Email Us Contact CCT   Advertise with CCT! Advertise with CCT University University College Home College Alumni Home Alumni Home
Columbia College Today January 2006
Cover Story


 2005 Hamilton Award
 Serendipity and
 John Brecher ’73:
     Wine Expert/



Alumni Profiles





This Issue





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 the arts.

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, '84J Mark Magnier ’81 reporting in Um Qasr, Iraq.

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.

Mark Magnier '81, '84J Magnier says he has a ringside seat as history unfolds in China.

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 food.

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.





This Issue




  Untitled Document
Search Columbia College Today
Need Help?

Columbia College Today Home
CCT Home

January 2006
This Issue

November 2005
Previous Issue

CCT Credits
CCT Masthead