Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Victim or villain? Times and Post analyze Bowe Bergdahl

Afghanistan Prisoner Swap

Bowe Bergdahl

Update: June 3. The Times and the Post change places today, with the Times running a story on Bergdahl’s dubious record in Afghanistan and the Post publishing an article on the problems Bergdahl may have re-integrating into his life in Idaho.

Is Bowe Bergdahl a victim or a villain? In their sidebars to the main story this morning, The New York Times and The Washington Post tell dramatically different tales about the Army sergeant, who was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years as a prisoner of war.

The Times’ story, headlined “Mentally, G.I. Has Long Path Back to Idaho,” by Mark Landler, is sympathetic to Bergdahl. Noting that the soldier was subjected to tremendous stress during his captivity, and possibly torture, Landler writes that Bergdahl will require a great deal of physical and psychological treatment in order for him to be able to reclaim his life. Landler:

It is not yet clear whether Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured by his captors, as were many prisoners of war in North Vietnam. But given the ruthless reputation of those who held him, experts said it was likely, at a minimum, that he faced unremitting fear.

Bergdahl may even have lost some of his ability to communicate in English after years of exposure to terrorists who spoke nothing but Pashto, former Times correspondent (and former captive) David Rohde is quoted as saying.

By contrast, the Post’s article, by Dan Lamothe and Kevin Sieff, focuses on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, questioning whether Bergdahl deserted his unit (touched on only briefly by the Times) and if the subsequent search may have placed U.S. forces in danger (mentioned not at all by the Times).

In print, the Post’s headline is relatively mild: “Among some peers, resentment lingers.” The online version is a scorcher: “Mixed reaction to Bergdahl’s recovery by service members who consider him a deserter.”

Particularly rough is a quote from Javier Ortiz, a former Army medic who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Ortiz tells the Post:

I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest. Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.

The Post also quotes from a long, pseudonymous comment posted below a profile of Bergdahl by the late Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in 2012.  The comment reads in part:

The Taliban knew that we were looking for him in high numbers and our movements were predictable. Because of Bergdahl, more men were out in danger, and more attacks on friendly camps and positions were conducted while we were out looking for him. His actions impacted the region more than anyone wants to admit.

The use of unverified comments on the Post’s part is extraordinary, as is its quoting from a series of tweets by @CodyFNfootball that went on in a similar vein following Bergdahl’s release. The Post justified it by saying:

The Washington Post contacted the individual running the Twitter account but received no reply. Like the Rolling Stone comment, however, the tweets included enough specifics about Bergdahl’s unit and location to be regarded as potentially credible by many discussing the case.

The comments, of course, were already widely available online, and they match up with other reporting by the Post. (They also match up with Hastings’ largely sympathetic profile of Bergdahl.) So I have no problem with the Post’s using them as long as everyone understands that they may not be what they seem to be.

As for which story we’ll be talking about more in the days to come, the edge has to go to the Post. The Obama administration was already facing criticism, as Jonathan Topaz reports in Politico, for cutting a deal with the Taliban to send five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl.

At the very least, the Post’s reporting (and not just the Post’s — see this, by CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) raises serious questions that demand answers.

Masters of narrative journalism share their insights

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

“Revel in hardship,” NPR’s Beirut-based correspondent Kelly McEvers told last weekend’s annual narrative journalism conference at Boston University. “Don’t despair if you have a scarcity of resources.”

Sneaking into danger zones where sources were too terrified to speak, the award-winning reporter has spent the past two years covering the Arab Spring uprisings, producing vivid stories with ambient sound, protective descriptions and a remote network of dissidents.

International photographer Alan Chin echoed her comments. He’s an editor at Newsmotion.org, a Kickstarter-funded collation of amateur and professional voices and video that focuses on undercovered human-rights stories. As traditional journalism faces financial crises, “we have to take chances…. We can’t just sit around” complaining about our problems, Chin said. “We have to absolutely be willing to fail.”

Newsmotion founder Julian Rubinstein, a prize-winning magazine and book author, hopes the site offers insight that deadline-driven traditional outlets often neglect.

And narrative journalism’s goal is insight, using fiction’s tools to create compelling scenes — with one huge distinction. Every detail must be as accurate and well documented as in the best investigative reporting. Mitch Zuckoff and Dick Lehr answer the perennial “How did the author know this?” question with 30 to 40 pages of endnotes verifying every detail.

The two, who won several reporting prizes at the Boston Globe and who now teach at Boston University with conference organizer and narrative journalism exemplar Mark Kramer, stressed that point with examples from their latest books.

For Zuckoff, the challenge is to tell an important story in the “richest possible way” — not “lecturing to people,” but drawing them into a complex history. In “Frozen in Time,” he weaves a World War II search-and-survival story into recent attempts to locate a long-missing rescue plane.

Lehr followed the traditional reporter’s dogged tactic of never abandoning the fight to get documents about mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. After years of trying, he found a “treasure trove” of prison files to use in his co-authored “Black Mass,” which chronicles the FBI’s corrupt ties to the fugitive killer.

Narrative journalism doesn’t take years’-long immersion in a story, noted Amy Ellis Nutt. Although she won a Pulitzer Prize ago for a 20-page Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger feature series, she said she’s now a big fan of “miniatures.”

Why? “We don’t live life in long narrative span, [so] short is natural,” she said. “You [can] just jump in the middle.”

To make her point, Nutt cited Ernest Hemingway’s ability to tell a dramatic tale in six words: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” One of her recent narratives, which starts by saying it was “too cold even for the seagulls,” delivers precise description in relatively few words.

Neil Shea, a BU lecturer and award-winning war reporter, has also turned to short-form narrative. He said that conventional coverage of such familiar topics as Afghanistan can become “background noise” for news consumers. So he’s doing regular 300- to 1,100-word vignettes of colorful dialogue and scenes without overwhelming readers with context.

Shea was one of several speakers who underscored the need to prune excess material ruthlessly.

“We have to be merciless self-editors,” he said. When considering using the first person, he said, ask yourself, “Do I really need to be in this story?”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Rosalind Bentley advises cutting anything, no matter how compelling, if it doesn’t support the story’s main thesis. She pored through the 500-page trial transcript after the poet Natasha Trethewey’s stepfather killed her mother to winnow out just this detail: “She died on the pavement.”

Any quote she uses “has to sparkle like the Hope diamond.” If it doesn’t, she’ll paraphrase.

“You can’t just wing it and start writing,” she said. “All your choices have to be deliberate.” So she wields multi-colored highlighters over pages of scrawled notes to boil down the essence of a story in one sentence, and then just one word.

In her definitive profile of Trethewey, the word was “self-definition.”

Why do narrative journalists keep plugging along in an age of economic uncertainty and audience fragmentation?

Author, magazine founder and University of California Berkeley journalism professor Adam Hochschild put it this way: “When you tell a story, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes it affects people.”

He said “Bury the Chains,” his 2005 account of how a few men started a movement to free the slaves in the British Empire, got good reviews, many awards and decent initial sales — then languished on remainder shelves for years.

But recently, Hochschild started getting speaking invitations from global-warming groups, who saw his 18th-century abolitionists as a model of how a few people could change how the world thinks about an issue.

His point: “A story can come bouncing back to you.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

WikiLeaks’ uneasy alliance with the traditional media

Why did WikiLeaks work with traditional news organizations rather than go it alone in releasing the Afghanistan war logs?

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange learned from the way he handled the Apache helicopter video earlier this year that sometimes it’s better to be Daniel Ellsberg than Ben Bradlee. And that Stephen Colbert was right.

Making sense of the WikiLeaks documents

Like just about everyone else in the media world, I’m trying to make sense today of the WikiLeaks documents, the Pentagon Papers of our time.

The documents — reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel — show that the war in Afghanistan has been undermined by untrustworthy “friends” in the Pakistani intelligence service, chaos and duplicity in Afghanistan, and mistakes by American and allied forces leading to civilian casualties.

In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t know, and the White House argues that the situation has been improving since President Obama charted his own course. (The most recent documents in the cache are from December 2009.) Still, like the Pentagon Papers, the documents offer official confirmation that things are (or at least were) as bad as we feared, if not worse.

I think WikiLeaks’ strategy of giving the three Western news organizations a month to go over the documents before making them public was brilliant. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, got a lot of attention over a video it had obtained of an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters freelancers. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the wrong kind of attention — the heavy-handed editing made it appear more like an anti-American propaganda film than documentary evidence. (WikiLeaks also released a longer, unedited version.)

By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story. Jay Rosen, in a characteristically thoughtful post about WikiLeaks (“the world’s first stateless news organization”), thinks Assange did it because he knew the story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved unless the traditional media could break it.

I don’t disagree, but I think a more important reason is that the public will take it more seriously.

Also: At the Nation, Greg Mitchell has been rounding up links about the WikiLeaks story here and here.

Liberals and Afghanistan

Not quite sure what to make of this. But at our extremely liberal suburban Unitarian Universalist church this morning, I heard more support (albeit reluctant) for President Obama’s build-up in Afghanistan than I hear from congressional Democrats. Or, for that matter, from the four Democrats running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

One possible meaning: Mainstream liberals are not as reflexively antiwar as the interest groups that lobby Democrats on our supposed behalf think we are. Indeed, according to a CNN poll taken after Obama’s speech last week, the build-up of troops is supported by a margin of 62 percent to 36 percent.