Earlier this week, we praised the outlets that are keeping the story of Myanmar’s devastation in both the news and the American consciousness. Among the pieces we mentioned was CNN’s on-the-ground report on the bleak situation in the Irrawaddy Delta, which depicted, in ways a print story simply cannot, the deplorable conditions so many of the cyclone’s survivors have been living in for the past two months—and likely will continue to endure for a long time to come.
CNN has been airing an extended version of that segment, this one exploring in more detail the difficulty of reporting in Myanmar. “Forbidden Journey” features reporter Betty Nguyen narrating the journey she and her crew took to get from Thailand into Myanmar, sneaking past junta checkpoints and taking boat ride after boat ride after boat ride (twenty-one hours of travel). “Just getting into the country was half the battle,” she notes.
As images of Nguyen—driving, sitting on a boat, waiting for another boat, sleeping—cycle onscreen, she describes the trip in more detail. “We slept in stifling conditions,” Nguyen intones with a note of drama, “and lived off of little more than bottled water and Power Bars….We had to work quickly, capturing what we could, never knowing when we’d get caught, trekking though muddy fields, over makeshift bridges, and right into rice paddies.”
Interesting stuff. “Forbidden Journey” is, on the one hand, a valuable look behind the scenes of a difficult reporting job (of encountering rotting bodies, Nguyen notes, “I knew we would find them; I just didn’t know how haunting it would be”), not to mention a fairly scathing commentary on the absurdity of the junta’s ban on foreign journalists. The reporting here, and the risks Nguyen and her team took to undertake it, are both commendable.
And yet. There’s something wrongheaded—I’d say full-on offensive—about making Nguyen and her challenges, rather than the suffering of the Burmese people, the star of the show. Fetishizing the reporting here not only minimizes its subjects—the ones who, it should go without saying, deserve center stage—but it also sucks up air time that could have been used to tell their story in more detail. It’s hard, given the context, to feel much sympathy for Nguyen and her team and their bottled water and Power Bars. And it’s absurd that they would ask us to.
Sure, they faced challenges during their reporting trip. But they also had a home to go back to when it was over.
Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.