Martin Fletcher wasn’t alive during the Holocaust but, in a way, he’s spent his entire career covering it.
Fletcher’s parents fled Austria as the Nazis came to power, settling safely in England. But they lost almost their entire families, the once-comfortable lives they left behind and, in a sense, their faith in the world.
“The burden of the Holocaust was too great for my parents, and they unloaded some of it onto me: a certain buried sadness, hatred for bullies and sympathy for their victims,” Fletcher writes in “Breaking News,” his memoir of more than three decades as a foreign correspondent, mostly for NBC News. “It is only looking back that I can see the connection between this inheritance and my career.”
Fletcher, 60, has been NBC’s bureau chief in Tel Aviv since 1981, but has been dispatched to some of the most hellish, strife-torn spots on the globe to document mass murder, rape, pillaging, displacement, starvation and disease and to beam it back to the living rooms of American and European viewers.
“I didn’t set out to be a war correspondent,” said Fletcher in a New York interview. “They just kept sending me out to wars because that’s what American TV wants. Journalism thrives on conflict.”
Growing up in London, Fletcher, whose father changed his name from Fleisher, graduated from the University of Bradford with a degree in modern languages and enjoyed a brief, low-key career as a translator before switching to journalism. “I wanted to speak with my own voice,” he says.
Beginning with a stint in Israel for the British VizNews agency that began days before the Yom Kippur War, Fletcher’s long career has brought him to Afghanistan, South Africa, Rwanda, Cambodia, Somalia and Kosovo, as well as the Middle East. He’s faced numerous ethical quandaries along the way, deciding to film a hopelessly ill African girl’s death in order to raise awareness of starvation; accepting the hospitality and protection of ruthless Somali warlord Mohammed Aidid in a bid to safely cover the conflict there; and deciding whether to accept an invitation from the Al Aksa brigade to film the execution of a Palestinian informant. (He declined, but later interviewed the executioners and watched a video.)
“Clearly, I’ve made mistakes along the way and they weigh more heavily on me now than when I began,” says Fletcher. “I’m not the sort of person that does look back. But I became very self-absorbed when I was writing the book because to write a good book, you want to be honest.”
Being a Jew covering the Middle East, something the New York Times once considered taboo, is not without challenges. Fletcher said he is consistently asked his religion by both Arabs and Jews.
He’s lied about it only once, when traveling to Libya after Americans downed two of that country’s fighters in 1989. “They were furious,” he said. “So I put down Church of England [on the visa paperwork]. I’m not suicidal.”
Sorting out the bullies and victims in Africa or the Balkans was easier for Fletcher than it is in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Despite living among Israelis, including his wife and three sons — one of whom is now a soldier — Fletcher has come to understand the arguments on both sides.
As a son of refugees, he writes, it was hard not to identify with the Palestinians, while at the same time understanding Israel’s plight as a haven for Jews.
But his own background gave him a rarely heard insight. “My family lost more, much more than any Palestinian ever did,” Fletcher writes. “But my mother and father did not bring me up to hate the Austrians and Germans … my mother did not hand me a rusty old key and say ‘this is the key to your real home. Everything else is just temporary’ … Many people throughout the world have lost their homes and rebuilt their lives elsewhere. Why not you?”
Fletcher personally knows suicide bombing victims and knows that he and his family could be among them in the future. Still, he admits to decidedly mixed feelings at hearing an army dispatch that young militant brothers whom he has been regularly visiting, known bomb makers, were killed by the Israelis. After frantic phone calls he discovered the report was wrong.
In a bid to present some perspective during the first intifada, Fletcher tracked down the two principals in a chance West Bank encounter: a Palestinian youth forced by Israelis at gunpoint to tell other Arabs to stop rioting, and the Israeli army commander caught on camera clubbing the youth in the head. He eventually arranged an awkward meeting for a news segment.
“Neither young man, it seemed to me, really wanted to fight, yet neither were they ready to stop fighting. They were simply following their leaders, acting out the roles thrust upon them, unable to cast aside the slogans and symbols.”
Looking back, Fletcher is confident he’s kept his personal feelings off camera.
“My work is kept under a microscope by Jewish organizations and Arab organizations and all kinds of accuracy-in-media organizations, so I must be doing something right in staying objective,” he said in the interview.
He admits to being “strangely” optimistic about the prospect of eventual peace. “There will be exhaustion at some point when both sides understand that there is no other way … a peace agreement right now isn’t realistic. What is realistic is a long-term truce of some kind that encourages growth and economic success among Palestinians.”
But it’s not Fletcher’s job to analyze policy, he points out, just the consequences of those policies. “[Washington correspondent] Andrea Mitchell deals with policy issues,” says Fletcher. “What I want to do is reflect the extremist views on both sides: the ‘nutty’ settlers and the ‘crazy’ terrorists. What I want to do is go beyond those clichés.”
Over the years he has only turned down one assignment: Iraq.
“My wife asked me not to go,” he says. “NBC respected that.”
But he has no plan to give up globetrotting to dangerous hotspots around the world. “I want to continue doing as much work as I can because I’m good at it and I think I can help,” he says.
Technological advances have vastly improved Fletcher’s job from the days of hauling a heavy camera on his back and then sending the film to be developed, when a live feed was almost unthinkable. He enjoys the feedback he can now get from viewers on the Internet, and the second life his stories enjoy through streaming online video.
But Fletcher is skeptical about whether the Information Age can spur enough action to prevent or control any of the manmade catastrophes he covers. “Look at Darfur,” he says. “Our obsession with silly stuff is just too great. But at least people who do want to help can get more information.”