.
J

ournalism today is, perhaps, one of the hardest and least appreciated crafts. Due in no small part to the rise of social media and democratization of information outlets, the pressure of an increasingly competitive market and changing business model, and the perceived (real or otherwise) politicization of the press, much of the American public simply treats all journalists as cut from the same cloth. That investigative reporter who uncovers public corruption is, in the eyes of many readers, no different than the author of a click-bait article or listicle—they are both journalists, aren’t they? And, what’s worse, if that investigative reporter’s position does not fit the reader’s preconceived notions, they will probably assume bias or that the author leans this way or that (and is a hack as a result), and simply find (or be driven to) an article or outlet that fits their existing beliefs. 

On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist” | Clarissa Ward | Penguin Press | September 2020.

This is decidedly unfair to the journalistic craft and the journalists themselves. There is a dramatic difference between the talking heads and professional pundits of cable news, and that same network’s foreign correspondents. Those exceedingly brave individuals who wade into the worst of the worst to offer looks at the world around us that we would otherwise never see, even if only in short segments or brief news hits. In her new book “On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist” Clarissa Ward offers a much-needed look at the trials and challenges of being a foreign correspondent in this day and age, and in so doing brings a refreshing look at contemporary journalism, one that is at odds with the simplistic narrative one often finds on social media.

It is almost unfair to put foreign correspondents like Ward in the same category of what often is considered a journalist or reporter. Ward and others are the ones that go out into the field, into the worst of the worst, the tragedy and disaster, the war and famine, and into the pestilence. They bring images of death, destruction, violence, and all of the biblical horsemen, but also can share scenes of humanity into the homes of Americans. 

Ward, in her own telling, was an unconventional journalist, having been inspired after the 9/11 attacks to pursue a career in journalism, entering at the ground floor through one of those happenstances of familial connections. Through hard work, determination, and a few lucky breaks, she makes her way from a producer to an on-screen personality, communicating directly with the American public on a near-nightly basis. She finds herself in horrid situations, such as the bombing of a hotel in Baghdad and aggressive harassment from Qaddafi’s son, while she was in Moscow, but also finds love and a family during her journey—something one imagines is not an easy thing for a globe-trotting journalist. 

Ward displays warmth and humanity throughout the book. That shouldn’t be unexpected, but it will likely show a different side to journalists than is often displayed—not all are soulless panel pundits. She writes tenderly about many: her language instructors; the people who she encountered on her journey and reporting; those that took her in and sheltered her during the violence of Syria; and even sharing in the pain of one family’s loss, the very same family who ensured she was well looked after and fed. It is a genuine warmth that the reader feels. It is neither tacked on nor does it feel obligatory as it does in some other memoirs, the “I want to thank these people, because I’m so benevolent and want to appear humble”—the memoir equivalent of a humble brag. 

As a foreign correspondent, Ward brings a deeply empathetic human face to the events she covers, and in so doing illustrates the challenges of being this kind of journalist: the helplessness of being unable to help when covering brutality and tragedy. On a reporting trip to Urumqi in China, she watches as ethnic Chinese viciously beat a Uyghur man in the street while the police sit by idly watching. She wants to intervene, but cannot. Reporting on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, she watches as families try to cross the water on makeshift rafts, nearly drowning on the process. She wants to wade into the water to help, but cannot. She writes of the scenes of devastation after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, speaking with one resident through hastily translated Japanese. It is a poignant scene that stays with the reader. 

Ward’s finest hour and most compelling story comes from her multiple trips into Syria. Here, Ward demonstrates her journalistic prowess, her warmth and compassion, her telling truth to power (even if it is so deeply uncomfortable), and her bravery as a foreign correspondent. She entered Syria on multiple occasions, first, on legitimate (if somewhat loose interpretations of visa requirements) and again on several later occasions by slipping across the border undercover. 

These entries and exits are harrowing in her telling. Relying on smugglers and local fixers, she crossed into Syria from Turkey, covers stories, and secrets out the video footage by hiding the digital cards in her underwear. The prospect of a tall, blonde, Western woman surreptitiously entering a warzone, covering active engagements, and escaping without being captured by either jihadists, the Syrian government, or any number of other factions sounds suitable for an airport thriller, but Ward did it all the same. Not all journalists were as lucky. She recounts her virtual friendship and relationship with Austin Tice, a former Marine and freelancer kidnapped in Syria in 2012, whose whereabouts remain unknown. She writes of receiving praise from the legendary correspondent Marie Colvin, who was later killed while covering the siege of Homs. Both are vivid illustrations of the risks foreign correspondents take to expose the horrors of war.  

Her coverage of the country brought a much needed, if painful, face to the conflict in Syria. The Obama administration saw the conflict in very academic and often abstract terms. It was and remains, however, a very human tragedy, one that Ward put in front of both Washington and the country writ large through her reporting. Burned by the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, and seeking to avoid further engagements, the administration washed its hands of primacy in that conflict, allowing Russia to fill the vacuum left behind, the functional consequence of which was a dramatic escalation in violence, particularly against civilians. (Joby Warrick in “Red Line” covers the back-and-forth nature of Washington’s policymaking on Syria as related to Damascus’ use of chemical weapons). 

The rawness of Ward’s reporting was an attempt to make American policymakers confront, if haltingly, with the consequences of the abdication of responsibility. Through an internal connection, she actually confronted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter, via email, over what was happening as a result of Washington’s failure to intervene. 

There is no small irony here, in that she was invited by Ambassador Samantha Powers to speak before the United Nations based upon her reporting. On the one hand it was particularly useful to expose the horrors of the situation on-the-ground, at least for one part of the administration, but it was unhelpful on the other hand, because it illustrated the consequences of the administration’s unwillingness to act. 

“On All Fronts” is a fairly conventional memoir, but one that is refreshing in that it does not come across as an homage to Ward herself. She is, of course, the main character in her own life as we all are, but she conveys the stories she covered with empathy and warmth, and an unsurprising depth of policy acumen, that allows her to almost be a journalist covering her own life. It has “derring-do” to be sure, but it is not a “boys or girls’ own adventure” story that sacrifices the humanity of the story for the sake of the thrill or to make herself larger than life. It is a welcome counter-weight to the “all journalists are—fill in the blank” simplicity that is seemingly ubiquitous in today’s public dialogue.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist

Image by AdobeStock.

July 10, 2021

Clarissa Ward's “On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist” offers a much-needed look at the trials and challenges of being a foreign correspondent in this day and age, and in so doing brings a refreshing look at contemporary journalism, one that is at odds with prevalent narratives.

J

ournalism today is, perhaps, one of the hardest and least appreciated crafts. Due in no small part to the rise of social media and democratization of information outlets, the pressure of an increasingly competitive market and changing business model, and the perceived (real or otherwise) politicization of the press, much of the American public simply treats all journalists as cut from the same cloth. That investigative reporter who uncovers public corruption is, in the eyes of many readers, no different than the author of a click-bait article or listicle—they are both journalists, aren’t they? And, what’s worse, if that investigative reporter’s position does not fit the reader’s preconceived notions, they will probably assume bias or that the author leans this way or that (and is a hack as a result), and simply find (or be driven to) an article or outlet that fits their existing beliefs. 

On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist” | Clarissa Ward | Penguin Press | September 2020.

This is decidedly unfair to the journalistic craft and the journalists themselves. There is a dramatic difference between the talking heads and professional pundits of cable news, and that same network’s foreign correspondents. Those exceedingly brave individuals who wade into the worst of the worst to offer looks at the world around us that we would otherwise never see, even if only in short segments or brief news hits. In her new book “On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist” Clarissa Ward offers a much-needed look at the trials and challenges of being a foreign correspondent in this day and age, and in so doing brings a refreshing look at contemporary journalism, one that is at odds with the simplistic narrative one often finds on social media.

It is almost unfair to put foreign correspondents like Ward in the same category of what often is considered a journalist or reporter. Ward and others are the ones that go out into the field, into the worst of the worst, the tragedy and disaster, the war and famine, and into the pestilence. They bring images of death, destruction, violence, and all of the biblical horsemen, but also can share scenes of humanity into the homes of Americans. 

Ward, in her own telling, was an unconventional journalist, having been inspired after the 9/11 attacks to pursue a career in journalism, entering at the ground floor through one of those happenstances of familial connections. Through hard work, determination, and a few lucky breaks, she makes her way from a producer to an on-screen personality, communicating directly with the American public on a near-nightly basis. She finds herself in horrid situations, such as the bombing of a hotel in Baghdad and aggressive harassment from Qaddafi’s son, while she was in Moscow, but also finds love and a family during her journey—something one imagines is not an easy thing for a globe-trotting journalist. 

Ward displays warmth and humanity throughout the book. That shouldn’t be unexpected, but it will likely show a different side to journalists than is often displayed—not all are soulless panel pundits. She writes tenderly about many: her language instructors; the people who she encountered on her journey and reporting; those that took her in and sheltered her during the violence of Syria; and even sharing in the pain of one family’s loss, the very same family who ensured she was well looked after and fed. It is a genuine warmth that the reader feels. It is neither tacked on nor does it feel obligatory as it does in some other memoirs, the “I want to thank these people, because I’m so benevolent and want to appear humble”—the memoir equivalent of a humble brag. 

As a foreign correspondent, Ward brings a deeply empathetic human face to the events she covers, and in so doing illustrates the challenges of being this kind of journalist: the helplessness of being unable to help when covering brutality and tragedy. On a reporting trip to Urumqi in China, she watches as ethnic Chinese viciously beat a Uyghur man in the street while the police sit by idly watching. She wants to intervene, but cannot. Reporting on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, she watches as families try to cross the water on makeshift rafts, nearly drowning on the process. She wants to wade into the water to help, but cannot. She writes of the scenes of devastation after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, speaking with one resident through hastily translated Japanese. It is a poignant scene that stays with the reader. 

Ward’s finest hour and most compelling story comes from her multiple trips into Syria. Here, Ward demonstrates her journalistic prowess, her warmth and compassion, her telling truth to power (even if it is so deeply uncomfortable), and her bravery as a foreign correspondent. She entered Syria on multiple occasions, first, on legitimate (if somewhat loose interpretations of visa requirements) and again on several later occasions by slipping across the border undercover. 

These entries and exits are harrowing in her telling. Relying on smugglers and local fixers, she crossed into Syria from Turkey, covers stories, and secrets out the video footage by hiding the digital cards in her underwear. The prospect of a tall, blonde, Western woman surreptitiously entering a warzone, covering active engagements, and escaping without being captured by either jihadists, the Syrian government, or any number of other factions sounds suitable for an airport thriller, but Ward did it all the same. Not all journalists were as lucky. She recounts her virtual friendship and relationship with Austin Tice, a former Marine and freelancer kidnapped in Syria in 2012, whose whereabouts remain unknown. She writes of receiving praise from the legendary correspondent Marie Colvin, who was later killed while covering the siege of Homs. Both are vivid illustrations of the risks foreign correspondents take to expose the horrors of war.  

Her coverage of the country brought a much needed, if painful, face to the conflict in Syria. The Obama administration saw the conflict in very academic and often abstract terms. It was and remains, however, a very human tragedy, one that Ward put in front of both Washington and the country writ large through her reporting. Burned by the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, and seeking to avoid further engagements, the administration washed its hands of primacy in that conflict, allowing Russia to fill the vacuum left behind, the functional consequence of which was a dramatic escalation in violence, particularly against civilians. (Joby Warrick in “Red Line” covers the back-and-forth nature of Washington’s policymaking on Syria as related to Damascus’ use of chemical weapons). 

The rawness of Ward’s reporting was an attempt to make American policymakers confront, if haltingly, with the consequences of the abdication of responsibility. Through an internal connection, she actually confronted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter, via email, over what was happening as a result of Washington’s failure to intervene. 

There is no small irony here, in that she was invited by Ambassador Samantha Powers to speak before the United Nations based upon her reporting. On the one hand it was particularly useful to expose the horrors of the situation on-the-ground, at least for one part of the administration, but it was unhelpful on the other hand, because it illustrated the consequences of the administration’s unwillingness to act. 

“On All Fronts” is a fairly conventional memoir, but one that is refreshing in that it does not come across as an homage to Ward herself. She is, of course, the main character in her own life as we all are, but she conveys the stories she covered with empathy and warmth, and an unsurprising depth of policy acumen, that allows her to almost be a journalist covering her own life. It has “derring-do” to be sure, but it is not a “boys or girls’ own adventure” story that sacrifices the humanity of the story for the sake of the thrill or to make herself larger than life. It is a welcome counter-weight to the “all journalists are—fill in the blank” simplicity that is seemingly ubiquitous in today’s public dialogue.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.