How I Became a Humanitarian Journalist

In the fall of 2008, I was asked to speak at a conference organized by Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of Connecticut, on Humanitarianism and Responsibility. Most of the speakers were human rights activists, and I was honored to be the only journalist. In my talk, I explained how I had become an investigative journalist and focused on two events that completely changed my life: my coverage of Korea in 1980 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Here’s what I said:

When Alexis first asked me to speak here, she suggested that I talk about my experiences as a journalist writing about South Korea during the 1980s and New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. She saw a connection between my reporting in both instances. That was intriguing to me because 1) those experiences were among the most moving and emotionally jarring experiences of my adult life and certainly the highlights of my career as an investigative journalist and 2) nobody had ever suggested that those stories might be connected.

But as I began to think about the topic of this conference I had to figure out how my Korea and Katrina reporting would fit into our theme. How could I define it in the context of humanitarianism and responsibility? Particularly when journalists typically report about humanitarian disasters and situations from the perspective of observers, but rarely actually participate in them. And suddenly the answer loomed: I should talk about humanitarian journalism. It occured to me that that’s what I’ve been practicing all these years – without even knowing it. So today I’m going to create a new genre of journalism.

Let me start with my experiences in Korea. In 1980 a terrible event occured in Kwangju, a city in southwestern Korea that was the birthplace of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea’s former president and its most famous dissident. On May 18, 1980, hundreds of students and democratic activists were shot down and bayonetted to death in the wake of a violent military coup in which Kim Dae Jung – who’d nearly been murdered by the Korean CIA seven years earlier – was arrested and nearly executed. In response to the savagery of the Korean Special Forces who were responsible for the bloodshed that day, the citizens of Kwangju, who were well organized after years of oppression, took up guns and chased the military out of town. For seven days a citizens’ committee held the city, negotiating with the military to seek a peaceful end to the crisis. It was the first uprising against military rule in South Korea since the Korean War and is widely seen there as a turning point in Korea’s democratic movement.

At the time of the uprising, a US military general commanded the combined South Korean-US Joint Command – just as it does now. One of the most powerful figures in the country was the American ambassador, the late William Gleysteen. With Korean and US forces surrounding the city, the Kwangju Citizens Committee made a desperate attempt to bring Mr. Gleysteen into the negotiations. But taking his command from President Jimmy Carter, a man who had pledged to make human rights the centerpiece of US foreign policy, Gleysteen refused. On May 22, 1980, at a meeting at the White House, Carter’s national security team – led by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzenzski and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke – made a fateful decision to deploy Korean troops from the DMZ, the border with the North Korea, to put down the uprising.

Under my FOIA request, the secret minutes of that meeting were declassified. After a full discussion, the minutes stated, “there was general agreement that the first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later…Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve,” the White House decided. The U.S. position was summed up by Mr. Brzezinski as ”in the short-term support, in the longer-term pressure for political evolution.” But over the next eight years South Koreans endured one of the harshest police states in the world. And the people never forgot that all this had occured under a US president promising respect for human rights.

Even though I was living in the United States at the time, I was following these events almost on a minute by minute basis. In 1980, I was a graduate student in Asian Studies at the University of Oregon, and writing a thesis about the South Korean economy and its dependence on low-cost and unorganized workers. Workers and unions played a huge role in the democratic movement. I was shocked and ashamed that my government had aided and abetted a government that oppressed its citizens. A year after the Kwangju Uprising I went to the city and learned first-hand about the events there. I returned in 1985 and met many activists, some recently released from prison, who told me more stories and described their anger at the betrayal of the United States. Tell the American people why we are so angry, they asked me. Explain to them what we’ve been through. Make them understand that we believed America supported democracy, but when democracy was on the line, your leaders let us down. Tell Americans that we Koreans will never forget. I promised them that I would, and I promised myself that I would try to unravel the truth of the disgraceful American role in the events.

Why was I so outraged? Well, I had grown up in South Korea and Japan and had been raised by parents who spent their life serving humanitarian causes. My dad had learned the Japanese language while serving in the Navy during World War II and he and my mom, after meeting down the road from here at Yale Divinity School, had gone to Japan in 1947 as missionaries. For most of the next 20 years my dad provided humanitarin relief to Japan and South Korea sent by US churches. They both had a lifelong commitment to healing the wounds of war and improving the lives of people who had previously been America’s enemies. Their commitment placed a heavy burden on me and my siblings – not always a welcome one, I must add. But it nurtured in me a sense that I owed something to humanity and the knowledge that there were many many people less fortunate than me. And a belief that I had a responsibility to somehow make others aware of these truths.

Later, after South Korea became a democracy, the Korean parliament began looking into the events at Kwangju. The Bush administration refused to allow the US ambassador and the top US general to testify; instead it wrote a “white paper” explaining US actions. I read it carefully. After visiting Kwangju twice and reading everything I could find about the incident, I concluded it was full of holes. I filed a freedom of information request for all the background documents. By 1996 I had compiled over 3,500 pages of declassified documents.

They showed that, far from being ignorant of what the Korean military was planning in May 1980, the United States 1) gave the Korean generals a green light to use military forces to end the nationwide, peaceful protest movement that spread throughout South Korea in the spring of 1980 and 2) knew ahead of time that the generals were sending special forces troops trained to kill North Koreans to Kwangju and other hotspots.

We did not pull the trigger of the guns at Kwangju. But our government was complicit in the killing. To this day, no American official has ever acknowledged this or taken responsibility. But thanks to the documents I obtained, historians such as Chalmers Johnson and Don Oberdorfer have been able to write that the American role was far more direct than was ever admitted. Those documents told the truth. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. While my reporting on that story was fair, it was not objective – I took the side of the Korean democratic fighters who risked and lost their lives at the hands of one of the most vicious police states ever seen in Asia. My stories came from my identification with humanity and the truth. For a journalist there is nothing more important.

That’s also what drove me to report on Hurricane Katrina, which was in part a man-made tragedy where the government utterly failed to serve the people it is supposed to represent.

At the time of the hurricane I was living in Memphis, Tennessee. I was shocked along with most of the world at the inhumane response of the Bush administration. The thousands of people begging for help and  rescue. President Bush playing air guitar while the nation wept. Telling his FEMA chief, “Brownie,” that he was doing a ‘heck of a job’ as the terrible events unfolded. I soon heard about a free clinic that had sprung up during the hurricane to help the poor and dispossessed. This was amazing to me because I knew from first hand experience that hundreds of nurses had contacted the Red Cross and the government to volunteer their services – only to be told that there was no need. Another lie.

I went down to the clinic, which was called Common Ground, in late September – about 3 weeks after the storm. I stayed in New Orleans for weeks afterward, and later spent a lot of time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was heartbreaking.

Remember, I grew up in postwar Asia. I’ve seen a lot of destruction. But nothing like I saw in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where the flooding from the collapse of the levees was the worst. For blocks in every direction it was complete destruction. Empty lots where houses once stood. Cars on roofs. Big black marks showing how many bodies had been found in certain houses. It looked like a war zone. People evacuated as far as Utah, not knowing if they’d ever see their homes and neighborhoods again. And all our government did was hand out big contracts to giant corporations and asked them to lead the ‘reconstruction’ – for a profit of course. The people, the suffering people, were last on their list.

When I was down there I felt an intense sense of shame. I was ashamed that my government could let its own citizens down like this. I was ashamed that a proud African American community, with an amazing cultural heritage, could be abandoned like so much lost cattle. And I was angry at the excuses and explanations from Bush and his minions. The racist response of people like Rush Limbaugh that the people of New Orleans just wanted a handout – statements he repeated this year when flooding struck white Iowa. I yearned, and still do, for a government that cared for its citizens. All I could think of while I was there was – we need a new New Deal, like Roosevelt started. We need a Works Progress Administration – giving jobs to youths and anyone else who wanted to help New Orleans rebuild. We still need that.

But most of all I was struck by the humanity and dignity of the people living there. There’s one day I’ll never forget as long as I live. I was in New Orleans on assignment for Mother Jones with a photographer friend, Kike Arnal, who’s from Venezuela. We’d spent the last few days in the Ninth Ward walking around. The only people in the area were rescue workers, the police and the National Guard. One day the city announced that homeowners could go back to their neighborhoods for the first time. Kike and I showed up at a big crossroads in the Ninth Ward.

As Kike and I drove up, we spotted a family getting out of a van and pulling on white overclothes to protect themselves as they entered their homes for the first time since the storm. We asked them if we could accompany them, and they readily agreed. It was a family of four: Evelyn Gilbert, and her three sons, all in their 50s: Rhett, Gustaf and Daniel. I felt privileged to be with them on such a sacred moment. Kike and I followed them slowly down North Claiborne and into a little cul-de-sac near the canal. We stopped and got out in front of a long white house completely off its foundation. Next to it was a tiny blue structure, leaning crazily to one side with its roof caving in. It had been Evelyn’s home, and was built in 1978, she said; the rest of the family lived next door. The heavy line at the top of the roofs showed that both houses had been almost completely under water.

As the Gilbert brothers explored their property, I hung back, feeling like an interloper and trying to avoid being intrusive. After a while, I asked Evelyn, who didn’t want to go near her house, where she was when the water came. She told me she was evacuated on the Friday before the storm, and ended up in Houston; she’s now staying in Mississippi with family. She watched anxiously as her sons pushed open her front door and gingerly took a few steps inside the destroyed house. Finally, Rhett walked out carrying a portable barbeque. “We found something at least,” he said. “But it’s the only thing salvageable.” He dusted it off as best he could and loaded it into the van.

Gustaf and Daniel then went to look at their house as Rhett told me a little about the neighborhood. “I was born and raised here, and this is the only place I know,” he said. “I know this city like the back of my hand.” He motioned to the other broken structures near their property. “All these are kin-folk. Used to walk to the church over there, the store.” Now, he said, he lives in Dallas, and everywhere he walks he runs into another freeway; worse, the services he needs are far away. He had no idea if he and his family will return, or where his former neighbors are. Finished with their short tour, the Gilbert family shook hands with Kike and me and slowly drove away. All I could do was sit inside my car and weep.

Later that day Kike and I ran across Michelle McKenney Jones outside of her family home in the Lower Ninth that was built by her grandfather in 1953 and where her mother lived until Hurricane Katrina and Rita swept through the area. Jones sighed as she surveyed the house, which was knocked off its foundations and is now uninhabitable. The social impact of the disaster in the Ninth Ward, she said, was compounded because this neighborhood once had the highest percentage of black homeownership in the entire Parish of Orleans. Then she paused as her emotions caught up with her.

“You’ve got to be our voice,” she told me and Kike. “This community doesn’t have a voice. Nobody seems to be listening to us. Represent us, please.” As she spoke, tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Kike and I stood with her in silence for a minute, trying to share her grief, and assured her that we would hold her words in our hearts. And I did tell her story. And I’m telling it to you now.

So what motivated me in both cases were the pleas of the victims and survivors – tell our story because no one else will: “Be our voice.” I heard almost the exact same words when I was reporting in Kwangju. I took those words like a solemn vow. Another motivation was the callousness of the government. Once, after my first visit to Kwangju, I met with the political officer at the US Embassy in Seoul. He told me the stories I’d heard about massive killing were exagerrations. Even the ones from the American missionaries, he said. Much later, when I got the documents, I was told officially by the State Department that, while Kwangju was a tragedy, “When all the dust settles, Koreans killed Koreans, and the Americans didn’t know what was going on and certainly didn’t approve it.”

Yet we trained these soldiers. We financed them. We told them their job was to defend their country against communism – and their own generals told them the rebels in Kwangju were communsts, to be treated like dogs (a statement that was repeated almost word for word on ABC’s Nightline by US General John Singlaub). Once I confronted Richard Holbrooke about Kwangju, and he literally screamed at me, explaining I had no real understanding of the national security stakes involved.

It was the same with Katrina. Nobody took responsibility. Brownie was fired, sure. But all the corporations that failed miserably to help – like the ones who couldn’t get the buses to New Orleans on time, or the ones who supplied the trailers filled with formaldahyde that poisoned – and still poison – so many residents of the Gulf – they got paid. Soon, America forgot what happened. Katrina was a national disgrace. There’s no other way to look at it. And that’s because it’s my responsibility as a journalist and a human being to speak for those who have no voice.

In other words, the truth of those residents of New Orleans and Kwangju is all of our truth. Humanitarianism means understanding the truth of lives we know nothing about. Responsibility means doing something to alleviate their pain and make sure their suffering never happens again. And to me that is the ultimate responsibilty of journalism – to go where ordinary people can’t go and tell the stories of those who suffer so the rest of the world can do something. It’s not “objective” journalism. There’s not “another side” to the story. It’s exposing reality – placing it before the public so they can’t hide from it. And our leaders can’t hide from it. It means taking risks. It means coming off like a fanatic sometime. It means making other people uncomfortable and even angry. And it means being human, and taking responsibility for the other inhabitants of this planet, and saying NO to the powers that be.

Storrs, Connecticut/October 2008

One Response to How I Became a Humanitarian Journalist

  1. What an amazing job you did of tying two seemingly disparate events together into a story about those who have no voices. Your descriptions of the people that you met made their plights come alive as they strove to move past their suffering. When one person is in pain, humanity feels it, but unfortunately, most people have numbed themselves out so that the sensations don’t get through. Thank you for keeping their stories alive.

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