British-born journalist Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya on Wednesday by a rocket-propelled grenade, during the sort of heavy combat he covered remarkably effectively in multiple media platforms. American photojournalist Chris Hondros also was killed in the attack, and two other reporters were wounded.
Professionally, Hetherington was a man for all seasons, handling a wide range of communications and creative assignments with discipline, flair and insight. His ties to the United States were strong. He was most recently based in Brooklyn and served as a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair magazine.
His documentary “Restrepo,” chronicling deployment with U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, was nominated for an Academy Award this year. As in Libya, he was at the front of the action, covering the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army.
Reflecting on his exceptional career and sudden death underscores the fundamental importance of our war correspondents, past and present. They provide a bridge between a democratic society defined by open free debate, and the necessarily controlled information environment required by war.
Parallels increasingly are drawn between the unconventional warfare of Afghanistan, especially as the conflict has dragged on for a decade, and America’s long-term and ultimately unsuccessful military engagement in Vietnam.
News coverage of these two wars contrasts markedly. President Lyndon B. Johnson, with a widely credited reputation for deceptiveness, nevertheless was emphatic from the start that the press be allowed very open access to military operations in Vietnam. In retrospect, the policy clearly backfired, and more customary restrictions on the media have been employed in our military conflicts since, including Afghanistan.
“Dispatches,” Michael Herr’s gripping account of the atmosphere and events of the Vietnam War, is one of the most insightful and moving accounts of that conflict. He makes pointed reference to the camaraderie between reporters and troopers, with even the most cynical of soldiers going to extreme lengths to protect the journalists in their charge.
Correspondent Jack Fuller’s story is also germane. After service in Vietnam as a combat correspondent for “Stars and Stripes,’’ he earned a law degree and pursued a career in journalism.
Fuller’s recent book “What is Happening to News’’ warns that pervasive contemporary media are diluting traditional reporting. In other words, good journalism is more challenging than ever. As media inundation grows, evaluate sources with care.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.