John Burns, who is Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, delivered the 25th Joe Alex Morris, Jr. Memorial Lecture, held at the Nieman Foundation on March 9, 2006. This annual lecture honors Morris, a foreign correspondent with the Los Angeles Times who was killed while on assignment in Tehran, Iran in February 1979. Burns responded to questions, one of which focused on the adjustment he will undergo when he leaves Iraq by year’s end and heads to London. He reflected on risks journalists confront in reporting in Iraq and how they cope with danger.
I know it’s not going to be anywhere near as exciting as what I’m doing right now, nor to be honest with you in the scheme of things as important to The New York Times. But I’m 61 years old, and I thought it was time that I tried to live a more normal life, though I’m told by my wife, among others, that this is beyond hope. I live in hope that a life in which I can go to the golf course every weekend is something that I can adjust to.
War is a narcotic; there’s no doubt about it. The lives we live are energized by risk, and in the end I guess you’d have to say we live by it. Micah Garen, who’s here tonight, has been closer to the edge of the abyss in Iraq by a long measure than I have been. He was kidnapped in August of 2004 during one of the Shiite uprisings and was extremely lucky to come back. It was a time of a great spate of kidnappings and beheadings.
It’s somewhat unseemly to talk about risk. Ulla [Joe Alex Morris’s widow] was telling me earlier that Joe Alex did talk about it but never actually believed that it would happen to him. I have a great passion for Formula One motor racing, and in the days when it was absolutely deadly, which it no longer is, thank God, I noticed that the great racing drivers all believed up until the moment it happened to them that it wouldn’t happen to them.
I think people generally speaking — and you don’t have to be a correspondent in a war zone to say this — find coping with their own mortality a rather difficult thing to do. I regularly ask the correspondents in our bureau to address seriously the risks that they run. I said you should not be here if you are not prepared for the possibility that you will die here. It’s a real possibility. And I say whether I personally would be able to do this or not, I don’t know. Micah would probably tell me having been subjected to a lengthy kidnapping that everything changes when the gun is at your head.
I say to our people if at all possible, if it happens to you, remember the words of Robert Falcon Scott on his return from the South Pole in 1912, when he wrote in his diary on his last night: "We took risks, we knew that we took them. And now that things have turned out against us, we have no cause to complain."
You know, it’s a well-rewarded life, I have to say. The heroes where I work are not journalists. The heroes are — it sounds a little bit self-righteous to say this — but the heroes are the people who endure these miseries and these risks with no hope of reward. There’s no front page and no lengthy holidays and no journalistic prizes for the people of Iraq who endure this. And neither are there, by the way, for American combat troops. You could say, well, they joined the military, they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t have any choice in the cold light of dawn when they go out into the streets of Ramadi or the many other places they go where there are these deadly risks.
I don’t believe in the journalist as a hero. We are very well rewarded for what we do. And I have to say in the case of The New York Times, at a time of some stringency in the economics of newspaper journalism in America, The New York Times, and the same is true of The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the bigger papers, have been unstinting, unstinting in their willingness to buy us as much protection as we could possibly have. An armored car, of which we have several, costs $300,000. I blanche when I think of the budget that we are running in Baghdad. And all we’ve ever heard from New York is the occasional — because The New York Times had to lay off last year some several hundred people across the United States through its various corporate entities as a matter of retrenchment — if you can find any savings, please do. We were never subject to mandatory restraints. So we are extremely fortunate in being afforded these protections.
I just want to say something else, because I think it’s remiss of me if I didn’t mention how Jill Carroll of The Christian Science Monitor is, after two months, still missing. [She was released in March 2006.] And if there are heroes in all of this, it’s the Jill Carrolls, who venture out into the badlands with absolutely no protection whatsoever. I don’t go anywhere without armed guards, armored car, very elaborate communication systems, which would allow us in the worst case, should we survive an attack, to call in American Medevac helicopters in a matter of minutes. This is a very expensive thing to do. Jill went out on that Saturday morning two months ago in a soft car with an interpreter and a driver — an extremely brave, some would say foolhardy and extremely foolish, thing to do.
I think it does raise the question of responsibility. I don’t think this will change. There will always be freelance correspondents in every war who will want to do this, but I think the days of freelancing into those shadowlands are probably at an end.