Strangers On a Train

Just about two weeks ago, CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier was on an Amtrak train out of New York, headed to visit her family near Baltimore. Today, I suspect, she’s glad she made that trip, an aside to an around-the-world from a wedding in Bali to back to her job in Baghdad.

It was a crowded train and I happened to sit next to Dozier in one of those odd moments where life plays a sly joke that you can feel but not quite get. The punch-line comes a few days, weeks later. Dozier’s glossy blue-and-white business card, her name in Arabic on one side, in English on the other, sits here today on my desk – I mean to send her a “glad to meet you email” any minute now. I’m a little late, of course. Today, she lies critically injured in a U.S Army hospital, the latest celebrity casualty (although I’m not sure she would think that’s an accurate description) of the U.S. war in Iraq. She has leg injuries and head wounds. Her condition is critical.

My pals on the right like to claim that Iraqi insurgents bomb U.S. targets so those of us here at home will fall for “propaganda” or defeatist tales that give comfort to the enemy. Well, after a couple hours of talking with Kimberly Dozier, I’m not so sure about that. She was not someone anxious to become a martyr. She was savvy, tough and smart. She could sleep anywhere and she could step gracefully over sleeping travel companions – the sort of skills you develop out of habit and courtesy, not out of sloth and selfishness. She was also very clear on a few things about her job and her role as an U.S. newsperson in the Middle East. Among them: the war wasn’t going well and, for the most part, the stories Americans were getting via their TV news weren’t the whole story. They were telling simple, easy-to-understand stories. And, even then, it wasn’t an easy story to tell.

I asked Dozier if she knew Chris Albritton – the Time magazine correspondent who ran his own Iraqi-based web site. Dozier said “no” but was careful to say that TV folks and print folks rarely saw each other. It was, she said, far more dangerous for TV people – with their U.S. press affiliations – to travel around Iraq. They were more constrained, more careful, more at risk, she said because of their equipment, their trucks and the difficulty they had blending in.

This is what, as Chris Albritton is pointing out today, bloggers forget about war coverage; it’s not easy. It’s a constant dance between what story you want to get, what you need and what you can get as a stranger in a strange – or hostile – land. As Matt Bai points out in Sunday’s Times magazine, many of those who are raising their voices so vehemently, so hotly, are really politicians – not journalists. And meeting women like Kimberly Dozier brings that home to me again and again.

Dozier had a few more observations. Jill Carroll, the young girl kidnapped then released by insurgents, was probably the real deal; not a set-up, just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She asked if Katie Couric would last in her job as CBS’s evening anchor. I said, I doubted it. We, women reporters of what they like to call a “certain age,” sighed. We talked about CBS’ demographic – older and getting even older – and what that meant for reporting and for women on-air. We gossiped a bit…the usual stuff.

I have been a journalist all my life and I can only barely see the reasons reporters go to places like Baghdad. It’s a career-maker, yes. But in an era where the good will of this nation has no credibility and where the press is under attack by our own government, you have to wonder if that career is worth a life. It’s not an easy question to answer; it’s not a simple calculation to make. If you love reporting – and to go to Baghdad again and again, you must love it – there are no easy answers, not quick outs, no tried-and-true shortcuts. The business is simply too competitive, your time too limited, the stories too hard to get and too easy to see.

Kimberly Dozier struck me as someone who was dedicated to her job but also as someone who was tired – bone tired – of how that job was going. But she also clearly understood the risks. She talked about them with intelligence and experience.

“Safe journey,” she said before she got off the train in Baltimore. “As if I need your good wishes,” I remember thinking. But I said, in turn, sincerely, “travel safe.” It is unfortunate that we – all of us – often have only words to protect us.