From Beijing to Baghdad
By Mark Magnier ’81, ’84J
When I was a kid, someone told me knowingly that if a billion Chinese
jumped up at the same time, the world would be knocked out of its orbit.
I’ve been in China for the past two years as Beijing
bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, and the longer I’m
here, the more I believe he had a point.
The awakening of China’s population, with all its energy and drive,
is setting the world on its head. Along the way, for better or worse,
it’s also altering the global environment, economy, energy market and even
When I graduated from the College as an English major, I didn’t
know what I wanted to do. But I always had itchy feet, having taken
off for a year after high school to backpack through Asia. It took a few
years, but eventually I figured out that being a foreign correspondent
provided a way to enjoy the adventure on someone else’s dime.
My China assignment follows five years in Japan and two in Singapore.
But China is a different world — daunting, crazy, frustrating. Breathing
can be hazardous to your health. The country’s size and
complexity defy easy understanding. Routine information often is considered
a state secret, and the authorities often are highly suspicious of
Western journalists, particularly in the provinces, where corruption,
exploitation and environmental degradation are at their worst. On some
days, it seems as if all 1.3 billion people want whatever you have.
Mark Magnier ’81 reporting in Um Qasr, Iraq.
PHOTO: DON BARTLETTI
But what an incredible story and what an exciting place to be. The
Chinese are, for the most part, direct, curious and warm-hearted. And
I feel blessed to have a ringside seat as history unfolds.
The job has taken me to accident-prone coal mines, hidden churches,
illegal casinos and government propaganda units. It’s introduced
me to some of the poorest people in China and some of the richest,
some of the world’s smoggiest cities and amazing pristine valleys.
At every turn, there’s evidence of the churning social experiment
under way, from a new line of “Clinton” and “Lewinsky” condoms
to Communist Party etiquette campaigns designed to teach people in
time for the 2008 Olympics not to spit chicken bones on restaurant floors.
Part of being a foreign correspondent also means getting pulled in to
cover war, pestilence and famine, including the Southeast Asian tsunami,
East Timor’s battle for independence, the ongoing struggle among
Israel and Palestine, and Iraq.
Wars used to occur once a generation. Nowadays, the world seems to be
coming more unhinged. Wars seem to be breaking out far more often,
and covering them has become a bigger part of a foreign correspondent’s
job. For foreign journalists, covering a war represents a certain rite
of passage. I covered Gulf War II as a so-called unilateral, essentially
scampering through the war zone with little more than a rented Jeep,
a generator, tent, canned food and extra fuel. My translator, photographer
and I crossed over from Kuwait two days into the war through a hole
punched in the border by American tanks.
My initial impression of Iraqis joyfully welcoming the foreign liberating
army was short-lived. I watched what I thought was a woman waving in
joy in the back of a pickup truck. As she got closer, we realized she
was hysterical, her bloody hands cradling a dead relative as she screamed: “Look
what the Americans did!” This was going to be a long slog.
The bulk of the U.S. Army was two days north of us charging toward Baghdad,
which meant the insurgents had had ample opportunity to circle back.
Word soon reached us that a British reporter was shot to death a couple
of miles ahead of us on the road to Basra and another journalist had been
chased and shot at on the highway north to Baghdad. Unsure what to
do, and increasingly aware we weren’t in Kansas anymore, we decided
to camp for the night under a nearby highway cloverleaf.
As the desert sun dipped below the horizon, a British patrol came by
to pass on a report that nearby villagers planned an RPG assault on
our modest camp, resentful of the foreigners in their midst, and we’d
best hightail it out in the next 10 minutes. We headed toward the front,
paradoxically a safer direction, as the U.S. military presence was
greater the closer you got to Baghdad. We also were told to race along
in the dark without headlights to make it more difficult for snipers.
Six hours later, our nerves jangling, we bedded down along the road
after being advised not to stray too far to relieve ourselves, as we were
astride a mine field.
As one day followed the next, we started to get our bearings and developed
a routine. We’d wake up most days around
7 a.m., make breakfast on a camp stove and start roving for stories — the
plight of refugees, civilian looting, atrocities committed by Saddam’s
regime, magical powers attributed to the dictator, how British special
forces did their job and so forth.
By midafternoon, we’d start worrying about where to sleep. The
U.S. and British military weren’t exactly inviting, as we weren’t
embedded, and they feared our communication gear would attract enemy
fire. Eventually, we realized if we stayed on the periphery of their
bases, we might enjoy a modicum of security, as they weren’t about
to tolerate an attack anywhere nearby.
A quick dinner of nasty canned spaghetti or some other concoction generally
led to a long night of writing, the inevitable communication problems
and a few hours of sleep before starting again. After a couple of weeks
of this, we were so exhausted and inured to the sounds of tanks and
helicopters and artillery fire that we could sleep right through the din,
lulled by a false confidence that we knew the difference between the sound
of incoming and outgoing shells.
Why would anyone in his or her right mind do such a thing? Having a
higher-than-average tolerance for risk is probably part of the answer.
More generally, however, unilateral reporters during the early stages
were the only media reflecting the thinking of average Iraqis and providing
a reality check on what the Pentagon was saying. And many of the early
themes I and my colleagues covered — the looting, xenophobic anger,
Sunni-Shiite tensions and extreme frustration of ordinary middle class
Iraqis deprived of water, food and a basic sense of well-being — provided
important signs of trouble ahead for anyone who cared to listen.
In some ways, covering the war was safer than covering the peace. When
I did a second tour a year later, Baghdad already was on a downward
slide as it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between frustrated
civilians — virtually everyone in Iraq — and those out to
kill you. We only left the house to work, there were five guys with
AK-47s guarding our front door, we rarely walked on the street and
generally relied on beat-up cars to blend in as much as possible.
And while Saddam’s two sons hadn’t yet gone out in a blaze
of gunfire, we found ample evidence of their handiwork. While reporting
on a training center for the new Iraqi police force, I stumbled onto
an Iron Maiden in the shadow of the national sports stadium. An old
man nearby who had tended the grounds for years described how Saddam’s
son Uday would punish soccer players who failed to win games by leaving
them inside this nail-studded sarcophagus in the sun for days without
Life can take you on some crazy adventures, not the least of which was
my time at Columbia. At a formative time in my life, when I had no
idea what I wanted to do, the institution and the city around it instilled
a sense of intellectual curiosity, provided an intellectual framework
and encouraged independence.
And it convinced me that with enough jumping up and down, it is possible
to change the world.
Mark Magnier ’81, ’84J grew up in New
York City and Hawaii. He worked at the Population Institute for
two years in New York after graduation, then attended the Journalism
School. He worked for the Journal of Commerce for 12 years in
New York, San Francisco, Singapore and Tokyo and has been with the Los
Angeles Times for eight years in Tokyo and Beijing. He is married
to Karen Ma, author of The Modern Madame Butterfly, which is
about cross-cultural relationships. They have two children.