When Truth is a Dangerous Thing

Last fall I attended a small intimate dinner for eight women on the luxurious Westside of Los Angeles who came together to honor Boston Globe war correspondent Elizabeth Neuffer. We were a few miles away from Hollywood and thousands of miles from the realities of war. As a journalism professor, I was admittedly awe-struck by a chance dinner with the globe-trotting Neuffer, whom I knew had covered the world's most dangerous hot spots over the last 10 years, including Bosnia and Rwanda, where genocide was the favored means of settling disputes. Her book, "The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda," explored the aftermath of war and the war crimes tribunals that often go unreported in favor of the next big story. The book's narrative is told through extensive interviews with victims and their perpetrators, whose views of justice range from the legal, to the passive, to the bloodiest forms of revenge.

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Our dinner with Elizabeth was not focused on war and foreign policy. We established our common ground by talking about the unique demands that professional lives place upon women, the trade-offs between work and family, singlehood versus motherhood, and the (sigh) single woman's dilemma of trying to date while trying to write. To hear the bullet-dodging reporter express her own struggles over life choices versus professional pursuits made her seem all the more approachable and human. She ultimately shared her excitement for getting back into the action, this time the Middle East, where the Iraq war was looming. One woman asked about her workplace hazards and Elizabeth said that covering wars and conflict was something exceedingly interesting and exciting. It was in her blood to do what she did.

Friday I learned that Elizabeth Neuffer was killed in a car accident, along with her translator Waleed, while on assignment covering the aftermath of the Iraqi war. Her story for the Boston Globe, due to be published Sunday, May 11, was about efforts underway to rid Iraq of the influence of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

Elizabeth Neuffer was a rare breed in journalism, according to Globe Publisher Richard Gilman, "among that cadre of reporters who are at their best when the danger is greatest. With virtually no regard for their personal safety, they feel compelled to be wherever in the world that news may be occurring." She was also a reporter who cared deeply about the people behind war crime statistics. This connection with war victims did not put her in the good graces of their willing executioners. In 1996, while interviewing a Bosnian Serb commander about the slaughtering of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica, the commander cautioned her that she was "asking too many dangerous questions." He added, "Truth is a dangerous thing." When she won the 1998 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, she explained her own philosophy of truth: "The truth may be hazardous to those who tell it, but truth is not dangerous, disinformation is. As I saw in Bosnia and Rwanda, it is propaganda that fans the flames of hatred."

On March 20, 2003, the day after the bombs began to fall over Baghdad, Elizabeth Neuffer was interviewed by Fresh Air's Terry Gross about her weeks spent in Baghdad before the start of the war. When asked by Gross whether or not Iraqis looked at the war as liberation or occupation, Neuffer responded, "Absolutely occupation, not liberation. And every time I hear the Bush Administration use the word 'liberation,' I must admit I wince because that is not the sense--that is not how they're perceived on the ground in Baghdad even by the Iraqis, as I said, who I got to know who are very critical of the regime. This is a very proud nation that looks to its past civilization, that looks to the fact that it invented handwriting. It sees itself as a historical player and does not want to be ruled by anyone else. And it's very important to remember that." She added, "I think that people in some quarters will be ecstatic to see Saddam Hussein removed from power, but I think they are deeply worried that those American troops are there to stay. They want to rule their own country. They're proud in the same way that Americans are, and you can imagine how we would react if a foreign country came here and said they were going to liberate us."

Too often in our haste to excoriate the media for going after the man bites dog story or the drippy celebrity news, we forget that there are journalists like Elizabeth Neuffer, who died in route to Baghdad from Tikrit, doing what was her calling, exemplifying the best that American journalism has to offer us. Those of us committed to bettering the world owe a debt of gratitude to those journalists on the frontlines who provide the stories we use to strengthen our case for social justice and human rights.

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