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Opinion

Even as Election Dominates Cable, Bravo CNN for Critical Reporting From Syria

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Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN Worldwide, recently was pressed to defend the inordinate coverage that the network has offered of Republican party frontrunner Donald Trump. After all, in this chicken-or-egg debate about Trump’s popularity stemming from seemingly endless media coverage, it seems reasonable to wonder whether network power players hold some level of responsibility for the Trump phenomenon. Zucker argued, “I actually reject that premise that we’ve given too much attention to him.”

But Trump livestreams, rallies, and panel talking points aside, major kudos are due to CNN for its recent coverage of the harrowing Syrian Civil War and the work of Clarissa Ward, the network’s Senior International Correspondent. CNN has given significant airtime and clearly devoted resources to Ward’s most recent trip to, quite literally, the frontlines of terror. Although Ward has made a dozen trips to Syria since unrest broke out in 2011 alone (and many before then) footage, interviews and reports of her most recent trip have been seen all over CNN broadcasts as of late.

While the eyes of the world may be planted on the circus tricks from the American campaign trail animals, it may be convenient to overlook the true devastation that Syria has faced. Ward has put herself into the most precarious situations imaginable for a journalist, doing excellent work from the field in the process and giving a face to the tales of devastation and bloodshed that the world deserves to see.

“I spent six months preparing for this trip,” Ward told me. She outlined the meticulous planning and care that went into her most recent visit to Syria, which covered areas like Aleppo and Idlib. “I spent years developing the relationships that allowed me to do it. So I felt pretty comfortable that we had mitigated the kidnapping threat.”

That threat has been one of the most increasingly circumspect dangers that have prevented other Western journalists from attempting the same sort of coverage. Ward believes that this most recent trip along with her producer Salma Abdelaziz marked the first time in a year-and-a-half that any Western journalist had covered the calamitous developments on the ground.

6.5 million Syrians are displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict, and for those who remain behind in regions like Aleppo and Idlib, daily life carries with it a remarkably threatening existence. Ward’s recent reporting shows how even basic fruit stands — often the only signs of teeming life among unimaginable ruins — often become the target for the newest wave of airstrikes. Ward told me, “We could hear Russian jets overheard. We could hear the dull thud of explosions in the distance. We could hear some active fighting. You don’t hear it on camera; but when you’re on the ground, you can hear fighting all the time.”

I asked Ward what the most frightening part of her most recent visit to the region was, and she candidly spoke about the threat of airstrikes. She said, “The only time I ever really felt scared was during the airstrikes that we witnessed. It’s a psychological thing… you don’t know how you can protect yourself — because you can’t, essentially. In those moments, you are acutely vulnerable.”

Perhaps most remarkably, Ward and Abdelaziz uncovered the scores of proud Syrian people who adamantly refuse to leave their homeland. “I always assumed — as I think many of us did — that people who stayed inside these Rebel-held parts of Syria did so because they were either too poor or too sick to leave,” Ward told me. But the reality is that public servants like doctors and lawyers are incredibly committed to ensuring that their work endures for the people who need them.

“They’ve suffered so much. They’ve shed so much blood, they’ve lost so many people. They can’t turn back now. It’s past the point of no return.”

CNN continues to cover this ongoing crisis with admirable and dogged commitment, giving Ward a platform to speak about her work. Immediately after our interview, she was being whisked off to appear yet again on CNN. On Monday alone, Clarissa Ward did 20 live shots across CNN/US and CNN International properties. Ward has been actively discussing her work on the ground, such as one report from a hospital where badly-wounded children were being carried in on blood-soaked stretchers, minutes before their deaths; in one particular dramatic take, Ward and her driver are seen speeding down Aleppo’s “Death Road”, a dangerous stretch where the intersection of the regime and Rebel-fighting Kurdish fighters are engaged in gunfire daily.

All elements of the CNN enterprise have championed Ward’s work with prime placement, including digital and social media platforms. Ward’s Facebook Live discussion this week reached 1.7 million viewers alone.

It’s a bold and admirable programming move; with both parties storming towards naming their nominees in the 2016 election, primary returns, and highly-televised Trump rallies and protests, putting such a concerted focus on an unparalleled humanitarian crisis is probably not a ratings boon for CNN. Those are the times we in the media critique business should offer our praise.

As Ward told me, the devastation for the Syrian people is far from over, and her role covering the crisis will likely continue until a specific, clear objective is reached:

“Really it comes down to one key demand,” Ward told me. “President Bashar al-Assad must step down. For the people on the ground, it’s a dealbreaker.”

[images provided by CNN]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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