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Thomson Reuters to War Reporters: Your Careers Are Expendable

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The international press community was stunned last week to hear of the deaths of Chris Hondros of Getty and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, killed in Misurata while covering fighting between Libyan rebels and Gaddafi's forces.

They have been eulogized -- and rightly so -- as embodying one of the highest ideals of journalism, bearing witness in a time of war.

They aren't alone. There exists -- largely outside the U.S. media echo-chamber -- a global sub-community that covers war and conflict routinely. Some of these people you'll never hear of -- the agency cameramen, the wire reporters, the freelancers -- whose existence in conflict zones guarantees that everyone from the White House to your aunt in Missouri can turn on the TV or the computer to find out what's going on in the world.

From tragedy to farce -- now let's consider this.

Andrew Marshall is part of that global sub-community of war reporters -- he was Reuters Baghdad bureau chief for two years between 2003 and 2005. This was a time when working in Baghdad meant risking car bombs, attempts to blow up journalists' hotels, and abduction -- with the added bonus that if you were kidnapped, your family would likely get the chance to see you tortured on a jihadist website. (In my own small way, I am among them, too. And full disclosure: Andrew Marshall is a friend of mine.)

Please read Marshall's blog on his reaction, as bureau chief, to the recent death of an Iraqi staffer.

And David Fox is among them. A 20-year veteran of Reuters, he's covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Albania, to name a few. He knows viscerally why we don't call it Zaire anymore and instead, the Democratic Republic of Congo, because he covered it when it fell.

Reuters is now Thomson Reuters -- since the Reuters news agency was bought by the Thomson Company in 2008.

In the middle of the night, in the thick of the Japan nuclear crisis, Marshall -- based in Singapore -- was talking in a Reuters online chat room to his friend and colleague, David Fox, who was in Japan covering the disaster. Fox is bald.

"How are the radiation levels in Japan, mate? Has your hair fallen out yet?" Marshall quipped.

Thinking he had been messaged privately by Marshall, Fox replied with a crude joke about women.

For that, David Fox has been fired -- and Andrew Marshall reprimanded.

When Fox found out that the comment was not part of a private exchange with Marshall, he contacted the Thomson Reuters technical team to have the comment removed. They did not. He offered to apologize immediately in person or in writing to anyone he offended - an offer refused by Thomson Reuters.

Both Fox and Marshall are appealing the decisions (and the humor goes on. Marshall has dubbed this scandal, "Baldgate.")

Gallows humor is what fuels journalists, aid-workers, doctors and anyone who has to work, and keep working, in times of crisis. A moment of twisted levity is what makes you get through the night. Journalists excel at this.

The immediate reaction in the press community has been one of incredulity: This can't really be happening, because it's just so silly. Marshall describes the situation as "Kafkaesque."

But it really is happening -- and elements of this situation really aren't silly at all. So it's time to say it:

Shame on you, Thomson Reuters, for letting both Marshall and Fox risk their lives on your behalf in conflicts and disasters around the world -- including, potentially Japan's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis -- when this is the treatment they get at home.

This is the corporate news equivalent, Thomson Reuters, of spitting on a uniformed soldier.

Had Marshall or Fox been injured or killed while on any of myriad assignments for Reuters, the press community would reverberate with the same type of grief it is feeling now for Hondros and Hetherington. (Can you imagine if Restrepo were never made, because HBO couldn't bear coarse language?)

The working grunts who cover conflicts for the wire services may not enjoy the same cachet as war-photographers, but they are no less important to bearing witness.

Shame on you, Thomson Reuters, for staffing places like Kandahar, like Baghdad, like Misurata -- where staffers are potentially risking their lives for you right now -- knowing, as precedent shows, that you clearly think their careers are expendable.

Fox and Marshall, it appears, are collateral damage resulting from when Reuters - once a venerable institution of journalism - was bought by an information company. If that means Thomson Reuters is enveloped in such political correctness that it can't stomach even the tiniest snippet of gallows humor -- or accept an apology for it -- then Thomson Reuters doesn't belong in the sending people to wars and disasters business.

It's the reporters, of course, who are made to stomach a great deal more than that. Just ask anyone who's reported from Baghdad, or a place that used to be called Zaire.

Thomson Reuters -- shame on you.