For most, going to war means being armed with a gun, but Mike Boettcher enters warzones armed instead with cameras, microphones and an unyielding passion for sharing the truth.
For over three decades, Boettcher has worked as a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent for NBC News and CNN, documenting world conflict and the stories of those involved. In an interview, he described some of his own journey and explained why he believes storytelling is one of the most potent forms of ammunition available in the fight against injustice in the world today.
Megan Ross: Why did you choose a career in journalism?
Mike Boettcher: I was a young boy in the 1960s, and we were involved in a big war back then--the Vietnam War--and my brother was in the Air Force and was sent to Vietnam. So every night, I would sit in front of the TV set and watch Walter Cronkite and I’d hope to catch a glimpse of my brother in Vietnam, but then I saw those reporters giving reports from out there in Vietnam, and I decided I wanted to be able to go out and do that...I knew back then I wanted to be a foreign correspondent.
MR: Did you ever regret your decision?
MB: No, no. I love this job. [Journalists] are given a great gift. I have a ticket to the front row of history, and that’s a great place to be sitting--watching history, being there when it’s happening.
MR: If you had to divide your career into chapters, how would you divide it?
MB: I would say I have three chapters. Beginning as a young kid who felt like he didn’t know anything, to a young reporter who felt like he knew everything, then to the last phase of my life, which is, I have a lot to learn.
MR: What have you learned so far?
MB: It takes a lot of people working together to make a difference, whether it’s in journalism or politics. And I’ve learned what my mother knew for decades, because my mother was a schoolteacher, and there would always be people who had been her students who had gone away and been successful, and they’d come back and they’d thank my mom. And I didn’t really realize what all that was about until I was able to come [to the University of Oklahoma] and teach. Now I’m finding that the biggest reward in life is influencing a new generation and letting them hear your experiences, letting them hear your mistakes, having them learn from that and succeed.
MR: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
MB: In 1980, I was sent to El Salvador to cover the guerilla war there, which was very bloody, and I mean, I was just off the truck from Oklahoma. I had never covered a war or anything. So I went to the most experienced and oldest guy on the ground there, and said “Hey, look. I don’t know what I’m doing. Do you have any advice for me?” And he said, “Son, never get on your knees.” And I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, except that I knew there was a journalist from ABC News who was killed in 1979 by soldiers in Nicaragua when they told him to get on his knees and shot him in the head. And it was all filmed. His name was Bill Stewart. So five years later, I’m kidnapped in El Salvador by Salvadoran guerrillas who accuse me of being a spy. They took me to the backside of a volcano where bodies used to be dumped. They told me to get on my knees, and I knew they were going to execute me. I refused to get on my knees, because I remembered what he’d told me. And it so confused them that I wouldn’t submit to them--because once you submit, psychologically, I’ve learned, it makes you easier for them to kill. So I decided I’m going to fight them, and I was beaten pretty badly, but they didn’t shoot me. So that was the best advice I got. It saved my life. “Never get on your knees.” And that holds true in a lot of things. Never submit. Never get on your knees.
MR: In your opinion, what are the core responsibilities of journalists to the public?
MB: The core responsibility is to give voice to the voiceless. I mean, that’s what I live by. And to be as objective as possible. That doesn’t mean that there is perfect objectivity. There is not. We are all products of our experiences in life. All you can do is try your best to check those at the door and give everyone in the story a voice. But the core principle is to give voice to the voiceless, because those are the people we fight for as journalists, I believe.
MR: Do you think storytelling can be a powerful tool?
MB: It’s the most powerful tool on earth. Storytelling is as old as humankind itself, and it’s incredibly important, because people need to be informed, but they don’t want to be told “You need to know this.” They want to be entertained at the same time. They want to feel engaged. With stories, your word can be spread around the world if it’s interesting. [It can] make a difference.
MR: So what’s your next major project?
MB: I’m heading to South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East to create a company that will be recruiting young Asian filmmakers and storytellers to tell the stories of their countries. We want those stories to be delivered where Millennials live, whether they’re in Asia or the United States. We are going to tell stories about human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and some of my partners in this business have relationships with Rock Against Trafficking. We hope to combine our storytelling with music to be able to galvanize the international community to be able to fight against human trafficking.
While bullets tear flesh and bombs shake the earth, storytelling is Boettcher’s weapon of choice when it comes to making change. As he tackles his next assignment, breaking the silence of the overlooked and oppressed, he’ll maintain his steadfast commitment to the truth, and he will never get on his knees.