By Steven A. Smith
When the world takes that unexpected right turn that changes the course of history, they run to the danger.
We expect that of the best known, most respected first responders – police, firefighters, EMTs, the military.
But journalists are first responders, too. Others rush in that moment to save lives and bring order out of chaos. Journalists rush to danger to record that first draft of history, to document those events that can change, in the blink of an eye, everything we know about our world.
Neil Sheehan, one of the heroes of 20th Century American journalism, the reporter whose courage and skill brought the Pentagon Papers to light, died Thursday.
His reporting exposed the government lies that were the foundation of our war policy in Vietnam. A giant of journalism, he is rightly mourned.
Less well known are the American journalists, reporters, and photographers, who documented that war over 20 years. They served history just as war correspondents did in World War II and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far too many died, 63 in Vietnam, according to Reporters Without Borders.
On the morning of 9/11, as thousands fled the Twin Towers, reporters and photojournalists rushed to the scene. Without hesitation. With one thought in mind – to bear witness to the horror.
Bearing witness does not always require physical courage. It takes another kind of resolute courage to speak truth to power. Two of the most courageous reporters with whom I worked were retired Spokesman-Review staffers Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele who, among other projects, exposed area white supremacists and pedophile priests.
I was reminded of those heroes and numberless others during the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week.
Yes, in an era of social media, there were uncounted images and videos – and selfies – captured by the insurrectionists and pushed into the infoverse without verification, without context. In time, social scientists and historians might be able to make sense of that social media tsunami.
But in the moment, it was the work of journalists, outside with the mob and inside the Capitol with trapped lawmakers, whose calling was to make some sense of the chaos.
Their work carried great risk.
The Trump-incited mob viewed the press as the “enemy of the people,” one of the president’s long-running and most vile declarations. Graffiti left behind includes this phrase, scrawled on a Capitol wall, “murder the media.”
Several reporters were attacked during the riot. Photojournalists had their cameras taken by those who did not want a record of their crimes. Reporters were chased down hallways, spat upon and physically assaulted.
The press pen, where reporters were stationed for the earlier “Save America” rally was overrun by rioters. Journalists ran for their lives while their equipment was stolen or smashed.
Three journalists for the New York Times wrote of the dangers they faced in a report Friday.
Times photojournalist Erin Schaff wrote of her experience as the mob stormed into the Capitol building and confronted a Capitol police officer guarding a Rotunda door:
“The mob massed together and rushed the officer, forcing open the door, and people flooded in. I ran upstairs to be out of the way of the crowd, and to get a better vantage point to document what was happening. Suddenly, two or three men in black surrounded me and demanded to know who I worked for.
“Grabbing my press pass, they saw that my ID said The New York Times and became really angry. They threw me to the floor, trying to take my cameras. I started screaming for help as loudly as I could. No one came. People just watched. At this point, I thought I could be killed, and no one would stop them.”
Schaff’s photos from inside the building are among the most compelling of the day.
As with other first responders, journalists train their entire lives for that moment when history hangs in the balance. Most live their professional lives dealing with the routine – local elections, city council meetings, profiles of exceptional athletes or unexceptional petty criminals.
But there are times when the world they knew in the morning will have changed irrevocably by lunch. That is their moment. That is when they are called.
And for the sake of history, they respond. They run to the danger.
Steven A. Smith is a former editor of The Spokesman-Review and a retired University of Idaho journalism professor.