The life of an investigative journalist does not come complete with the generous trappings of a plush, well-lit anchor desk and an adoring nightly television audience.They often live modestly in depraved corners of the world, bravely shielding themselves from the ubiquitous, perilous glare of violence in order to report the facts about government and the criminal element.
They are the lifeblood of truth throughout the world.
Communications professor and former CNN correspondent Anthony Collings writes about the unsung heroes of investigative journalism in his book, “Words of Fire: Independent Journalists Who Challenge Dictators, Drug Lords, and Other Enemies of a Free Press.” Collings will conduct a reading of his book at 8:00 tonight at Shaman Drum, with C-Span recording the event for future re-play.
Collings first got the idea for the book in 1981 when, while working for CNN in Lebanon”s Bekaa Valley, he and his crew were captured and held at gunpoint by Syrians and Palestinians who mistook the Americans as Israeli spies.
“We were interrogated and we told them we were with CNN,” said Collings, “but nobody had heard of” the then-fledgling cable news network.
The punishment for espionage in the region was execution and Collings feared a firing squad was imminent.
After a few tense hours of captivity in Beirut, Collings and his colleagues were released.
“Although it scared me to death, it was not as bad a situation as others have faced.” Not as bad in the sense that Collings was fortunate enough to live others are not so lucky.
One of the journalistic martyrs Collings profiles in the book, Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, was shot and killed in June, 1996 by Irish gangsters. Guerin”s gutsy and unabashed reporting on Ireland”s underworld made her prey for repeated physical assaults, but she remained relentless in her search for the facts.
After getting shot in the leg in 1995, Guerin tracked down her assailant, encountered him, and told him she was not afraid of his threats.
Another investigative journalist, Russian Dmitri Kholodov, was killed in 1994 when he came too close to uncovering secrets of corruption within the Russian Army.
In a case of twisted irony, Collings”s book might serve as a premonition for the dilemma many independent journalists now face whether to risk their lives in the “battleground countries,” as Collings calls them, of the Middle East.
“They will have to go to dangerous places and talk to dangerous people,” Collings said. “These terrorists are fanatics and they will kill anybody who doesn”t agree with them.
“For an American to get any of these facts, they must go right into it there is a danger of being held hostage or even death.”
Last week”s attack on the World Trade Center prompted Collings to reorganize his reading and presentation of the book. Shaman Drum is preparing for a larger crowd than expected, given the subject matter and the presence of C-Span.
“There might be a large crowd, but we should be able to accommodate it,” Shaman Drum manager Ray McDaniel said, “People might be coming out with the hope of having a more civic-minded discussion.”
Collings came to the University in 1997 as the Howard R. Marsh Professor of Journalism after a long and distinguished reporting career with the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and CNN.