Jon Alpert’s Acceptance Speech – Part IV

CAUTION: Jon Alpert’s powerful films contain images, including scenes of human suffering and death, that may be disturbing to some people. This material is not suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Jon Alpert: With the GE regime, things began to get really tight for me. I’m the only independent reporter in commercial television. Everybody else is on staff. Everybody follows the rules. I’m in my community center downtown with my wife and training high school students. It was two different worlds. So, when the bell started ringing around the world, it wasn’t me that got to go answer it.

The first Gulf War was about ready to start. I’ve got my hand in the air. By this time, I’m a pretty seasoned war reporter. I was terrible in the beginning, but I’ve been to a lot of wars by this particular point. And when I’m watching the early videotapes where the generals were up there with their pointer and every missile precisely hits its target and they ask the general had there ever been one missile that didn’t hit its target. He said, “No. Absolutely perfect accuracy and there is nobody dying in this war. There is no blood and everything looks like a TV game.” I said that this isn’t right. This isn’t like any war that I’ve ever seen. They said, “Sit down, Jon. This isn’t your war. Stay home.”

When the bombing in Bagdad started, all of the correspondence left except Peter Arnett and this created a vacuum. I said to NBC, “I can get in.” I didn’t know if I could or not, but I told them I could. They said, if you can get in, go. So, we arrive in Baghdad. Peter Arnett was very unhappy to see us. You in the news business know how competitive it is. He is there by himself and he knows who we are. The censorship in Iraq at that time was the most severe that I’d ever encountered. When you come in, they hand you three pages of rules. You can’t shoot from a moving car. You can’t turn your camera on without permission. You can’t turn it off without permission. You can’t shoot military buildings. You can’t shoot governmental workers. You can’t shoot mosques. You couldn’t shoot anything.

And Peter Arnett was doing live reports, mostly just stand-ups in the garden and didn’t leave the hotel—Had a censor sitting there next to him and he certainly wasn’t—He is a great reporter, very, very brave and courageous. He knows how to dig his heels in in all sorts of war situations, but he wasn’t going to get himself kicked out of Iraq.

We wanted to break those rules. It took us three days and finally we figured out through secret coughs and all sorts of tricks that we had learned over the years how to shoot what was really happening in Iraq. After three days, we had broken, I would say, every single rule on that paper and had very good documentation that this was not a war without blood. This was a real war where people died and people suffered and when we go to war it is important for the American people to know what is happening.

So, this is an example of the report that we filmed in Baghdad.

[Video plays]: Baghdad 1991
- This is my house. This is my brother’s house.
- Uh-oh, another air raid is starting. [Sirens] Can you hear the sirens?
- Yes, I hear.
- Was anyone hurt in your family?
- No, just wounded two babies.
- Your babies are wounded?
- My [neighbor] died, too.
  [Child talking] [Indiscernible]
- What is she saying, doctor?
- She is saying I am suffering, actually. Don’t let me suffer more.
- Do you have painkillers for her?
- No, we have no painkillers for her.
  [Child] [Indiscernible] [Female screaming.]
- (Doctor) She lost her baby because of the shortage of medicine and [inaudible]. It affects everybody and she is screaming because her baby has died.
  [Baby crying]
- What is going to happen to this kid, doctor?
- I think that he is going to die in a day or two.
  [Female speaking another language].
- I can do nothing for them because you know it is very difficult.
- So, they ask for your help?
- And I can’t afford the help. That is it.
- This is another one?
- Yes.
- Is this baby going to die also?
- Of course. It is going to die maybe in an hour. This is another kid who is suffering from malnutrition and actually unnourished and look at him. He can’t, you know, shout because he has not enough energy. He is, of course, going to die again in two or three days.
- So, he is trying to cry.
- Yes, but he couldn’t.
Jon Alpert:[In those days, we were shooting with little tiny tapes and I] put the tapes in my sock. [Sorry, my mother is telling me that I better be next to the microphone. Thanks.] I put the tapes in my sock and snuck them out of the country. You told the story of how we arrived in NBC with this report. It was scheduled to go on the evening news and three hours before, I was brought in and told that it was not going to be broadcast and I was fired. So, I was standing down in Rockefeller Center down by where that nice skating rink is and holding the tape in my hand and wondering what I was going to do. Over the past thirteen years, every time I had had some scoop on, CBS used to call and they used to swear at me. “You son of a bitch! How come you are with that third rate network? Next time you have a report, you bring it over to us.” And I never went to them because NBC was always very loyal and would be the only place that would broadcast it, but I figured I’d call them up.

So, they said to come on over and show us the tape. So, I showed it to them and they said this is amazing and nobody knows about this and we are going to broadcast this tomorrow. It is going to be the lead story on the evening news. Welcome aboard to CBS and glad to have you on the team. They were going to send over one of their senior producers the next morning to just help edit a couple of things and we are sitting around and the guy never shows up. So, I started to get worried and I called up and I asked for the president of CBS News, the guy that had approved this. They said, “Oh, you didn’t hear? Two o’clock in the morning, he got a phone call and he got fired.”

It was just clear to everybody in the news business that this tape was not going to be seen in the United States during the war—and it wasn’t. It was broadcast all over the world and we got all sorts of nice prizes and stuff like that, but there is more than one part of reporting. It is out getting the story, but if nobody gets to see it and you are just chopping down trees in the forest, we failed. We did not do our job as reporters because we never brought this story and these pictures in front of the American people and nobody saw it.

Luckily for us, we are blacklisted to public television now, blacklisted at commercial television. There really weren’t a lot of places that we could go and luckily for us, we had come to the attention of HBO and Sheila Nevins at HBO and they began broadcasting our documentaries—a documentary every year or every year and a half. We really wanted to do a documentary about this current war in Iraq. We didn’t know how to do it. We thought maybe we wanted to do something about military medicine because there were supposed to be a lot of advances in military medicine and we would see the heroism of our soldiers, but we would also see the reality of war if we did something about military medicine. So, we had a list of around 20 different places in Iraq that we wanted to go to and the only way that we could do this was to embed within the army. And I said I can’t embed within the army. They won’t let us film anything. They are just going to lead us around like this. The embedded process during the first Gulf War was a forest and I didn’t want to waste my time.

They said, well, that is the only way you are going to get in. You better embed. So, we embedded with lots of trepidation…wind up in Baghdad and we’re at the main army hospital in Baghdad. And in 15 minutes, the first helicopter comes in with horrific casualties on it. In the course of the first two days, I saw four amputations. Now, by this time, I had seen lots of people die. I had never seen an amputation. Unfortunately, I had forgotten some of the people that I’ve seen die, but I will never forget watching an American soldier get his arm cut off.

We could have chased all over Iraq to try to understand the commitment and the heroism of our troops and the horrors of this war, but every 15 minutes, the helicopters were delivering it. And it never stopped. So, here is an excerpt from that program. It’s called “Baghdad ER”. [You are going to recognize somebody who is in that show who is in our audience tonight.]

[Video plays]: Baghdad ER 2006
- [Female] Two dead on arrivals. [Helicopter]
- [Male] We just had two more American soldiers come in killed. I purposely have not counted how many deaths, people I’ve prayed over. It is just—I don’t know. It would overwhelm me. I don’t think I could—It would just be too overwhelming.
Jon Alpert:[This was during a time] when you couldn’t take pictures of coffins, when there was an attempt to control the images coming out of the war. I want to say that there was only one time when I was stopped from filming something. There was an Iraqi prisoner of war being led down the hallways and I got really excited. He was in an orange jumpsuit and he had funny goggles on his head. I got really—I wanted to take his picture and I almost got tackled because I was breaking the Geneva Convention. You are not allowed to take pictures of prisoners, but there wasn’t any other time that I was stopped from filming anything. There wasn’t anytime that we got anything less than total cooperation on the part of the military.

Christine Edwards was the public affairs officer at the hospital and was just terrific in letting us do our work. We are always going to be grateful for that experience. And for all the people that say that there is something wrong with the embedded process, we’ve never had that experience ourselves. We’ve always been able to film whatever we wanted to film. We haven’t been spun and perhaps I think it is because there isn’t anybody who understands what war is like better than the people in the military. I think they want the American people to know what happens when we send them off to war. They enabled us to do this. When we came back, part of the embedded process is that your film gets reviewed.

It normally gets reviewed by a public affairs officer. There is a 72 -hour courtesy period in which they can make comments. You don’t have to follow the comments, but you have to listen to what the army has to say. Our courtesy review was in the Pentagon where the head of the army and all of the top generals in the army and at the end of the program a marine dies on camera and they wheel his body out and then the lights come on. I didn’t know how the generals were going to react. One by one, they began saying that they thought that this film honored the commitment of the military and it showed the reality of the war and they were proud to be part of it and they hoped that as many people saw this as possible. There is one person in the room who didn’t seem happy.

And this was the only civilian in the room who was the undersecretary of the army. A week later, the president of HBO gets a phone call from the secretary of the army asking him to cancel the show. This was at a time when there were telecommunication bills going through Congress where wording this way or that way really affected the fortunes of multi-national communication companies like HBO. And to HBO’s credit, I can’t tell you exactly what the president—I know what he said, but I’m just not going to say it here. He basically told the secretary of the army to go to hell and hung the phone up. And they broadcast the show.

That was the first time that that ever happened to me and I am very proud to have been associated over the years with HBO and I really respect the courage that they had in that particular incident. I can’t say that it has been a perfect marriage because in getting ornery and older independent filmmaker, the things that I think are important don’t necessarily coincide with what big multi-national corporation thinks is important. There have been times when we’ve kicked each other in the shins pretty hard. But we’ve got two new shows coming on HBO. They’ve given us a home when nobody else has. And it’s been a nice marriage.

After years of poking into other people’s business and looking in the refrigerators and filming things that are very, very private, I began to feel a little bit self-conscious that I was maybe disingenuous and that I didn’t have the courage to do what I had asked thousands of people to do. At that time, our family was in the middle of a crisis. My father had become quite ill. He was suffering from a very painful disease. He wanted to die. And I thought that even though it was very personal and painful, that other families could learn from the experience of our family. So, we had a family meeting and we decided that we would make a family film about how we as a family dealt with my father’s illness. My brothers and my mother were all part of this and it was the toughest program that I ever had to make, but it is one that I am very proud of. I’m very proud of my dad because he was my hero. And I.F. Stone was his hero. So, I’d like to give my dad the last words. The things that he says at the end of this clip are the things that have always guided me and my family.

[Video plays]:
- [Singing] [Music playing] [Male] Anybody who’s been living on this planet should try to leave it a better place than when they first came here.
Jon Alpert: [So, that is what my dad always taught us. Try to do something to make the world a better place.] I think that is what I.F. Stone was trying to do. I’m very humbled and honored to accept this award on behalf of my family and I thank you very much.

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