August 5, 2005

Remembering Freelance Reporter Steven Vincent — One of a Kind

By Sandy Close

Steven Vincent, a U.S. freelancer kidnapped and executed in Basra on August 2, was one of a kind. For Americans trying to make sense of the war in Iraq, that’s precisely the problem.

Almost all American journalists covering Iraq these days are embedded with the U.S. military. Traveling through the country alone, as Vincent did on his reporting assignments, is “too damn dangerous,” says Joel Simon, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 52 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, the majority of them Iraqis and Arabs, according to the CPJ. Vincent is believed to be the first non-embedded U.S. journalist intentionally slain in Iraq.

Vincent was on his way back to Iraq for his latest writing project when I met him several months ago on a plane trip from New York to San Francisco. He had the window seat next to my middle seat. I noticed him because he devoured the Sunday New York Times. As a longtime editor and newspaper junkie, I was elated to see someone absorb words off the printed page. I asked him what in the paper he was most interested in, and he started talking about Iraq.

Vincent was a passionate defender of the U.S. war, which he saw as the only chance to bring democracy to Iraq. He said there was a “silent majority” in the country — Iraqis who were grateful for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and still supported U.S. efforts in Iraq, but were afraid to say so. He objected to the term “insurgents” — he preferred “terrorists” — and felt that use of the term demonstrated the media’s liberal bias. He was especially passionate about women’s rights.

When I asked him about his sense of the dangers for a freelance reporter who refused to “embed” with the U.S. military, he said two things: that it was essential to capture day-to-day life as Iraqis lived it, and that he didn’t want to discuss the threats.

Vincent was found shot to death in the southern port city of Basra. His Iraqi interpreter was also shot and injured. A former art critic, Vincent had published a well-received book on the Iraq war, “In the Red Zone,” and had just published a column in the Sunday New York Times. He had spent several months in Basra gathering material for a book he planned write on the history of the city.

Vincent financed his own reporting projects, and had learned enough Arabic, he told me, to “get by.” His fervor reminded me of alternative media journalists I knew in the late 1960s and early ’70s who scoured Indochina for Dispatch and my own news service to tell Americans the “other side” of the conflict — the stories that weren’t based on official U.S. sources.

As support for the war in Iraq wanes, Vincent felt compelled to tell what he saw as the “other side” of the story — the necessity of U.S. troops defending Iraqis’ right to freedom. On a public radio program produced by my news service, Vincent said “the Iraqi people were just overjoyed that the monster (Hussein) is gone from power. But at the same time they are humiliated they couldn’t bring the tyrant’s downfall themselves... And this humiliation can easily morph into resentment every time a Humvee rumbles down a Baghdad street or traffic gets tied up at a GI checkpoint.”

In my conversations with him, Vincent revealed himself as an effective proponent of the Bush message on the war in Iraq. As long as Iraq is too dangerous for reporters like Steven Vincent to cover on their own, Americans will have no access to the kind of news that would let us know whether he was right or wrong.

Sandy Close is executive director of Pacific News Service and New California Media, an association of over 700 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996.

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