Fletcher discusses life as war correspondent

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

One might say that Martin Fletcher, the NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, like the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If,” has “walked with kings and never lost the common touch.”

Fletcher, who recently published Breaking News, an account of his three-decade career as a high-risk TV journalist in the Mideast and other dangerous hot spots, was a featured speaker last week at the 2008 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, where he was interviewed on stage by Mike Bush, News Anchor of KSDK-TV, Channel 5. Breaking News has won praise as a gripping memoir of his 35-year career as a TV reporter in the Middle East and other dangerous venues around the world.

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Fletcher has indeed “walked with kings,” along with prime ministers, war lords, Hamas leaders, Israeli prime ministers and countless “key players” across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, but he does not overlook the importance of human interest stories among more “ordinary” people outside the leadership circles of the Mideast and other regions he covers for his network.

In his book and in his responses to Mike Bush and the audience at his talk, Fletcher described his journey from “clueless young adventurer to grizzled veteran of the world’s battlefields,” often with a dry, self-effacing humor.

Among the dangerous assignments which Fletcher has taken on are: being the first TV journalist to set foot in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after 52 American hostages were taken in what would become a 444-day ordeal; covering the Second Intifada between Israel, Fatah and Hamas; interviewing Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the Somali warlord sought by the U.S. and its allies; live coverage of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia.

Fletcher, who has won five Emmys and numerous other prestigious awards for his journalism, resides in Tel Aviv with his wife, Hagar and their three children. Asked whether he ever has feared for his own safety in taking on so many dangerous assignments, Fletcher said that like any other parents living in Israel during the Second Intifada when suicide bombings were commonplace, “there were times when I kissed my kids goodbye as they got on a school bus not knowing what might happen to them, or what might happen to me as I went on my assignments.”

Fletcher’s determination to get the story is fueled in large part by the experiences of his family. Fletcher’s parents were Jewish refugees who fled to England from Vienna after the Nazis took over Austria in the Anschluss of 1938. After the war, Fletcher’s mother, Edith, learned that her own mother had died in a Nazi death camp, and his father, Georg would learn that his parents died at Auschwitz in 1942. Fletcher said that although his father lit memorial candles for his murdered family members, neither of his parents ever had “catharsis, there was no moment of healing.”

Fletcher brought along and showed on screen his latest feature from Israel, which was about a violin maker who carefully restored a violin which had been used by a Jewish boy during the Holocaust, which the audience found very moving. Fletcher also recalled that he asked his cameraman not to film a death scene from the killing fields of Rwanda “because they were too similar to the Holocaust.”

When asked whether he ever questioned if it was worth risking his life to interview terrorists in the aftermath of the grisly murder of Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal, Fletcher said smilingly, “Well, I never address my interview subjects as genocidal terrorist murders,” and then added that he felt it was part of his job to probe into the motives of all of the news-making figures in the Middle East even if that included personal risk and the knowledge that they would express their usual hateful rhetoric.

In his remarks, Fletcher described meeting Ariel Sharon during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, “when things were not going well for Israel. Sharon was determined to cross the Suez Canal even against the strong advice of others. Sharon even took a demotion in order to have the flexibililty to decide on his own to cross the Suez Canal and trap the Egyptian Army, which saved the day for Israel. Later, Moshe Dayan would comment that if Sharon had failed in his Suez Canal crossing, Sharon would have been ‘toast,’ but instead became the hero. As for me, I was very anxious to get my tape back to Tel Aviv.”

Fletcher said that although he had covered “extraordinary events, such as the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing and the end of Apartheid through Nelson Mandela in South Africa, some of my most meaningful stories were from ordinary people.”

He described a news photo of an Israeli soldier striking a Palestinian in the head, “after which I tracked them both down to get the perspectives of an Israeli soldier under pressure and a Palestinian with whom he had an encounter. We arranged for them to meet, and they actually became friends,” Fletcher said.

Asked how he could in good conscience accept food from a warlord like Mohammed Aidid in Somalia knowing that Aidid had probably stolen it from his own people, Fletcher, with his dry humor on display said, “Well, if the food is good, you eat it.”

Mike Bush, who missed his 6 p.m. broadcast on KSDK, Channel 5 to interview Fletcher at the JCC, said “it is a tremendous honor to be with one of our most respected network colleagues who is such a credit to our profession.”