A Mighty Heart

It’s probably just a coincidence, but then, some people say there ARE no coincidences in life.

A week ago, at a faculty retreat in Toronto, some long time journalists and I (Ted Barris, Ted Fairhurst, and other colleagues) were sitting at a picnic table discussing a famous book about war correspondents called The First Casualty, by Phillip Knightley. And we recalled several journalists we had known who had been killed covering wars or conflicts, including a CTV TV reporter and others. At the time, I couldn’t remember his name. More about this later.

Earlier this week, I read an article in the Canadian Jewish News that it was coming up to the anniversary of the Daniel Pearl Music Day in October, which his family had created after his murder, to work towards understanding and peace around the world, through music.

Today, the name of the reporter killed in Lebanon in the 80s, came to me: Clark Todd. I remember hearing about him when I was in Journalism school at Carleton University, and the class discussing the concept of “bang bang” i.e. how it was a no no for foreign correspondents to fake or re-enact scenes where crowds would riot on cue, or shoot weapons into the air, in order to make their Tv story more action packed. Bang bang was what the visuals were called, for obvious reasons.

Tonight, without any planning, at home, we watched the movie A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie, about the murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. I hadn’t actually picked that movie to watch tonight: months ago, someone in my family had checked off the box on ZIP’s order forms, included in a bunch of other films we hoped they would send us over time. When it arrived in the mail last week, I was too busy getting my courses ready for journalism school next week, to spend the time watching it.

The movie was as powerful and depressing and shocking as the critics had said it was, at the time it came out. And although we all knew the ending before the movie even started playing, seeing the whole cruel end to an idealistic young western journalist has really made an impact on me tonight.

First of all, I have been a foreign correspondent too: I covered several wars in Africa in the 1990s — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique. While I was stationed overseas, I learned that a courageous British U.N. worker who I knew at the time, had been shot to death, for discussing with Reuters, the looting and corruption he had seen involving food distribution to the refugees and displaced persons. It’s been too long, so I don’t remember his name, but I do remember being horrified and shocked that someone who had dared to tell what he saw as the truth, was murdered for this by people who found his comments inconvenient, or possibly, threatening.

I walked through minefields in Mozambique, I met with rebel leaders, I saw starving children and displaced women, and amputees. Luckily, we were not attacked in the danger zone. After we had wrapped up our work, and were on the way back to Europe, I was mugged in Johannesburg after we left Mozambique for the flight out of Africa. The muggers grabbed by bag with notebooks, a week of photos, and precious tape recordings of my interviews, none of which I had had time to transcribe yet for the CBC. Needless to say, I was thinking at the time more about my work then about personal safety, but to make a long story short, the shopkeepers who pulled out their own guns and chased the muggers to a garage down the street where they held them until the police came, did manage to retrieve my journalist bag intact. I had cuts and bruises, and a swollen neck and tongue where they had choked me when they jumped on me and threw me to the street.

I called a colleague who had just moved to live and work in Johannesburg at the time, Joan Leishman of CBC, and she picked me up, cleaned my wounds, made me drink some strong red wine, and got me onto a plane to Italy. I remember her compound where she was living at the time, in 1992. It had a series of rape gates installed over most of the doors, and these were so that robbers could break in, but not attack her. The place had lots of German Shepherd dogs, and I thought at the time, how courageous she was to live and work under such dangerous conditions in such a dangerous place.

Then I flew home to Rome, where I was living, and the next day, Giovanni Falcone, a famous anti-Mafia magistrate was murdered by a car bomb, and so I went from one horror story in Africa, to cover another one in Italy. He had been getting too close to the powerful clans, arresting leaders and trying to break the Sicilian Mafia. The truth was threatening to the powerful, so it had to be attacked.

Tonight, as the Daniel Pearl story played on the screen, I remember all of this, and think about the coincidence of the timing: on Tuesday, I begin a new year of teaching students Journalism at Centennial College and the University of Toronto’s joint program with Centennial. How many of these students will be courageous, and seek the truth, and try to find out what powerful forces wish to keep hidden? How many will toss out the safety and comfort of life in Toronto, and head to a foreign country as a freelancer, perhaps in harm’s way, to report on things and places where no mainstream news media outlet can afford to post a full time correspondent?

How many will be still as full of idealism, and yes, naivete, and hope, as Daniel Pearl was in 2002, and in my own way, that I still am today, after 27 years as a journalist? Let’s see what the new semester brings.

Something else that’s a coincidence? Daniel Pearl’s birthday is October 10, 1963, one day before mine, although he was just two years younger then me.

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