I’ll tell you a little story about Bob Simon, the veteran CBS News correspondent who was killed Wednesday night in a car crash after having survived innumerable wars over five decades.
At age 49 in early 1991, Simon was dispatched to cover the Persian Gulf War, but he disliked the Pentagon’s ground rules. Reporters had to travel with military escorts to pre-approved locations, and all their reports had to be ‘’reviewed” by officers in the field. As I wrote at the time - I was assigned full-time to cover the censorship issue - these were “the most restrictive rules of any modern U.S. war.” In one instance, when a reporter wanted to describe the U.S. Air Force pilots as “giddy,” and the censors insisted that the word be changed to “proud.”
Bob Simon refused to abide by these rules, which successfully sanitized most of the coverage. He thought the public had the right to know what was really going on. And so, accompanied by a producer, a cameraman, and a soundman, he took off on his own, breaching a border between Saudi Arabia and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. But Saddam Hussein’s soldiers arrested and shipped them to an infamous Baghdad jail.
Simon was starved by his captors, and beaten with canes and truncheons. His mouth was pried open so his captors could spit in it. He later recalled, “We got beaten up a lot, and badly, but in my mind, I found I reached a certain accommodation with the beatings. Your instinct immediately afterward is to check, ‘Can I see? Can I hear? Am I OK in the vital parts?’”
He had no idea how the war was going. He was convinced that he would be executed, that his captors saw him not as an American hostile or even as a suspected spy, but as a Jew. “It was not out of anti-Semitism per se, but once they knew I was Jewish, it was just beyond the range of their imagination that a Jew who would cross the line into Iraqi-held territory could be a bona fide journalist working for an American news organization,” Simon acknowledged in an interview.
Simon was freed after 40 days - whereupon he went back into the field. He had been covering wars since the late 1960s, when he was beaten by Northern Ireland extremists, and he wasn’t about to change. He covered wars in Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Yugoslavia, and the U.S. actions in Grenada, Somalia and Haiti. He covered the latter stage of America’s losing effort in Vietnam - at one point, reporting on the deaths of child refugees in Quang Tri Province, he finished with, “There’s nothing left to say about this war. There’s just nothing left to say” - and he hitched a ride on one of the last U.S. helicopters leaving Saigon in 1975. As a foreign bureau chief, he chose to live in Tel Aviv, and joked that “I’m probably the only journalist who goes there to relax.”
He won 25 Emmys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and he had corporate courage as well. In 1988, at a time when CBS Sports had a lucrative deal with the Olympic Committee to cover the winter games in Nagano, Japan, Simon did a CBS News report about how chicanery and bribes had inspired the awarding of the winter games to Nagano, Japan.
Jeff Fagler, his executive producer at 60 Minutes, summed it up Wednesday night: “Bob was a reporter’s reporter. He was driven by a natural curiosity. It is such a tragedy made worse because we lost him in a car accident, a man who has escaped more difficult situations than almost any journalist in modern times.”
A reporter’s reporter...That’s the key descriptive. Because for every Brian Williams, for every fabulist like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, there are unsung scads of journalists who play the game right. Let Bob Simon’s extraordinary life and career serve as a reminder.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org