to make a perfect journalist. There is no such thing, of course, but Klebnikov approached this kind of ideal, and he died as a result of his commitment to this work he believed in, as George Polk did in an earlier generation, assassinated in Greece in 1948 because, it seems, his journalism brought him fatally close to the truth.
Klebnikov and Polk were martyred ideals. But journalists — whose mission is to dig for the truth, including sometimes the truth about themselves — must, more than most, beware of self-congratulation and of their own cant. Journalists often pride themselves on "speaking truth to power," a cliché perhaps justified when courageous reporting is performed under dictatorial regimes that destroy printing presses, arrest reporters, torture them, or worse. But the "speaking truth to power" formula, when applied to journalism in the United States and Europe, should, as columnist Sheryl McCarthy suggests in her essay, involve journalists testing themselves to see if they have the courage to engage truthfully with peers within their own ideological community, or at least to question what have been sacrosanct assumptions or admit doubt that ingrained prejudices should be held beyond question.
To challenge friends or employers in their bristling core beliefs may be to declare oneself an enemy, to risk ostracism. At certain dinner parties, it requires suicidal recklessness to assert that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have probably been right all along about Iraq; in the months after 9/11, of course, it would have been heterodox to say that Saddam Hussein was a paper tiger. At a conference of The New York Times editorial board these days, it would take courage for a member to argue against Roe v. Wade. Similar courage might be needed if a staff member at National Review spoke in favor of legalizing gay marriage, or if Rush Limbaugh's producer praised Hillary Clinton.
Every editorial operation inevitably has a culture of shared prejudice, and every story conference is subtly suffused by an ideological atmosphere, especially in the polarizations of George W. Bush's second term. Editors speak in a nuanced political shorthand: Lightly playing beneath the surface of conversation in every editorial conference will be a note of collective coercion, a silencing whiff of mob psychology. The late Meg Greenfield, who for years directed The Washington Post's editorial page, wrote a memoir in which she described the culture of Washington cocktail parties when she arrived there in the fifties. What passed for a cogent political analysis, she wrote, might sound like this: "Dulles! Dulles! Oh, God .... Dulles!" The realm of journalism is made up of warlord fiefs, each with its own tribalisms, and it takes courage to go against them, or to play the mugwump in a nest of zealots.
Courage raises as many questions as do other great abstractions, such as justice. In these pages, Reuters editor Barry Moody deprecates the egoism and heroics of old-style war coverage in favor of professional teamwork. Is courage necessary anymore? Or is it a dangerous irrelevance? Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi endured appalling dangers in Iraq but concludes, "... being there to tell the story was important and was worth the risks." But the contrarian side of the mind asks: If so much about war and violence are so drearily and grimly the same, then why exactly is it important for journalists to risk their lives to witness and report, once again, what we've already seen and know? I answer my own question along these lines: Journalists risk their lives to tell us again and again about this violence so that we will always see it, never be dulled to it, never accept it.
Courage is always a story. But what does courage become when no witness is there to tell the story? Photojournalists showed the world a solitary man standing in front of the tank near Tiananmen Square. What if the man's protest had taken place in the countryside of Shandong Province, with no cameras present, and tank treads had casually ground him, unnoticed, into the rural mud? It is the tree-falling-in-the-forest question. In some ways, I suppose the greatest courage would be the loneliest — unnoticed, unrecorded, uncommented-upon. (In today's strange metaphysics, there is the counterpossibility of beheadings enacted on video before a world audience.)
My mind snagged, for an instant, when I came upon editor Robert Cox's statement that "I realized one day that I could deal with the idea that I would be killed, simply by accepting it as a fact .... It is fear itself that makes one afraid." My reaction to that was a three-cushion shot. First, this is a stunning thing to say. Could it be so? Cox, after all, has the grim authority of his experience in Argentina during the time of the disappeared. But when Franklin Roosevelt told Americans in early 1933 that the "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he was hardly telling them the truth. They had plenty to fear, starting with a ruined economy and (if they were prescient) the coming to power of Adolf Hitler. But finally, I decided that while Roosevelt's line was a stroke of brilliant psychology, Cox's use of the same idea was working a deeper vein of individual awareness and acceptance.
Most of us do not have the experience to judge what Cox says. Some tales of journalists' courage amount (almost) to stories from beyond the grave. We must accept them. Cox is telling us his particular truth. Courage is inspiring and communicable, but just as it is always a story, it is also unique and intensely personal.
Lance Morrow, a former essayist with Time magazine, is the author of "Evil: An Investigation," "The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948: Learning the Secrets of Power," and "Second Drafts of History: Essays." He is writing a biography of Henry Luce.