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Even as the World Watched II: Tasting the Kool-Aid

Photo Caption: Bangkok, May 2010

Thai TV 3 was targeted and the building burned.

“At least 27 buildings and locations were on fire as of 9 p.m. local time, including the Thai TV 3 building, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, Siam Theatre, several banks and part of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, officials said.”

Noppatjak Attanon (blue shirt) spent some time in America and played football in high school.  Noppatjak was among many courageous Thai journalists who got close enough to get burned.  Ultimately it’s probably far more dangerous for Thai journalists than for foreign correspondents, though foreign correspondents were taking casualties. Noppatjak is famous in Thailand and he works at “The Nation” which was also specifically threatened by militants.  I went to their offices to be interviewed and soldiers were guarding it against attack.  I spent some time with Noppatjak on the street.  He is instantly recognized.  Journalism can at times be more dangerous than soldiering.

Nothing is more powerful than still photography, though in the journalism world, photographers are often deemed the lowest rung.  “Shooters” are often seen as fungible and hirable like taxis.  Yet the truly top-notched shooters, that top percent, are not fungible, and can be a force unto themselves.  Still photography is—in my opinion as a writer—by far the most powerful and versatile method to convey powerful messages quickly and broadly.  Nothing else comes close.  Not video, not writing, not portraiture or radio or telephone interviews.  Still photography is the Big Gun of war reporting.

And yet the snobs are often the writers, who might view themselves as intellectually superior, but who when teamed up with a top-grade photographer can literally, without exaggeration, affect battlefields as would the most powerful generals.  Nevertheless, photographers generally are seen as sidekicks, supporting actors, and downrange you might hear a journalist quip, “Oh yes, the Shooters are first to the bar and last out.”  (While the writers plug away at their stories and wrestle with editors.)

Battlefield television is usually not the most powerful, but can be the most dangerous.  The crews often are larger, the gear is bigger, and during shooting (and SHOOTING!) they often try to linger on a scene to get the full effect.  Videographers must focus on the gear.  Experienced military Combat Camera folks will tell you that your chances of getting killed on the battlefield multiply when you start shooting video.  It’s true.  Also, that big camera gear often can look like a weapon, like a rocket launcher, and this can be especially so during the dramas of heavy fighting which include smoke, fire, darkness, extremely loud noises, sweat in the eyes, screaming, fear and lots of adrenaline and some guy who pokes around a corner from within the “enemy” positions and he has something on his shoulder and BAM BAM BAM BAM.  Dead.  Then comes the report, “Government security forces are believed responsible for killing of a cameraman…”

Sometimes nobody is really responsible.  Sometimes the surfer gets bashed on the rocks, the rocket explodes, or the climber is swept away in an avalanche.  It just is.

Never know where correspondents have been.  Last week they might have been reviewing restaurants when action came to their neighborhood, or they might have seen a dozen conflicts and sailed the seven seas.  As the years unfold, some of the most interesting people I meet are the experienced international correspondents, while others give the feeling they are running from child support.

Unidentified journalist taking local transport into the Red Shirt camp.

Some people blamed many journalists for catching a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” inside the Red Shirt camp, and some of them did in fact seem to drink the Kool-Aid.  “Drink the Kool-Aid” is American slang meaning they blindly believe what are told.  The term is derived from an American cult leader named Jim Jones who persuaded about 900 people to commit suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, and if you pay close attention you’ll often hear it around U.S. politics, or in military circles.  Even while grenades were being fired and dozens of buildings were ablaze in Bangkok, some journalists continued to spout that the protestors were peaceful and unarmed.  They were drinking the Kool-Aid.

The Reds were getting much favorable press, and so nearly all of them seemed to be extra polite and friendly with journalists which creates its own cycle.  Meanwhile, the police and Army were being polite, respectful and professional, yet not offering lunch and soft drinks.  (Of course.)  If the military offered gratuities, likely we would view it with cynicism, but when protestors did the same, it was a sign of friendliness.  I sensed that part of the friendliness was just normal Thai culture, but there also was extra-friendliness toward people with cameras.  Some of the journalists truly seemed to fall for it.  Hook, line and sinker.  Others seemed to go with the flow—keeping in mind that editors in Berlin, London and New York have strong say in their stories and if Iraq taught me anything about journalists and journalism it was that distant editors set the tone for most publications.  After the acceptable white lines of a narrative are painted, few people stray from the path.

Humans see what we expect to see, and there is no doubt that many people expected to see an Asian government using a sickening amount of force to quell dissent.  We expected to see that.  But that’s not what actually happened.  Not at all.

[More to follow.]

Please click here to read Even as the World Watched: Part I


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