Reading about your heroes can be dubious business. On the one hand, this is someone you admire a great deal, try to emulate and without knowing it, they take on the air of mentor through their deeds and actions. On the other hand, when you dig in deeper you find that your hero is merely human, and in some ways it is disappointing to find that they have faults and poor judgment and, well, quite frankly, too much like you than you would have liked.
I found this recently, and then I had to wonder if it was the man I admired who I should blame or I for putting so much emphasis on what really is his caricature, his persona that appeared in the toughest circumstances, in the most dangerous places in the world. Could I expect so much more from him than others? In fact, how could I expect this perfection in anyone?
There were few things I wanted to be when I grew up. I was very much an idealized version of a stereotype. I didn’t want to be a pilot; I wanted to be a stewardess. I didn’t want to be a doctor; I wanted to be a nurse. I didn’t want to be a cowboy; I wanted to be an Indian maiden captured and rescued (so not only was this a gender stereotype, but a racist one as well.)
I also wanted to be a writer.
But not just any writer; a journalist.
These were the mid-70s. Women politicians in my neighborhood were the rage: Bella Abzug, Liz Holtzman, others resigned to the annals of my childhood memory.
But all the information flowed through the newspapers. Nixon had resigned. I adored Woodward and Bernstein. They were my heroes then. I wanted to be them. It didn’t hurt that Robert Redford was in the movie version – in fact, I’ve yet to read their book. Lou Grant had moved on from Mary Tyler Moore’s station manager and was now the editor of a prestigious newspaper in California. I loved the female journalist, Billie Newman, just as tough as her desk partner, Joe, curly red hair of which I was more than a little envious of with my straight dark brown hair, not black. I should have red hair. (Eventually, I did, and I do, but I’ve left the curls to the perms of the 1980s.)
Television was big in our house. When I hear teenagers talk about jumping the shark, I know that they have no real clue. I watched Fonzie jump the shark literally and figuratively finding his way into the pop culture vernacular forever.
We were a political family. My parents voted every year. They both worked for the post office, at that time a government job. We celebrated Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. I was on a first name basis with Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite and all of their successors.
For today’s Middle East news bulletins, most would know the name Richard Engel, but my foreign correspondent was (and is) Martin Fletcher.
One of the benefits of knowing Martin through television is reading his books with his voice ringing clearly in my head. He has a distinctive accent and voice; I would recognize it from the television even if I wasn’t paying attention. Like Peter Jennings, if Martin Fletcher was talking in the middle of the day, pay attention; it is something important.
I’ve always considered Martin an American correspondent despite his British accent. After all, his accent wasn’t the prim and proper British accent that most people were used to here in the States. His was….different. Now I know that his growing up in London to German and Austrian Holocaust survivors melded their accents with those around his family to give him a unique pitch to his words. It offered me an expertise in what he was talking about simply by virtue of sounding not like the other journalists. It was also noted that Tom Brokaw was in the New York studio while Martin was in the thick of it, whether that be in Kosovo, Rwanda or Israel, where he made his home with his wife and three sons.
I was expecting Walter Cronkite on the road. All knowing, non-plussed, quiet, reserved, straight-laced, very much a desk jockey, going out, getting the story, filing the story, filming against the backdrops of war.
This was not Martin Fletcher.
I was shocked to find that he is a human being. I was also shocked to find my own moralistic, narrow-minded, prudish reactions to his life as a cameraman/reporter/journalist twenty-something.
And passed out.
He swam naked.
He had sex.
He and his friends were constantly involved in debauchery (his word) and my reaction was so much of what happened to my quiet, reserved, British-accented journalist? Was this also Woodward and Bernstein while they got the story? Rossi and Newman? (Fictional, I know, but still, they would never!)
Well, no. He’s not any of them. They also weren’t in war zones, interviewing warlords stealing humanitarian aid and selling it, talking to the maker of the bomb that injured his family’s close teenage friend and killing her two friends. They weren’t climbing mountains in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, getting the story but trying to avoid the Soviets and getting himself killed.
He skirted land mines, trusted murderers’ bodyguards to safeguard him and his crew while they got the story out, filmed a woman dying of starvation, compromised his morality knowing that the story must get out, the truth to the world.
It was dangerous; it was life-changing; it was mentally sapping. Sometimes it was too much.
As much of his private life surprised me, I needed to remind myself that I was ten when he was living this kind of life, not to mention that in hearing his older voice that I am used to as an NBC viewer does sound funny when he recounts his younger, freer days. As he reminds me throughout the book, and in reading this glimpse behind the curtain of the evening news that I remembered was when I thought of becoming a journalist, the story was the most important thing. Always the story.
Journalists risked their lives – the story was that important.
There are hardly any like Martin Fletcher anymore. Everyone has a smartphone. We have citizen journalists on every street corner. Think about recent events in Iran and Egypt including the Arab Spring where the news got out through Skype and banned pictures through Twitter. I first saw Trayvon Martin’s story on Tumblr weeks before the mainstream media caught up to the social justice advocates reblogging there.
I still don’t know if this is a book review, a classroom book report, mini-biography, or op-ed on the life of a journalist. It could be all four, I suppose.
I’m still not sure why I let the dream of being a journalist drift away. Even at twenty, I don’t think I had the stamina for that kind of life. I am at once both afraid and in awe.
While I said at the start that dissecting your heroes can be a dubious affair, the three dimensional insight into someone like Martin Fletcher is invaluable to me. He is human; and so am I.
Martin Fletcher’s website
Breaking News: A Stunning and Memorable Account of Reporting from Some of the Most Dangerous Places in the World by Martin Fletcher