I never thought I would say this: the controversy about Brian Williams has made me miss the Vietnam War. I miss the reporters who really went there, went there to report. I miss the visceral feeling I had when I saw the grass waving under the choppers and the sound of the blades that still alerts me, all these years later. I miss the reporters ducking and running. I miss being made to feel horrified and grief-stricken about events that deserve horror and grief.
Of course I knew there was masculine ego involved – that’s a good part of what fascinated me. (I was a teenage girl, after all.) These reporters were navigating landscape, emotion, and sensory stimulation unlike anything I knew and they were moving freely, without restrictions, ducking bullets and explosions, climbing onto choppers, running through grass, and all the while holding a microphone to their lips, and they were doing all this in order to tell me what it was like.
I had no desire to be one of the soldiers but I deeply admired the storytellers. It wasn’t until much later, though, that I understood their effect on me. Those reporters were able to transport a sheltered college student thousands of miles away from the conflict into the reality of that war. They were able to make me feel it so deeply that decades later the visceral memory was still present somewhere in my body.
Many reporters made names for themselves with their stories from Vietnam and as a listener I came to rely on some of them in particular because they brought themselves as individuals into what they were doing. Their judgment about what they saw changed me, gave me insight and understanding. If they were getting personal gratification out of what they were doing, it didn’t interfere with the story and that, to me, was heroic. These reporters were willing, for reasons of their own, to fling themselves into that maelstrom for the sake of something greater. They were willing to risk their lives so that other lives would not be damaged or lost without me at least knowing about it.
We need that kind of reporting today, the kind that isn’t trying to make a point or feed an agenda or play to ratings or sponsors. We need people willing to show us complexity, nuance, even paradox. We need reporting that makes us uncomfortable, restless, unable to sleep.
I ate my dinner watching the war in Vietnam, as did many, many others. I hated the fact that I was eating the war, taking it into my body. But now I miss it. I miss being connected to something outside of myself done in my name. I miss being forced to confront things I did not want to think were true. I miss my imagination, my humanity, my morality being engaged. I miss … knowing.
The image of Morley Safer will be part of the exhibition at the Newseum, “Reporting Vietnam,” on display from May 22, 2015 through September 12, 2016.