She lived through a triple suicide car bombing attack on the hotel where she was staying in Baghdad in 2005, when she was just 25. She witnessed terrible things there, but Iraq was not the worst she’s seen. Syria is.
“Syria has definitely been the most dangerous assignment I’ve ever done.” Clarissa Ward, the 35-year-old CBS News correspondent and winner of Emmys and other journalism awards, spoke to me recently on the phone from the south of France, where she was taking a break from her latest assignment in Syria, the deadliest place on the planet for journalists, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (28 killed in 2013, 17 in 2014).
Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Ward and colleagues covered largely under the control and protection of the U.S. military, Syria has a different dynamic. “You’re relying on rebels and militants to protect you and give you safe passage,’’ Ward says. “You don’t have access to proper medical facilities if you were to be injured, and you can’t plan things in Syria and have a very ordered systematic mindset. You also have to accept that that’s not the way that Syria works.”
Going into that forbidding Islamic State battleground 11 times, sneaking back and forth across borders, brought its own set of challenges, but the hardest part was the sniper fire and the continuous bombardment in the ancient city of Aleppo in 2012, having shells land around her day and night, jets swooping in, helicopters dropping barrel bombs, and hearing them go off nearby.
“It just takes a toll psychologically. You can never relax. You can never decompress, it’s this constant sort of sense of tension and fear.’’
Ward, who is in New York City this week co-anchoring CBS This Morning, has spent the last 10 years reporting on conflict and other human crises in some of the world’s bloodiest places. She and her CBS News colleagues — Elizabeth Palmer, Holly Williams, Debora Patta, and Lara Logan, all of whom were instrumental in the winning of several Edward R. Murrow Awards CBS News will be the recipient of this year, and all are up for prizes at the Emmys on September 28 — make up probably the strongest set of female correspondents in broadcast journalism today.
But they are not unique — not even all that rare.
In places including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, female print and television correspondents are increasingly covering conflicts where there are no clear front lines, no boundaries or defined combat zones. They’ve been embedded with troops in Iraq, have been wounded and killed in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, kidnapped in Libya and faced sexual abuse and violence just about everywhere.
“Women are now in the forefront, doing many of the dangerous assignments that male correspondents used to do,” Marcus Wilford, an executive with ABC News in London, told me over the phone. He singled out Martha Raddatz, 62, ABC’s Washington-based chief global affairs correspondent, and London-based correspondent Lama Hasan, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings, the conflict in Gaza and the Syrian refugee crisis. (NBC News has no female correspondents on the front lines right now, according to an executive who did not want to be named. The BBC and CNN International have some of the media’s top guns: Lyse Doucet for the BBC and Christiane Amanpour and Arwa Damon, who appears to be wherever war is breaking, for CNN.
“There are more women correspondents now,” says Palmer, who at 59 is a veteran of hot spots in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. “Not only correspondents, but producers, and especially women in the technical functions, which were sort of one of the last bastions of maledom.”
David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, which has received more Emmy nominations this year than all other news organizations, insists that gender has nothing to do with the stories correspondents are assigned. Most elemental in attracting and retaining top-flight talent, he says, is the network’s commitment to international reporting. “For each assignment, we put forward the person who is the best-placed to cover these kinds of stories,” he says. Still, “We’ve never had as many women based overseas covering conflict as we do now,” says Kelli Halyard, executive director, CBS News Communications.
“I think the wars we’ve covered in the last 10 years have been asymmetrical wars, guerrilla wars if you like, starting in Iraq, and there the risk is much harder to assess,” says Elizabeth Palmer, mother of two and wife, over the phone from her home in London, where she had just returned from a trip to Syria. She recalls a number of close calls, once with a U.S. reconnaissance convoy outside Baghdad in 2004. “The vehicle ahead of me blew up and so it could’ve been me, so that was pretty scary.” Another time, on a hill outside Kabul, she and her cohort were surprised by Taliban fire and had to crawl to save themselves until allied fighters came to the rescue.
“I have a family,’’ she says. “I don’t want to be hurt or die, and I guess I’ve always felt that I could take calculated risks. I think I’m attracted to conflict. But I’m not a joy rider. I don’t go and want to be where the bullets are flying.”
For Debora Patta, 49, a South African mother of two who has covered some of the most brutal Islamic extremists — the Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab — the Ebola pandemic last year was the most frightening story to cover. “The difference between Ebola and a war zone is that in a war zone the danger recedes when you leave the area,’’ Patta says over the phone from her home in Johannesburg. “So once you’ve left, the danger goes, whereas with Ebola, the danger could still be inside you. You don’t know if you’re carrying the virus. I have two daughters and so that is why Ebola was so scary. War is something you face alone, but Ebola is something you could bring back to them.”
Even the hardiest correspondent struggles with the career-family dilemma. “Having children makes it much harder because you have to think about them without a mother, so you’re a lot more cautious,” Patta says. “People are saying to me, ‘How can you do that when you have children? Do you really think you should take that kind of risk?’ Almost the implication being that you’re reckless as a mother. Men don’t get asked that.’’
Holly Williams, who has a 4-year-old, agrees. “Men don’t get asked that question. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to answer it and another part of me that thinks that for mothers, and for any parent who’s really involved with their child, it’s a big question. I mean, how do you balance parenthood with having a career that you love?”
Work-family balance is only one tough issue women in the field come up against time and again. There’s sexism and sexual abuse. “We’ve had horrific incidents of violence against female journalists within CBS and other media organizations,’’ Patta says. She was referring to the brutal sexual assault endured by her colleague Lara Logan while covering the celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square following Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011. Logan, the 44-year-old South African-born CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent, spoke out later, on “60 Minutes,” to break the secrecy surrounding the prevalence of sexual abuse and attacks on female correspondents in Egypt and other places.
“There is documentation about correspondents killed in the field, men and women, but there’s no documentation for sexual assault of any variety,’’ Patta says. “In fact, Lara Logan was perhaps the first, certainly the first prominent correspondent to speak on this subject, and showed incredible courage.”
Liz Palmer recalls the 2009 elections in Iran when she had to cross through tens of thousands of people on the main street of Tehran. She had an escort, a burly Iranian journalist friend who pulled her through the demonstrators, one arm hooked into his and another clutching a notebook and phone. The whole way across, she says, “I was having my boobs and my butt grabbed and I couldn’t do anything. It was kind of like weirdly being nibbled by fish.”
Williams, a 38-year-old Australian correspondent who has covered China and East Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria and Libya, says she has not noticed any sexism in the workplace but has been sexually harassed in the field. “There are parts of the world — I don’t want to name them– where you’re more likely to be sexually harassed and that’s true whether you’re a tourist or a local or a journalist.”
Clarissa Ward has heard horror stories, but hasn’t had anything dramatic happen to her. “My approach to these things is really, you know, I’m one of the boys when I’m in a war zone, absolutely. I can hang with the best of them. I can go to the bathroom in any hole and I can sleep on any tarmac. My attitude has always been, I’m one of the boys. I don’t really take any crap if you’ll pardon the vulgar expression.’’ She makes a point of wearing loose-fitting clothes and a scarf on her head because “if you are 5-foot-10 and blonde and sort of wandering around Syria, people stare at you.”
The rise of the female TV war correspondent as global celebrity may go back to Christiane Amanpour, a onetime unknown 33-year-old working for CNN who elbowed bigger names from venerable news media to get to the front lines of the first Gulf War, in January 1991, breaking through the cordon sanitaire U.S. military minders had imposed on the media covering the desert conflict. Though she was preceded by equally fearless TV war correspondents — Hilary Brown, who covered the fall of Saigon and later the Bosnian War, the Rwandan???genocide, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for ABC, for example, and Sheila MacVicar of ABC and CBS who covered Bosnia, Iraq, Rwanda and Lebanon — Amanpour’s mystique was heightened by the rise of cable news.
Her tough, probing interview style and distinctive on-air delivery made for gripping television. Scores of female print and broadcast reporters from America and elsewhere were covering brutal wars before and during her career, but as much as any other woman, Amanpour provided a new model to replace, once and for all, the male authority figure that had dominated TV news since its inception: the swashbuckling, chain-smoking war correspondent associated with Edward R. Murrow and his CBS News “Murrow’s Boys:” United Press International’s Walter Cronkite of World War II London; “Gunga Dan” Rather, who donned Mujahideen headwear to cover Russia’s war in Afghanistan; and the smooth, dispassionate Tom Brokaw, Wolf Blitzer and Peter Jennings.
“Christiane probably changed the game for a lot of women,” Patta says, “because there was this brave journalist who was really good and really very intelligent doing amazing work.”
The female correspondent’s aura is likely to undergo another makeover soon when the memoir of Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario, 41, It’s What I Do, is adapted into a film. Addario was kidnapped, tied up and beaten along with three colleagues while covering the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in March 2011. Jennifer Lawrence, the 25-year-old Oscar-winning actress who stars as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games films, will portray Addario in the film, to be directed by Steven Spielberg.
Until recent decades, few American women figured in the rolls of legendary foreign correspondents. There was Marguerite Higgins, the first woman to receive the Pulitzer for her international reporting on the Korean War; Martha Gellhorn, who covered the Spanish Civil War and Vietnam; and the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, the first female photojournalist to be accredited by and work with the U.S. armed forces.
Women were banned from the front lines until Vietnam when a hardy dozen defied U.S. military regulations and ventured to the front. Some of them earned recognition, but their male colleagues generally dismissed them as “girl reporters.” Several were wounded and one, Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle, a National Geographic photojournalist, was killed by a mine while on patrol with Marines outside Chu Lai on Nov. 4, 1965. She was 46, the first American female correspondent killed in action. There have been several others in the past few decades, most recently Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012.
It’s not a straight shot to glory, but foreign correspondents have been romanticized and glorified in film and books, and on live television covering upheavals the world around.
“I always say that being in the field is the pure oxygen of the job,’’ Liz Palmer says. “I am a perpetually curious person. I love the invitation to go into a foreign world, a different world — to try to understand, and to be given this amazing license to ask questions and distill a fragment of the truth is humbling.”
For Debora Patta, “The hours are punishing, and television being what it is, it’s such a cruel medium. On-and-off flights, that’s not romantic. But there is something about it, because when you’re in the field nothing else matters. You can forget about everything. I understand the romance because that’s what attracted me to it, the ability to travel the world, to meet people, to do incredible things, to tell stories about people that you would never get to meet in ordinary life.”
But Williams, who would like to return to East Asia and cover North Korea, says, “If we start seeing what we’re doing as romantic, we lose sight of the kind of nuts and bolts of what we’re doing, which when it comes down to it, we just need to get in there, tell the story and get the facts straight so that our audience in the U.S. knows what’s going on. I think there’s a danger of getting lost in the romance and forgetting that in the end we are reporters.”
Single, with an American-British background, Clarissa Ward, who joined CBS News in 2011, started her globetrotting in Baghdad and Beirut for Fox News, then went to Moscow and Beijing for ABC News, and has been steeped in armed conflicts and humanitarian tragedies ever since. “If you don’t have that innate excitement about this job, and you don’t have that sort of curiosity and that passion for it, it’s not a job then that you can sustain,’’ she says, “because it’s all-consuming.”