Clarissa Ward realized she wanted to be a conflict reporter in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. A senior at Yale, she had watched the towers burn on a friend's television.
In those moments, Ward, now CNN's chief international correspondent, felt not just horror but shame — "that I had not been paying proper attention to what was happening in the world, that I had been so self-absorbed," she writes in a new book.
In “On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist,” Ward's memoir of reporting around the world for Fox, ABC, CBS, and CNN, she combines grace, authority, and a humor so dry it evaporates on contact. Whether Ward is fending off the dissolute, lecherous Saif Gadhafi, son of the brutal former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, in a Moscow Mercedes, or confronting a jihadist leader with video evidence of an execution carried out by his men, she gives off the impression that the story is, above all personal considerations, sacrosanct. At the same time, she allows us to see the costs of this kind of reporting.
As a woman, Ward describes being swarmed, assaulted, and dismissed. This can take the form of a Taliban leader asking why CNN hadn't sent a man to do her job — or of a female Fox anchor telling her she should wear her hair down on the network to please Roger Ailes, who was later hit with multiple sexual misconduct allegations and resigned from the company. "...I know he'd prefer it," the unnamed anchor emails her. "Gotta look out for you sexy girls :)." (Ward tried it — her mother wrote in to say, "For the love of God, you look like SpongeBob SquarePants"). But these indignities come to seem minor in the face of the life-threatening danger that comes from war reporting.
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Some of the book's most moving passages describe Ward's friendship with Austin Tice, the freelancer who was captured in Syria in 2012. He had written to her on Twitter; she was intrigued that this handsome young ex-marine had made it into parts of Syria she and other reporters couldn't reach. Plus, she thought, "[h]ow many guys decide to spend their summer break from law school traveling through a war zone alone as a journalist, with no previous journalism experience? And how many of those were successfully filing for the Washington Post within a few weeks?"
They began messaging: "It was a relief to talk openly with someone about Syria. I didn't feel comfortable talking this way with my colleagues — it was raw, too personal." With Tice, Ward talked about the dueling violence and idealism of the Syrian conflict, but also the unglamorous details of reporting, like the "very specific smell that comes from too many dudes spending too much time in too small of a room." They were making plans to meet for cocktails in Beirut after their reporting trips when the news came that he was missing. "I never heard from Austin again."
Tice is not the only one: When a certain lingering, mournful tone enters Ward's prose, you know that whoever she is talking about is going to end up missing or dead. The bodies pile up: friends, sources, fixers, colleagues. In news reporting, these personal relationships are supposed to stay invisible. You can care about your sources and colleagues, but you can't let it affect or enter the narrative. This memoir is an acknowledgment of how real those relationships can be, and what a toll it takes to pretend otherwise.
Neutrality has another cost: not being able to help. "The reality is we are not there to solve the problem, we are there to illuminate it." Ward can't offer food or money to the hungry, can't help refugees enter the U.S., can't do anything for them but report their stories. And this raises the awful question that hovers over much of the book: What if you find out the truth, at great risk to yourself and sometimes your sources, and no one cares?
Knee-deep in a Bangaldeshi river, interviewing a Rohingya mother fleeing a genocide taking place in full view of the world and international community, Ward thinks, "It made one wonder why anyone chose to have a child at all, to bring a baby into a world where ugliness persisted even once people knew about it."
Nonetheless, Ward shows an enduring faith in the power of reporting (and goes on to have a child herself). When she watched the towers burn on 9/11, she didn't know that as a journalist she would "have my heart broken in a hundred different ways, that I would lose friends and watch children die and grow to feel like an alien in my own skin." But, years later, after another grueling and dangerous trip, she writes, "I told myself that if just ten people saw my story and felt moved to care about Syria, then it was worth it."
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