It’s not clear if Dalton Bennett ‘09 follows trouble or if trouble follows him, but he has covered just about every hot spot in the world in the few years since his graduation. This past year alone, the Associated Press video journalist has covered the Westgate Mall Attacks, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Gaza War, economic crisis in Athens, unrest in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Crimea, the fall of Mosul, the Scottish Referendum, and, most recently, events in Iraq.
It would be easy to assume that someone with his track record would be an adrenaline junkie, thriving on danger and risk-taking for the thrills and praise. And yet, neither Bennett nor his work is so predictable, and he’s as comfortable quoting Faulkner and Twain as Libyan rebels and Kurdish refugees.
Bennett was in Williamsburg recently for Homecoming and to receive the Baxter-Ward Fellowship, which recognizes alumni of the government department who have distinguished themselves in their field of endeavor. It was created by gifts from alumni and friends of the government department to recognize the contributions of Professors Alan J. Ward and Donald J. Baxter upon their retirements.
Dalton began his talk with a disclaimer: “I’m not going to provide answer to the world’s problems or add to the world’s punditry.” Instead, he wanted to share some thoughts and observations as a former William & Mary student.
He recalled spending his “days at Morton and evening at the delis” and still gets cold-sweat dreams about unfinished term papers. But he describes his time at William & Mary as never having left him. When asked about the value of journalism school, Bennett replied that what he had found most useful was his liberal arts education at William & Mary, courses like Middle East political systems and “the time spent in these halls at Morton, challenging my prejudices and know-it-all attitudes.”
He originally thought after graduation he’d move to D.C. – he had participated in the W&M in Washington program -- possibly join the Foreign Service, but he kept asking himself if that were really what he wanted.
“I always loved getting to the bottom of things; being where I shouldn’t,” he said.
And so he took off for Kyrgyzstan after graduation, not sure what he was looking for or where it would lead him. He’d been there just a few months, doing some blogging, when a revolution broke out. Instinctively, he rushed into the streets to photograph the clashes between protesters and government security forces.
“And then I noticed this guy in a red jacket … tall, clearly not from there, and he’s looking at me and goes, ‘You’re not from here. Man, what the hell are you doing here?’ and to this day I’m trying to find out.”
It turns out that “guy in a red jacket” was an Associate Press reporter, Peter Leonard, AP’s chief in Kiev, who took Bennett under his wing and gave him a foundation in journalism. Prior to that, he’d had no formal background.
His “first real assignment from AP” was in Libya. He was in Bengazi in March 2011. Bennett described the five months he spent with the rebels, culminating in the siege of Misrata and the fall of Tripoli.
“I forged lifelong bonds with the rebel fighters and still get periodic email updates … so-and-so got married, so-and-so died … so-and-so has gone to Syria to fight.”
The Misrata rebels had pushed towards Tripoli in a D-Day-like landing. After five months of fighting they headed straight to Gaddafi’s palace.
Dalton hopped on the back of a moped, and they rode through the gates that had been breached. Waiting at the Gaddafi statue were the rebels he had gotten to know earlier in Misrata – “he and his guys were the ones who broke through.”
When asked how he stays calm in the midst of chaos and war, Bennett answered with a grin: “My friends describe me as suspiciously chill.” But he added that he finds it calming to sit around with people, getting to know them.
“It’s very rewarding for me to tell people’s stories,” he said.
Although he acknowledges he has been fortunate, Bennett doesn’t minimize the risk inherent in this calling he’s chosen. In August he spent three weeks in Gaza, reporting on events that took the lives of two colleagues and injured another.
During the Kyrgyzstan Revolution, he admits he hit a low point – sleeping on the floor of his editor’s apartment. So he called his mother.
“She informed me, 'You’ve had your fun, but it’s time to leave,'” he said.
His uncle purchased an airline ticket home for him.
Bennett was terrified – all the new sights, sounds and smells. Eighty people killed in two days.
“I thought I was never meant for that. But then something clicked, and I did not catch that flight,” he said.
This fall, Bennett’s work was recognized when he received the 2014 Oliver S. Gramling Award for Journalism. The award is presented annually by the Associated Press to recognize excellence and includes a $10,000 prize.
As to why he continues to go wherever stories take him, Bennett summed it up this way: “As James Joyce said, ‘The longest way round is the shortest way home,’ and I found my home as a journalist.”