(WOMENSENEWS)–Growing up in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, Ingrid Formanek loved listening to Voice of America and learning about the world through the news. She knew at an early age that she wanted to be a journalist and when she immigrated to the United States with her family at age 13, that desire only grew as she witnessed the freedom of press in this country.
Today, at age 47, Formanek is living that dream. As a senior producer for CNN, she is in Iraq covering United Nations weapons inspections. And she has covered some of the most dramatic events in recent history, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the U.S. operation in Mogadishu to genocide in Rwanda to the war in Chechnya. But she will be forever associated with the event that put CNN on the map: the 1991 Gulf War.
News producers usually toil in obscurity, but in the recent HBO movie “Live from Baghdad,” Formanek gets her kudos. The story revolves around former CNN senior producer Robert Weiner and the struggling cable news network’s rise to become a major player in the international media. Formanek (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and Weiner (played by Michael Keaton) were among the few journalists in Baghdad during the 1991 U.S. air strikes and CNN was the only news organization with the equipment to broadcast the events as they happened.
All the attention Formanek has received from “Live from Baghdad,” has been a strange experience, she says. And watching someone else play her in a movie has been equally surreal to this woman who built her career behind the camera. “The first time I saw the movie I cringed, the second time I laughed, and the third time I wished I had made a lot of money out of it.”
“I loved the movie, though it made it seem like I didn’t do anything but sit around batting my eyelashes at Robert Weiner, smoking cigarettes and drinking,” Formanek adds, laughing.
Formanek is certainly doing more than batting her eyelashes. She returned to Baghdad on New Year’s Eve and since then has been covering the U.N. inspections while trying to maintain CNN’s presence in Iraq despite the “constant circle to renew visas.”
Despite Reporting from a War Zone, Formanek Never Felt At Risk
Speaking via satellite phone from Baghdad, Formanek says she returned to the region out of the most basic journalistic desire: to be where the action is.
“Journalists are beating down the door to get in here, everyone wants to cover the story,” she says.
Despite the dramatic premise in “Live from Baghdad” of journalists braving a war zone while bombs fall, Formanek says she never felt that her life was in danger in Iraq. In truth, she says than in 17 years covering wars she can’t recall a time when she was at serious risk.
“I suppose there were a couple of close calls, moments where your heart goes thump, thump,” she says. “But as far as actual danger, I can’t recall.”
Formanek does say that being a Western woman in Islamic countries has helped her get out of some jams. For instance, in 1990, while covering the downing of an airliner in Dubai, she and a camerawoman were arrested for filming the Iranian embassy. She says they were quickly released and that their gender helped speed up the process.
“When you deal with officials in Islamic countries, they are mostly male, and they are fascinated with Western women because they have to deal with us on the same level,” she says. “At the same time, they see women as not on their same level, so that creates this gray area.”
Struggling with Post-Sept. 11 Patriotism
Formanek is part of that generation of today’s top female broadcasters who got their break at CNN. She joined the fledgling news network in 1985, when it was hiring lots of women, she says, largely because women were willing to work for less money and in less glamorous settings just for the chance to prove themselves.
“There were a lot of female camera operators and reporters,” she says, “It was a really good opportunity for women.”
Today, when not covering war zones, Formanek lives in Botswana with her husband, CNN cameraman Brian Puchaty, whom she met while covering the U.S. invasion of Haiti (“another romantic spot,” she says dryly). They moved to Africa hoping to produce documentaries on wildlife, but were so struck by the AIDS epidemic that they instead made what Formanek calls a “do-gooder”–an educational film for Botswana schools on the disease. They also recently worked with Jane Fonda in Nigeria on a documentary about teen sexual health.
But Formanek says that what is most important to her is maintaining integrity, and resisting the trend of what she calls “more style than substance” in the media. She believes that the American media she so admired as child is in peril.
“I don’t know if it’s post-9/11 or a new patriotism or a fear of being seen as anti-American after President Bush’s famous words ‘You’re either with us or against us,'” she says, “but I think we need to question actions and policies as much as we did before and keep governments honest.”
She points to the trend among American journalists to say “we” instead of “the Bush administration” in statements such as, “We are bombing Iraq,” as well as the tendency of news anchors and reporters to wear American flag pins on their lapels. She says these actions makes the jobs of foreign correspondents ever more dangerous and threatens reporters’ credibility among foreign governments to tell the whole, unbiased story.
“People in the news business are buying into the government PR line,” she says. “It’s a trend that we are seeing and we have an obligation to fight it.”
Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Enews.
For more information:
“Live From Baghdad”