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Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Associated Press
Author of Review
Aaron Barlow

A good reporter is also a good historian. And a good news organization understands and cherishes its past. It should be no surprise, then, that a book credited to "Reporters of the Associated Press" would be well written, well researched, and based on the best possible documentation. Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else, based in part on the AP' s own files, is all that. Published by the Princeton Architectural Press, it' s an imposing book, laid out with the care of a coffee-table book of photography (another field of AP strength) prepared for an upscale market. Unlike the average coffee-table book, however, this one is meant for reading as well as looking.

Add to that a foreword by David Halberstam and what a read it is!

Each of the dozen sections of the book focuses on a different aspect of AP coverage and mission over the century and a half (and more) since its founding. Only war gets two chapters - and the foreword.

For those of us involved in citizen journalism, this is a particularly important book. We tend to focus on the failures of the news media and on the frustrations that result in contemporary discourse. Breaking News balances out our skewed views, showing just how important -and how powerful - real professional news gathering can be. The Associated Press is not perfect - and it doesn' t claim to be in this book, pointing out failures and successes with equanimity - but it has been awfully damned good.

If you don' t believe that (and many of us outside of professionalism don' t, reflecting our frustrations over the past few years with the commercial news media), spend some time with this book. It may change your mind.

Halberstam' s Foreword focuses on his memories of the AP in the early years of the Vietnam War, when Peter Arnett, Mal Browne, and Horst Faas were the Saigon bureau. This is an appropriate lead-in to the first of the two chapters on war, both of which are written by Richard Pyle, himself an AP reporter (then bureau chief) in Saigon at the height of the war.

Though Pyle picks up where Halberstam leaves off, he quickly takes us back to the first major war covered by the AP, the American Civil War. From there, he leads us through to World War I and beyond, finishing with the Spanish Civil War and the eve of World War II. A war correspondent himself for two decades, Pyle clearly identifies with the initiative and bravery of his predecessors, and makes a point of naming those who died while covering war.

The next chapter, by Frances Mears, follows a pattern similar to the earlier chapter (and one repeated throughout the book), starting with the O.J. Simpson trial and moving back to other great trials covered by the organization, including that of John Wilkes Booth' s alleged co-conspirators, that of Lizzie Bordon (accused of killing her parents), Sacco and Vanzetti (of a payroll robbery - but more for being anarchists), John Scopes (the ' monkey' trial over evolution in the classroom), and more - all the way up to Michael Jackson.

In the third chapter, focus shifts to questions of access to information, something as important to contemporary bloggers and citizen journalists as ever to professional organizations like the AP. But, as Nancy Benac shows, the AP has always put its money where its mouth is, vigorously pursuing the rights of the public and the press even though:

AP's long role in pushing for open access to government information has not been without controversy and debate within the company itself. In 1956, General Manager Frank Starzel wrote to a newspaper editor that free-press issues had to be pursued, but with restraint: "The public is a suspicious breed, understandably and rightly so, and The Associated Press has fostered confidence in its news reporting over the years by not itself becoming unnecessarily a subject of controversial action." He went on to say, however, that AP had never hesitated to act decisively against "news suppression," adding that, "The only question that is involved in that field is one of method."(104)

Though it is true that the AP has an exemplary record of fighting "news suppression," it was also one of the news organizations that fell down on the job in reporting government claims during the run-up to the Iraq war. As former Time editor and CNN chairman Walter Isaacson said to Bill Moyers for his PBS show Bill Moyers' Journal, only the "people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, ya know, that intelligence is not very good. We should've all been doing that." The AP should have been, too - something that has hurt its reputation since, even though the AP has proven to be one of the best and most consistent sources of information from Iraq, following its own tradition and working outside of the "green zone" to get stories not filtered by American and Iraqi authorities. In fact, one of its photographers, Bilal Hussein, remains in US detention: "Military officials say that Hussein was being held for 'imperative reasons of security.' " The AP, however, claims that, through "an internal review of his work [it] did not find anything to indicate inappropriate contact with insurgents, and any evidence against him should be brought to the Iraqi criminal justice system." Once more, the organization is standing fast behind its employee.

Other chapters cover aviation, sports, elections, civil rights, foreign correspondents, photographs, disasters, and the White House. Each is illuminating, showing the depth and complexity of the AP' s work - though also pointing out dangers like allowing the desire to be first to sometimes outweigh journalistic restraint. The ideas of "breaking" and "scoop" drive the AP as much as they do any in the field, leading to small-minded attempts at one-upmanship such as the incident in 1970 when, as the first news organization to be aware of Apollo 13' s "Houston, we have a problem," an AP employee was sent to surreptitiously inform only the AP people at a party attended by newspeople from all over, getting the AP reporters back to work while leaving everyone else in the dark.

Though, as the book shows, there's much more to the AP than reporting on war, it is war (one could argue) that gave the organization its first prominence and that continues to be the area where seasoned professionals will shine in ways that amateurs can rarely match. Today, few foreigners in Iraq are willing to step outside of the "green zone." The AP, with its own Iraqi employees plus veteran outsiders, does just that regularly. In fact:

By the end of 2006, four of AP' s Iraqi staff members had lost their lives covering the war. Ismail Taher Mohsin, a former soldier hired as an AP driver, was killed by gunmen in his car on September 2, 2004. On April 25, 2005, AP Television News cameraman Saleh Ibrahim was killed when a gunfight broke out after an explosion in the north city of Mosul.* On December 12, 2006, another APTN cameraman, Aswan Ahmed Lutfallah, was killed in Mosul, when insurgents saw him filming a clash between them and police, and shot him to death. Less than a month later, the body of cameraman Ahmed Hadi Naji** was found in a Baghdad mosque, a week after he had gone missing on his way to work.

The deaths of Mohsin, Lutfallah, and Naji at the hands of murderers reflect a hazard that had not existed for AP war correspondents who risked their lives to report from beachheads, jungles, deserts, the icy mountains of Korea, the villages of Vietnam. But in a time of terrorism, any street corner can become a combat zone; anyone a casualty of war. (253)

Those of us who were in New York or Washington, DC on 9/11 know this last point quite personally. However, there is a real difference between being an "innocent" civilian caught up in horrific events and someone who runs towards them. Perhaps Pyle, who placed the above passage at the end of his second chapter on the AP in war, wanted to temper his obvious pride in and respect for his fallen AP comrades. But the fact remains, as this chapter shows so well, that the good reporter runs risks few of the rest of us would countenance.

As we who are involved in the citizen journalism movement carve out our own place within the universe of news gathering and analysis, we need to remember that there are things the professionals will do that we amateurs would not consider. There are stories we can "break" and reportage we can provide on a par with the professionals. But few of us are willing to risk our lives or even our careers for a story in the way a professional will.

Yes, the professionals of journalism have failed us in many ways over the past two decades. But their role remains viable and vital -and, for the most part, they have served American society well over the past century and a half. Just how well is made clear in this book, which deserves to be close to hand for every citizen journalist. As we criticize the commercial news media, we need to recognize its importance. Breaking News can help make sure we never forget that.

*AP's site and TownNews give the date as April 23rd, 2005.
**Ahmed Hadi Naji's death occurred on 5 January 2007.

About the Author: Aaron Barlow teaches English at CUNY -- Brooklyn branch and, on weekends, runs his store/gallery, Shakespeare's Sister, in Brooklyn, NY. The author of The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology (Praeger, 2005), he is a board member and citizen journalist for ePluribus Media.
ePluribus Contributors: jenn718, Carol White, cho and roxy