Bob Woodruff: Focused and Fearless
We conversed on Jan. 17 as I was shaping a column on the new face of TV anchors in the 21st Century, and he was disarming my highfalutin' talk about setting precedents and serving as the network's news face to focus on one thing: the work.
And he stayed mostly unruffled until I asked about his looks. One critic said he and beauftiful co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas looked like they had been assembled by focus-group testing; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called him a "pretty boy android."
Can an anchor be too attractive for the job? I asked.
"I don't know what to think about that," said Woodruff. "You can look up my background -- call people who worked with me. My work ethic is not a problem. If people have criticisms about the substance of what we do, that's good...because that means they're watching."
Now Woodruff's audience is watching the news wires for word on his condition, following news that he and cameraman Doug Vogt were hit by an explosive and small arms fire in Iraq over the weekend. ABC reported this morning the two were in serious but stable condition; reportedly Woodruff suffered a broken collarbone, cracked ribs and a facial injury in the attack, which marks the most notable journalist to be seriously injured in a attack in Iraq (see my story on the increasing danger of reporting from the country here.)
When we talked, Woodruff was excited about the possiblity of reporting from the world's hot spots afforded by ABC's dual anchor format. Critics may have carped that he was in Iran and Vargas was in New York for their first broadcasts as news was breaking in West Virginia and Washington, but the 44-year-old former corporate attorney turned experienced war correspondent -- who got his start translating Chinese for CBS anchor Dan Rather during the Tiananmen Square massacre -- savored the kind of globe-hopping he could indulge without being stuck behind an anchor desk.
"When Peter (Jennings) was anchoring this broadcast on his own, it was always a huge worry that he would be caught out in the field when a big event broke back home," Woodruff said. "That's one of the really positive things about having two people anchor this broadcast -- one can always travel, and you know there will always be an anchor in New York -- This, in so many respects, is a perfect compromise."
One of the oddities of this latest calamity is the coverage. Too often, well-meaning reporters seem to be eulogizing the men as if they were already dead (former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was particularly maudlin on the Today show this morning and ABC's Good Morning America covered his injury like a space shuttle landing, complete with haunting music). Such emotional reporting probably would irritate Woodruff, who seemed determined to avoid the glamour side of his new job as much as possible.
"The basic function of a news anchor otherwise is the same; you have this huge pyramid, this iceberg, where the anchor is at the tip and below it, you've got these huge news organizations," he said. "That's still essentially what this is all about. And one of the things, if nothing else, is that I'd like to make Peter proud.''
Here's hoping that no-nonsense focus allows him to recover as quickly and completely as possible.
As If That Didn't Highlight the Danger to Journalists Enough...
CNN and other TV news outlets have begun airing this still photo from a wrenching new video featuring kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll pleading for Iraqi women to be released from captivity. Though it is hard to know for sure, the time/date display indicates the footage -- which Arab-focused network Al Jazeera first aired -- was shot after the first deadline for such releases.
Past captives have said hostages' haggard appearance may be exaggerated to make the video more jarring and may not indicate how they are actually being treated. Certainly, this video appears just as Americans are discussing the hazards of reporting there -- and debating whether such high-profile victims are getting too much coverage. (see the latest update on Carroll's situation here).
I say it is naive to expect the injury of someone like Woodruff -- arguably the most prominent Western journalist to be injured in Iraq -- not to spark such coverage. Though the new Caroll video combined with a new tape from Al-Qaida's No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri mocking Bush, indicates a disturbing new front in the war of media images surrounding the war.