On the Frontline: Real News Battles Fake Power

BAYEUX, France - An email from Florida landed in this noble Normandy town with less impact than a Nazi shell, yet it was an eerie reminder of how hubris and folly filled so many graves on the beaches nearby. The menace today is America über alles.

Last week, I assembled hard data for a Mort Report Extra on dangers posed by Donald Trump and his enablers. One response, dismissing fact as “liberal-leftist rant,” made plain what the world is up against — and why Bayeux is again on the frontline.

“We can agree to disagree,” the email said, “and you can live in whatever fantasy world you think is best. IF YOU don't like it here, then move to Finland, or the socialist utopia of your dreams.” Sure. We'll leave America to greedheads, useful idiots and flat-out morons like him.

I'd have junked that note, like so many similar ones we all see, but for the reason I'm here. As every year for the past 25, journalists from around the world gathered at the weekend for the Bayeux-Calvados War Correspondents Awards. We honored our own, mourned our fallen, and during long, lubricated, music-blasting nights we avoided shop talk about workaday mayhem.

Some of the gang are fresh out of the box, with new skills and high energy. Others have been at it for half a century. Patrick Chauvel, son of a grand French photographer, just covered his 44th war alongside his 18-year-old son, Antoine, in Iraq.

They are a disparate bunch, but one hard fact defines them. Men and women who wade into risk, spending miserable months staying close to their story, do not lie about what they see.

Bayeux is the perfect venue. The last big battle around here was clear-cut. Allies and French resisters stopped Germany just in time to spare this small jewel of a city, with a magnificent cathedral that houses the world's first newsreel, a millennium-old tapestry reporting the Norman conquest of England.

Today's wars are insidious and elusive. World War II pales in comparison, considering the potential domination of authoritarians who not only stamp out human rights and let desperate refugees die in droves but also speed up ecological collapse of the only planet we've got.

Few of these looming threats lend themselves to headlines. When a torrent of words and images numbs us all, con men prevail over statesmen. Here in Bayeux, it is easy to spot the devils in the details. The more people learn, the more they care. Townsfolk, schoolkids and visitors jam every exhibit.

One night, 12,000 adults and children in a city of 14,000 filled the big tent for three hours of graphic accounts of how Saudi Arabia, with U.S. support, has been bombing blockaded Yemen for three years. Twenty million people are at risk, with raging cholera and soaring infant deaths. For many back home in America, Yemen is just another of those puzzling foreign names.

In the winning photo spread by Mahmud Hams of Agence-France Presse, a Palestinian in a wheelchair aims his slingshot at the heavily armed Gaza border with Israel. Partisans on either side of that enduring conflict can see it is not easy to decide who is David and who is Goliath.

All week long, images and words brought grim reality from Venezuela, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Ukraine, among others. At the end, an international jury picked dispatches, photos, and TV reports that exemplify the best work of real-news practitioners.

The solemn Bayeux moment is on the first afternoon when we gather among long rows of white steles bearing more than 2,000 names of journalists killed since World War II, in conflict or by people with something to hide. Each year, the list of new names is distressingly long.

Christiane Amanpour headed the jury this year, reuniting with pals who worked with her in Bosnia and on stories going back to the first Gulf War. In those earlier days, we sought old-style balance. In a Trumpian world of evolving disorder, her new mantra is a guideline: truthful, but not neutral.

Truth in its actual up-close context is getting damned hard to find. At lunch one day, I sat next to a photographer I should have recognized. He had spent 11 months in an Islamic State prison, at times watching others beheaded in front of him. He made a chess set out of scraps to keep himself together until the French government worked out his release.

“I took a little time to get myself straight,” he said, smiling as he made a small circle with his finger around his ear to mock transitory mental problems, “and then went right back to work. I don't talk about it, don't want to be known as an ex-hostage. It's the life I've chosen, and I'm going to continue at it.”

Committed journalists look beyond bang-bang, strife, and piteous human tides to new trends that distort reality. The most troubling is in Donald Trump's America, a blatant reversal of fundamental tenets. Beyond the obvious, vignettes show an insidious underside few people notice. Take the case of Lucas Menget, a widely respected French reporter.

Lucas still has his grandfather's Stanford University thesis on Thomas Paine. As a kid, he lived in Boston; his father was a Harvard professor and his mother taught American literature at Tufts. Every year, for decades, he has flown back to visit friends in a country he loves. Now he can visit North Korea but not the United States.

When he took his kids for a holiday recently, a Customs and Border Protection agent noted his many visits to Iraq and denied him entry. Without explanation or recourse, he is on an indefinite shitlist. Diplomat friends at the U.S. Embassy in Paris told him things would get worse if they intervened because the CBP, under Homeland Security, distrusts the State Department.

Reporters can usually find a way into the strictest of countries. But, Lucas said, the embassy warned him not to try. “I don't want to risk being handcuffed in front of my children and be locked up for days before getting expelled and banned for life.”

Such cases are unusual, but they are hardly rare. Attempts to investigate them seldom get anywhere. That is not what America is supposed to be.

This year, a U.S.-dated story was chosen as a finalist for judging. It was from Charlottesville, describing deadly violence by neo-Nazis at that rally, for which Trump said there was “blame on both sides.” Jurors agreed that division in America didn't qualify as war. At least not yet.