Sunday, April 29, 2007

BOB HERBERT: Working the Truth Beat

The initial feeling is shock, and then comes anger, the anger bursting through even before the inevitable sadness sets in.

Two people whom I respected a great deal were killed — one of them insanely and the other absurdly — in the past three weeks.

Julia Campbell was a friend from several years back who had worked as a freelancer at The Times and a number of other media outlets before joining the Peace Corps and going off to the Philippines. I was watching the news on television about a week and a half ago when her photo came on the screen. The story said that she had been reported missing.

A couple of days later the news came that she had been murdered. The authorities have arrested a man who said he bludgeoned her to death with a rock after she accidentally bumped into him.

I remember once when we were hanging out, shooting the breeze about some horror in the news, Julia said to me, “Why is the world the way it is?” She added quickly, as though embarrassed: “I know it’s a ridiculous question. But I wonder.”

David Halberstam died in the most ordinary of ways, like Camus, in the kind of car crash that is such an everyday occurrence it never warrants a second look unless the victim is a celebrity or someone we know.

David and I weren’t close, but we got along well. He was always exceptionally kind to me, very generous with sources and advice, and funny as hell with stories from his legendary past. It’s a cliché, but he was a larger-than-life figure, a big, distinguished-looking man with a carefully cultivated baritone voice and a touch of pomposity that was tempered by a look in his eye and a hint of a smile that let you know that he knew exactly what he was doing.

He was among the very best reporters I’ve ever known.

If there was one thing above all else that David taught us, it was to be skeptical of official accounts, to stay always on guard against the lies, fabrications, half-truths, misrepresentations, exaggerations and all other manifestations of falsehood that are fired at us like machine-gun bullets by government officials and others in high places, often with lethal results.

“You have to keep digging,” he would say, “keep asking questions, because otherwise you’ll be seduced or brainwashed into the idea that it’s somehow a great privilege, an honor, to report the lies they’ve been feeding you.”

On the day after David was killed, a Congressional committee in Washington held a public hearing to explore the extraordinary lies concocted by the government to describe the killing of Cpl. Pat Tillman, a former N.F.L. football player, in Afghanistan, and the capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch in the very early days of the war in Iraq.

Corporal Tillman was killed by an American soldier in a friendly-fire incident. Instead of telling the truth, the military created an account in which Corporal Tillman, exhibiting extreme bravery, was cut down by enemy fire.

Pat Tillman’s younger brother, Kevin, appalled at what the government had done, told the committee how the corporal had been publicly praised and posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor for what the Army described as his heroic confrontation with the “well-armed enemy.”

The only problem with the Army’s account, said Kevin Tillman, was that “it was utter fiction.”

The initial account of the incident in which Private Lynch was taken prisoner (she was later rescued) was lifted straight from Hollywood, a typical macho fantasy of war. There was no validity to the story, and Private Lynch, very seriously wounded, had had nothing to do with it. Ms. Lynch told the committee that “the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting” was simply not true.

She said she remains “confused as to why they chose to lie.”

A government that will lie about the tragic fates of honorable young Americans like Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch will lie to the public about anything.

One of the primary tasks of a journalist is to protect the public from such lies by exposing them, and by reporting the truth. David Halberstam was a master at that.

In a larger sense, our job has to do with the question Julia Campbell asked in those days when her heart was set on a career in journalism. We don’t know why the world is the way it is, but the job of the journalist is always in some sense to chase after the answer to that question.

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