War and the Press: In Russia, Journalism Can Be Life-Endangering | Columnists
The Russian invasion of Ukraine once again brought journalists to the front lines, to kyiv, Odessa and even Moscow. Freelancer Brent Renaud, Fox News videographer Pierre Zakrzewski and Fox News consultant Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova were killed by snipers and shells, while Fox correspondent Benjamin Hall was injured.
And in the belly of the beast, a television producer named Marina Ovsyannikova burst into a live broadcast Monday on the Kremlin’s Channel 1, holding a sign reading “Stop the war!” They lie to you here. It was seen by millions of Russian viewers. She was quickly arrested, fined around $300 after a court appearance on Tuesday, but could face up to 15 years in prison for this act of civil disobedience.
I had a lesson in the difference between American and Russian journalists during my 2007 trip with Senator Richard Lugar to Moscow. He and Sam Nunn traveled to the Foreign Ministry building to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. We entered huge heavy metal doors adorned with the Soviet-era hammer and sickle emblem and ascended to the fifth floor. Down the hall are framed portraits of Soviet-era ministers – Trotsky, Molotov, Gromyko. I was warned by a US State Department official not to take pictures in the hallway. Valuing my Nikon, I obey.
The American and Russian press gathered around a large conference table where Lugar and Nunn sat face-to-face with Lavrov for a photo op. After a few minutes, Lavrov snapped his thumb and fingers, and our Russian media counterparts suddenly packed up and left on cue. The American journalists remained in place. This moment crystallized for me the vast differences between free America and this autocratic regime that reimposed a new Iron Curtain.
In preparation for this trip, I read Anna Politkovskaya’s book, “Putin’s Russia,” published in 2004, with much of the focus on Russia’s “dirty war” in Chechnya. We did not realize then that Putin’s decimation of Grozny was a foretaste of the destruction of cosmopolitan kyiv and other cities that we are witnessing today. Politkovskaya was murdered by Putin’s henchmen two years later, one of dozens of Russian journalists to suffer such a fate.
In the foreword to Politkovskaya’s book, Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic observed: “At the time of her murder…she was at the height of her influence. She was proof – and more is needed – that there is still nothing as powerful as the written word.
Over the past two weeks, half the world has watched Putin’s genocidal war on cable and evening news as well as social media. We’ve seen the pregnant woman being carried from a bombed-out maternity hospital in Mariupol, or the Ukrainian family killed at an Irpin crossroads, the work of New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario, herself dodging shells and bullets .
It prompted me to revisit the legacy of Hoosier’s war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who for three years documented America during World War II. Pyle was killed by a sniper just weeks before the end of World War II in August 1945.
In Fort Wayne native Dave Nichols’ book, “Ernie’s War,” legendary Chicago journalist Studs Terkel wrote in the foreword, “Ernie Pyle covered World War II like the infantryman the fought: on the ground and on the move, subject to fear, filth and the capricious fates that gave death to one and life to another. Pyle also explained (and decried) the moral changes that the war imposed on its participants the rapid conversion of the boy next door into a trained and enthusiastic killer.
This is what ordinary Ukrainian men and women have turned to for the past two weeks. In February, they were leading a normal life; now many are dropping off their children at the Polish border and returning to fight for freedom and democracy.
Pyle described a fellow Hoosier named Tommy Clayton, who came under fire one moonlit night in the days following the D-Day invasion of Normandy. “All of his experiments seemed to have no effect on this sweet soldier from Indiana, except perhaps to make him even quieter than before,” Pyle observed. “The worst experience of all is just the accumulated blur and the painful blur of being too long in the queues, the eternal vigilance, the noise and the fear, the cell-by-cell exhaustion, the thinning of the surrounding ranks as the day passed, nameless day, and the steady march toward eternity of its own small quota of chances of survival.
Pyle described the “emptiness left behind” the battlefield after the war had continued: “Of all these things we could tell that the battle had been recent – of these and of the men so recently dead that they seemed simply asleep. An amateur who wandered into this void in the rear of a battle had a terrible feeling of loneliness. Everything was dead – men, machines, animals – and only he remained alive.
We are in for an exciting few months as Putin’s war decimates Ukraine and, perhaps, his own regime, perhaps because of the brave daring of people like Marina Ovsyannikova. There will be courageous and dedicated journalists there, telling the stories of our time.