There is a paradox in front of us. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was meant to prove something and that something is the vehemence of Russia’s claim on its next-door country. Russian military might, force and fury were supposed to be evident to the world in short order.
That’s not what happened. As we watch the coverage unfold on TV, what the world sees and takes away, to hold in the collective memory forever, is pity, and then the muscle and sinew of compassion and love. While retired generals and other pundits tell us about military strengths and weakness, what we all see is the strength of love: love of country, love of children, love of partner and parent, love of place and love as it is impeded by war, and as it defies the dictates of wartime and barbarity.
It’s the throngs of fleeing mothers with children we react to. It’s the sight of the elderly and frail, shakily trying to make their way to safety, amid the ruins of bombed-out buildings, that stirs our pity and our sense of outrage about the viciousness of the invasion. What we see on TV is real but also metaphorical. The gaping holes in bombed buildings are charred cavities, symbolic of what needs to be filled – and filled they will be, with empathy, charity and understanding.
In this context, we must consider one of the most talk-about scenes from live TV these past two weeks. That was when CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward paused on air during her report to help elderly residents trying to leave Kyiv, even helping carry their belongings.
“These people have been under bombardment for seven straight days and are only just leaving their homes, and they’re leaving them reluctantly. And they’re leaving them with the knowledge that they might not be able to go back to them. And you can see, many of these people are elderly,” Ward said, then paused to speak to one of the passing people, and while speaking to her, helped the woman cross the mud and rubble to safer ground. A few minutes later, she paused again to help a woman carry her bag. “I’m just going to help her carry this bag a second, excuse me John,” she said to CNN anchor John Berman.
It was unsettling to see, this act of entering into the story and situation she was covering. Simultaneously, it was the act that a watching world, aching to help, wanted to see. Ward filled a gap with common decency, something inside telling her she is a human being first and that acting as reporter comes second.
Ward is as tough as nails, direct, immensely articulate and unshakable. She is just one of many, many women covering the brutal invasion of Ukraine. There are far more women doing the job now than ever before. (Sometimes the entire reporting team you are watching is all-women, as when CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault and Susan Ormiston are reporting jointly from Lviv.) Does that change anything? Well, it changes the texture for the viewer.
This is a peculiar war, so far. There is little reporting from the front lines. There are no journalists embedded with battalions of troops on the march. Instead, much of the reporting is from transit camps under grey skies or from shattered neighbourhoods from which people are trying to flee. Neither the reporter nor the viewer can be unaffected by what they see. Yes, there is a code that mandates that reporters ignore some things, not discuss them and not involve themselves directly. The viewer is conditioned to understand this code.
But right now, there is a sense that many of the reporting voices we hear from Ukraine are different and what they see with their eyes delivers a different perspective. It is both intimate and authoritative. This new sensibility even extends to in-studio punditry. Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin is one of the most distinctive voices, publicly correcting or contradicting multiple male Fox analysts and hosts, on air, when they wander from the facts or repeat political talking points. What she brings is common sense, prudence and realism.
No one expected this war to unfold in this way, paradoxically revealing a canvas filled with examples of the sturdiness of love. But all paradoxes are a mystery, and what the coverage so far has delivered is a recognition of love, one of the mysteries of human existence. Perhaps that will be part of the legacy of this war and part of the legacy of the reporting.
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