Dan Eldon was young, beautiful, dashing, insouciant and cosmopolitan. Raised in Kenya in the Ngong country made famous by Isak Dinesen, he embarked on wild trans-African journeys, bounced around a few American colleges and tried his hand as a war photographer with Reuters. In 1993, Eldon was killed at the hands of a mob in Mogadishu, Somalia. He was 22 years old. This Friday, Oct. 1, Eldon's life and death in his vocation will be the centerpiece of a day-long executive seminar on the UNC campus. The seminar, entitled "Journalism and Trauma: Dying to Tell the Story," was organized by two academics with overlapping interests, Dr. Harold Kudler of Duke University and Dr. Tom Linden, who directs the medical journalism program at UNC's journalism school.
Linden was approached by Kudler, a nationally known specialist on post-traumatic stress disorder, about combining their expertise to study the effects of natural and man-made trauma on the reporters who cover it. The time seemed ripe for such a symposium, given the extraordinary perils foreign correspondents face in a world of terrorism and the war against it, kidnappings and genocide.
"We're being inundated with beheadings readily viewable on the Internet and referenced in mainstream media," says Linden. "Everyone can relate to it, but how much of it should the public be exposed to? How much do they deserve to be shielded from this?"
On Friday, Linden and Kudler will moderate two morning panel discussions--which are intended for working journalists and students--before the seminar concludes at 2 p.m. with a free public screening of Dying to Tell the Story. Panel participants will include NPR's Daniel Zwerdling, Pentagon media officer Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, Emmy-winning CBS correspondent W. Randall Pinkston and others.
Dying to Tell the Story was produced in 1998 by Kathy Eldon, Dan's mother, and is hosted and narrated by his younger sister Amy. The film, which was nominated for an Emmy in 1998, is more than a film about Eldon, whose career as a journalist was quite short. Using his life and death as a framing device, the documentary is equally valuable for its portraits of some of the world's most famous war journalists, including CNN's Christiane Amanpour and the BBC's Martin Bell (who claims that the journalists who get killed tend to be either young like Eldon or old-timers who finally run out of luck).
All of the journalists in the film strive to debunk the popular notion of war journalists as global catastrophe cowboys. One of them, an obviously haunted Spaniard named Carlos Mavroleon, discusses his inability to maintain romantic relationships when he was constantly running out the door on short notice, "with a wad of cash and an aeroplane ticket to hell." Still, he admits, "I [always] left with a smile on my face."
Shortly after the film's release, Mavroleon died in Peshawar, Pakistan. The official cause of death was a drug overdose but Kathy Eldon maintains that the circumstances are murky. "He was there to track down a totally unknown man at that time: Osama bin Laden." Although Mavroleon had a history of drug problems, she says, "he hadn't been doing drugs for months or even years."
"He was one of the main guys in our film because he was really bang-bang," says Eldon, who works, often with daughter Amy, on a variety of film, book, television and Internet peace and spirituality projects through Creative Visions, her Los Angeles-based production company. One big, ongoing project is a feature film based on her son's life called The Journey is the Moment. "We've been talking to Orlando Bloom," Eldon says. "We'll see if he wants to do it."
The most moving witness in Dying to Tell the Story is a London-based journalist named Mohammed Shaffi, who was the sole survivor of the mob attack that killed Dan Eldon and three other journalists. In the film, Amy Eldon eventually seeks out Shaffi to accompany her to Somalia and walk her through her brother's final hours. Although Shaffi had cheated death many times, he breaks down on camera as he discusses that 1993 encounter with a mob, enraged by an attack by a Black Hawk helicopter. Shaffi was shot several times and badly beaten and stoned, according to Kathy Eldon, and only avoided the coup de grace by shouting that he was a Muslim. (Shaffi, too, is dead. In early 2001, he succumbed to a massive heart attack in a Jerusalem hotel. "A broken heart" is Kathy Eldon's diagnosis.)
Elsewhere in the film, viewers get a delicious glimpse of a reporter getting into an American president's face, as when Christiane Amanpour, exhausted and furious after covering the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s to little international notice, memorably confronted Bill Clinton on television in 1994. (She even called him a flip-flopper.)
For Tom Linden, Friday's seminar provides an important opportunity to turn the spotlight back on journalists themselves, people whose psychic health is generally overlooked even when it should be obvious that such prolonged exposure to human terror and misery is quite harmful.
While Dr. Kudler's focus will be on PTSD, Linden will concentrate on the proper balance between the public's need to know and gratuitous exhibitionism. He thinks the news coverage from Iraq has been erratic for a variety of reasons, not all of them sinister or conspiratorial.
"We're not being shown a lot," Linden says. "There's the problem of access: Arab journalists are able to get around more easily." But, Linden goes on to say, "I believe the American media exercises a lot of self-censorship. They limit what they show."
Not all self-censorship bothers Linden. "We're being shielded from [gory images of] terrorist attacks and beheadings, which may be a good thing." In the place of sensationalistic images of individual atrocities, Linden says, "the important thing is maintain the big picture."
Linden acknowledges that he hunted down one Internet beheading video, "partly just to see that it's really there. I'm sorry I saw it, because I can't get it out of my head. Yet millions around the world saw it."
Despite the timid reporting by mainstream television outlets, Linden is generally optimistic that the reporting is getting through. "They can't sugarcoat it anymore," he says. "The truth about what's happening in Iraq is coming out. We have reporters to thank for that."
"If there hadn't been great reporting from Vietnam, 100,000 would have died instead of 50,000," Linden says, while conceding that today's mainstream media is much more deferential to the interests of the military and the executive branch. The aggressive reporting, he says, "is not happening through Vietnam channels but through other channels [such as the Internet]."
"Cognitive dissonance is happening--the difference between what you hear and what you see," Linden says. "Will it shorten the war? We don't know. It's pretty hard to close the floodgates."
"I have a lot of respect for people trying to tell the story and how important it is," Linden says. "But it's not Hollywood. People die. We need to honor them by reading their stories."
Eldon, who knows this better than anyone, agrees. "If they're going to risk their lives, we have to pay attention," she says. "Sometimes we have reader fatigue, but if we turn off the TV or put down the paper, we won't help our leaders make better decisions."
"Trauma in Journalism: Dying to Tell the Story" will take place in Carroll Hall on the UNC Campus. For more information on the conference program, visit www.jomc.unc.edu/executive education/trauma or call 966-7024.