Voices

Too close for comfort

A story of intense personal interest becomes a national controversy

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

Every now and then, a major news story includes elements that strike a little too close to home. Such was the case with last week's controversy over questions addressed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the adequacy of equipment provided to our soldiers in Iraq.

The questions came from soldiers who had just arrived in Kuwait, and who were preparing to head into Iraq for a year of service. A couple of them asked Secretary Rumsfeld why their various vehicles were so poorly armored, especially in light of the repeated roadside bombings over the last year that have cost so many Americans their lives.

I listened to the story with special interest first of all because a member of my own church was badly injured 17 months ago in just such an incident. Roadside bombs exploded up through the floorboard of the Humvee Jonathan Pruden was driving. He has been fighting ever since not only to walk, but to avoid the threat of amputation.

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And I listened carefully as well because my own son-in-law recently departed for a year's duty in Iraq, and is an officer in the very 278th Regimental Combat Team from Tennessee's National Guard visited by Secretary Rumsfeld. When your daughter's husband, the father of five of your grandchildren, is part of the story, the account becomes very real.

So neither were we totally surprised to hear the concerns of the soldiers in the 278th about their vehicles. A full week earlier, their hometown newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, had carried a detailed story telling how resourceful and ingenious soldiers were rummaging in scrap heaps to find sheet metal and bullet-proof glass to weld and otherwise fasten to their Humvees, trucks, and various vehicles before convoying this past week into Iraq.

And that's where the story really began to get a little too close for comfort. For it also turned out that the writer of the Times Free Press article was intimately involved with the soldiers who asked what some people thought were overly impertinent questions of Mr. Rumsfeld. That reporter is a fellow by the name of Edward Lee Pitts-someone I predict you'll hear more of in journalistic circles in years ahead.

For several months, Mr. Pitts has not just covered the 278th from a reporter's distance. He is embedded with the unit, living with its 4,000 soldiers both in their stateside training and now in their actual deployment. So he has a vested interest in the safety of the equipment-and as a journalist, he was eager for that story to be told not just in the Chattanooga paper, but on a national scale.

Against that backdrop, concerned soldiers and Mr. Pitts learned that Mr. Rumsfeld would drop by their unit in Kuwait on Dec. 8. In a town-hall setting, soldiers-but not reporters-would be free to ask questions. So soldiers huddled with the reporter to decide how to ask the questions for maximum impact. Their success in achieving national coverage probably surprised them all.

It also infuriated some observers. Rush Limbaugh was quick to call the effort a display of "cheap theatrics, and part of an alleged plot to bring down the defense secretary." The Chattanooga paper got a flood of criticism, with strong suggestions that Mr. Pitts be fired.

In all candor, I have to tell you that if The New York Times or Dan Rather and CBS had been behind such an event, and if I had no other background information, I would probably have been equally upset.

But, in fact, for the last 40 years I've personally known the folks at the Chattanooga paper to be red, white, and blue patriotic people. And Mr. Pitts also happened to be someone whose work I had come to know and appreciate. In reading his dispatches over the last few weeks, I had remarked to others at his ability to balance deep appreciation for the military effort with a clear portrayal of war's dirty costs. He had, in fact, just a month earlier done a feature story about my son-in-law and what it meant to be gone from his family for a whole year.

So was my response colored by being that close to the story? You'd better believe it was. The whole circumstance was a reminder of how much blind trust we all tend to put in the storyteller - and how so many details, if only we could know them all, profoundly affect our perceptions as readers.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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