Shining a light on truth, at any cost

Far-right figures echo Kremlin talking points as journalists die covering the war in Ukraine

Reporters watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s virtual address to Congress in the Capitol Visitor Center on March 16, 2022. While the overall public approves of measures the U.S. is taking to counter Russia's war on Ukraine, a partisan divide is looming, writes John T. Bennett. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Reporters watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s virtual address to Congress in the Capitol Visitor Center on March 16, 2022. While the overall public approves of measures the U.S. is taking to counter Russia's war on Ukraine, a partisan divide is looming, writes John T. Bennett. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2022 at 6:00am

Brent Renaud was an award-winning journalist, a documentary filmmaker and photographer, whose work took him around the country and the world, where he covered an earthquake in Haiti, cartel violence in Mexico and, in a Vice News series titled “Last Chance High,” a therapeutic school in Chicago. He won a prestigious Peabody Award for that last project in 2015. And, this past weekend, while chronicling the experiences of refugees and migrants, Renaud was shot and killed in Irpin, Ukraine.

Though I never met Renaud, I admired his work, and I appreciated an experience we both shared, a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, a magical year of learning and sharing with top journalists from around the world. During his Nieman year, Renaud “studied the effects of trauma and mental and emotional illness on rates of poverty and violence in America,” according to a story on the Nieman website.

Renaud’s Nieman classmate, visual journalist Juan Arredondo, who was on assignment with him, was wounded in the attack.

“This kind of attack is totally unacceptable and is a violation of international law,” Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in response to the violent attacks.

Nieman curator Ann Marie Lipinski said: “Brent’s filmmaking was exceptional and what made it so was not just his abundant skill but a kindness and deep humanity he brought to his work,” a sentiment echoed by his fellow 2019 colleagues and classmates. “He told us that what he sought in his journalism was ‘thoughtful stories about disenfranchised people,’ and he lived up to that credo every day,” Lipinski said.

It’s a perspective valuable for any person, particularly any and every journalist.

In my 2006 year as a Nieman, I remember being energized by the daily interactions with gifted and hard-working journalists from around the world who cared deeply about reporting the truth. Some, like Renaud, ventured into dangerous places cautiously, but with commitment and a mission.

It is a mission that today is meeting war head-on, one being fought with bombs and bullets — and disinformation.

In a virtual address Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to Congress with an eye toward another audience, listeners in America and across the globe.

Along with pleas for a “no-fly” zone and fighter jets, Zelenskyy showed graphic video of Russian attacks on his country. But those images won’t be seen nor truthful reporting heard in Russia, not officially, anyway, where President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that criminalizes anything that veers from his narrative, the one that paints Russia as a liberator, denies the killings of civilians and bans the use of the word “war.”

The irony is that Putin’s version of his truth is being echoed by some far-right voices, including in this country, and it wouldn’t be the first time the Russian leader has found support here.

In 2018, Donald Trump famously took the word of the former KGB officer over that of the U.S. intelligence community on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and this year the former president called Putin’s Ukraine strategy “savvy,” before backing off the praise as eyewitness reporting reflected the brutality of the invasion. This past weekend, Trump told a radio host that he saw “a lot of love” behind Putin’s attempt to rebuild the Soviet Union.

In contrast, one Russian television employee, Marina Ovsyannikova, risked retribution with her on-air slap against the war as she held a sign telling viewers not to believe her own station’s propaganda. She is already paying the price in fines, and who knows what comes next.

Since Renaud was killed, the casualty list for journalists has grown. Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, just 24 years old, and Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, 55, were killed in Gorenka, outside Kyiv, in a shelling, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Benjamin Hall of Fox News was injured.

Of course, those bearing the highest costs for this war are the Ukrainians. They have been bombed and killed in their homes and hospitals, and survivors must decide whether it’s safer to stay put or to pack everything they can carry and strike out to an uncertain future. And for Russian and Ukrainian journalists, as well as human rights activists on the ground, the risk is a regular part of the job.

That the world has seen the pictures and heard their accounts only highlights the essential work of journalists willing to risk their lives in conflict zones, work that I am grateful for though I can’t say I have the courage to join them.

This war is on the record, and the world can’t look away.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.