Sharing a moment in time with broadcast legend Martin Fletcher at the New Orleans JCC
One of my journalistic heroes came into town last night. Martin Fletcher, the lanky NBC correspondent who has covered conflicts in the Middle East, wars in Afghanistan, scourges in Africa and a host of other unsettling news events wheeled into New Orleans as part of the Jewish Community Center's 10th annual "People of the Book" Bookfest. Fletcher, whose hard-cover edition of "Breaking News" was released last year was not able to fit New Orleans in on his vacation schedule from NBC, having to stick to major cities in the initial push for publicity in 2008. This year, however, he made two stops at the two cities where I spent a significant time in my life. Last week it was Cleveland and last night he was here. Speaking with a very proper British accent, Fletcher charmed his audience with a number of "war" stories, some of which involved him and his crews in genuine danger. His ready wit had many in attendance laughing along with him as he recounted small instances in his long career, which at the time seemed anything but funny. Following a stint as an editor at the London Times, Fletcher opted to become a television reporter. Initially he signed on as a cameraman. One of those early stories involved his work as a pool cameraman during the 1973 "Yom Kippur" war in Israel when he and his colleagues riding in an armored personnel carrier were attacked in a bombing and strafing run by an Egyptian plane. As Fletcher related, he was traveling with Horst Faas, a Pulizer Prize winning photographer who had been cited for his previous superb work under fire. Faas and others sought refuge inside the vehicle through a turret. Fletcher was unable to join them because there was no space left inside. So, being the good broadcast journalist that he was, he started shooting his film camera. Even though the vehicle was driving erratically and in a serpentine pattern, he stood firm and watched through the lens as the MiG came back for two more attempts to dispatch their vehicle. Just as Fletcher and the others feared the worst, the Egyptian pilot flew straight up, pursued by an Israeli fighter, which shot him down in a haze of black smoke a few moments later. Faas hadn't even shot a single frame of film, but Fletcher had recorded it all. Afterwards, he told Fletcher it was by far and away the most dangerous event of his life, but Fletcher being naive or, perhaps, naturally calm under pressure, caught what turned out to be one of the most incredible exchanges of fire in that conflict. It was to be an indicator of much of what he was capable of doing in the coming decades. Although he stated he lived in Paris for two years early in his career, NBC kept him on the road in Afghanistan, the Middle East and other places for all but 42 days during that time. Eventually, he married an Israeli woman he literally "picked up" on the street, came to live just north of Tel Aviv and raised his family there. To hear Fletcher tell it, his job is unlike any of his adult counterparts in Israel. When the two intifadas were ongoing and prior to the security wall going up, Fletcher would put his children on school buses every morning fearing for the lives of his sons that they would not suffer at the hands of a terrorist or suicide bomber. Then, he would travel to the West Bank and interview some of the very same people who might very well be launching such attacks. Throughout his credit and much to his credit, Fletcher managed to interview both sides of a story and come away with a fair and objective report. The result was that neither the Israelis or the Palestinians came to see his reports as particularly biased. He didn't make any friends with right-wing Israelis nor was he embraced by hardliners in the Palestine Liberation Organization. The human factor of his stories has become more important to Fletcher and to support that he played videos of some of his more recent reports. A story on a young, determined AIDS victim in Africa, whose parents were lost to the disease and who was once close to death herself was riveting. Another report showed a violin from World War II that had belonged to a young Jewish violinist forced to play for Nazi officers and their ladies at a night club. Plotting his revenge, the violinist stashed a cache of explosives over a period of a year or more and used them to kill 200 of his captors before he himself was captured and executed. His violin was restored in Israel and played by famous Israeli violinist Shlomo Mintz at Aushwitz as Fletcher recounted the compelling event. Proudly, Fletcher admits he is less interested these days in covering an event or a story, but more interested in coming to know the people involved and telling their story. All in all, "Breaking News" is a good read, but Fletcher is an effective speaker and a vaulted personality worthy of respect in the field of broadcast journalism. He is less anxious these days to cover a war or conflict as he might have done in Rwanda or Kosovo. Still, that sounds to me like the wisdom of his years finally caught up to the recklessness of his youth. Martin Fletcher is a hero for these and many other reasons. An audience member revealed how surprised she was to learn that Fletcher is the son of Holocaust survivors from Vienna and that in all of his reports across the globe from Israel and afar, she had no idea he was Jewish. That's an incredible compliment to any reporter that is seeking the truth. He is a great broadcast journalist and now he is an author of great merit. I look forward to his new book on Israel, which he says is already at his publisher's offices. Perhaps next year we in New Orleans will be lucky enough to be on the first publicity tour for that tome. If not, there's always the paperback tour in 2011.