Speaking to The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz recently, ABC’s Bob Woodruff talked about the fact that he planned to continue to report from the field as coanchor of World News Tonight. "The great danger is to overemphasize the story simply because the anchor is there," Woodruff told Kurtz.
The anchor became the story yesterday when Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were seriously injured by a bomb blast on the road in Iraq. In a war that has already claimed over 2,000 American lives, and whose casualties have often receded deep into newscasts and newspaper layouts, Woodruff’s injury was instantly front-page news.
It was understandably so. First, of course, there is the simple celebrity factor: Woodruff may have been a new anchor, but he still remained a face millions of Americans watched each day. And crass as it may be to think of so soon, his injury, especially if it keeps him incapacitated for some time, puts ABC in an unexpected situation by leaving Elizabeth Vargas as a relatively untested solo anchor, at a time when the network anchor business is already in flux. (And, to be more crass, when ABC had already lost viewers after the departure and death of Peter Jennings.)
But more than that, Woodruff’s wounding was unsettling because we perceive a certain halo of invulnerability around public figures, even in war zones. His injury hit almost likee an assassination attempt. Yes, he took a risk, and knowingly so, traveling with an Iraqi military unit. But he was an anchor; he was an American; he was supposed to be untouchable. His being struck down can’t help make the situation in Iraqâ€”and the status of the transfer of power to Iraqisâ€”seem more chaotic and deadly. American celebrity is not a flak jacket, but when it is pierced, the result is even more chilling.
Proportionally, this war has been much more dangerous for journalists than other ones; nearly as many journalists have died covering it as died in all of Vietnam. But the challenge for Woodruff’s colleagues in the media will beâ€”just as Woodruff cautionedâ€”not to let the story of the man overshadow the story of the war. Journalists are not famous for having a sense of perspective about ourselves: we make it front-page news when one of our stars is in danger of losing his job, let alone in mortal danger.
The aftermath of the bombing may prove productive for a news corps that has had difficulty keeping Iraq on the front burner as the war dragged on. As Woodruff recuperates in Germany, for instance, it will almost inevitably produce renewed interest, not just on ABC, in the number of soldiers that face difficult recoveries from battlefield injuries.
But the rest of us will do well to remember that, celebrity or not, Woodruff was one casualty among thousands. As Tom Brokaw noted on MSNBC this morning, military families face "this uncertainty, this anxiety and in too many cases, this loss every day. Just because it’s one of our colleagues, we can’t forget those people who have men and women in uniform in harm’s way." One suspects that, once he got well enough to say so, Woodruff would be the first to agree.