Sacrifice of Fallen Journalists Must Be Commemorated

Sacrifice of Fallen Journalists Must Be Commemorated

Fallen Journalist Memorial Foundation President Barbara Cochran reflects on the sacrifice of journalists in the Iraq War and conflicts around the world today.

By Barbara Cochran, President, Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. war in Iraq. The invasion began on March 20 and concluded in May. Among the 15 journalists and media workers who died in the early days of the war were three Americans: David Bloom, of NBC News, Michael Kelly, of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and Elizabeth Neuffer, of the Boston Globe.

David Bloom was an embedded correspondent, traveling with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division as it moved deep into Iraq. Advances in technology allowed NBC to outfit a Ford flatbed truck with a satellite uplink that enabled David to report live around the clock as the troops moved toward Baghdad. His vehicle was nicknamed the Bloom-mobile and his reporting was ubiquitous. He became a symbol of the live-action, frontline reporting that correspondents covering that war were delivering.

David sometimes commented about the cramped conditions and physical duress of remaining on the truck in order to broadcast continuously from the scene of the action. Unbeknownst to him, he was developing a deep vein thrombosis, brought on by the cramped conditions, heat and lack of sleep. The blood clot traveled from his leg to his lungs and caused a pulmonary embolism that cost him his life.

Michael Kelly was riding in a Humvee when it ran into a canal to avoid hostile fire. It turned over and trapped Michael and his military driver inside under water, where they drowned.

Elizabeth Neuffer, an experienced combat reporter, died in a car crash while returning to Baghdad from a reporting trip to Tikrit.

All three took the risk of traveling to a war zone in order to see and hear for themselves what was happening on the ground and report for their news organizations. After all, that’s what reporters do. They witness momentous events and convey them to the public. But working in those dangerous conditions can cost lives.

Two decades later, reporters are covering another war and losing their lives. In Ukraine, many of the reporters are citizens of the country that has become a battleground. The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 15 reporters and media workers have died there since Russia invaded last year.

War zones aren’t the only places where journalists risk their lives to report the news. In countries with repressive regimes or unchecked corruption, journalists face harassment, imprisonment, injury and even death. Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was lured to Turkey to the consulate of his native Saudi Arabia, where he was murdered and dismembered. Although the U.S. government has said the order to kill Khashoggi came from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, he hasn’t been punished and others have been tried and convicted for the murder.

The recent arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is another reminder of the dangers journalists face. In late March he was detained by the Russian government and accused of espionage while on a reporting trip to the city of Yekaterinburg, about 800 miles from Moscow. Russian authorities have not disclosed the specifics of the charges against him.

Sadly, journalists face domestic threats as well. On June 28, 2018, a man who was angered about a story about himself from seven years earlier entered the office of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, armed with a shotgun.  After shooting through the door, he fired around the newsroom, killing five people and wounding two others. He had sued the newspaper for defamation and lost and then wrote threatening messages to the paper. Rob Hiassen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Wendi Winters and Rebecca Smith were the editors, writers and ad sales rep who lost their lives. None of them had anything to do with the original, truthful story that so enraged the gunman.

One year later, former Congressman David Dreier, announced the formation of the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation. Dreier was then the chairman of Tribune Publishing, which owned the Capital Gazette, and he feared that the murdered staffers would be forgotten. He worked with members of the journalism community and his former colleagues to advance bipartisan legislation to build the first public monument in Washington to honor journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty. The Fallen Journalists Memorial Act was approved unanimously by Congress and signed into law in December 2020.

It established a twofold purpose for the memorial. It is intended to honor journalists who sacrificed their lives, and, at the same time, serve as a monument to America’s commitment to freedom of the press. Increasingly, journalists are being attacked because hostility toward journalists has been inflamed and weaponized. For example, local television news crews are regularly harassed and threatened when out on assignment. A TV reporter in Orlando, just 24 years old and working in his first job, was killed and his photographer critically injured while reporting from the scene of an earlier shooting.

These legacies must not be forgotten. That is why the memorial will also educate the public and inspire current and future generations to value freedom of the press. Key federal agencies recently approved locating the memorial on the National Mall, the most visited national park in the U.S., on a site with a direct view of the U.S. Capitol. Thanks to this location, millions of visitors will be exposed to the concept of the free press as a pillar of democracy and a watchdog of the government. They will learn that the Founding Fathers valued freedom of the press so highly that they enshrined its place in the U.S. Constitution by naming it in the First Amendment. The memorial will serve as a beacon for international visitors who may be inspired to support and fight for an independent press when they return home. For young people, it will underscore lessons in history and civics and perhaps prompt some to become journalists themselves.

Washington is a city of monuments and memorials honoring historic individuals or significant events. What is missing is one honoring journalists and celebrating freedom of the press. Once this memorial is built, it will stand amidst the seats of government power as a reminder of the watchdog role journalists play that is so essential to self-governance.