You run into all sorts of people living and working in Afghanistan. In my time there – first as soldier, then as a counter-narcotics civilian for the state department – I met the full range from the regional governor to senior military commanders to government officials. I even met a few folks I’m now am sure were trying to kill me. The people I hated meeting most, however, were the journalists.
My perception of the media was that it’s a business. As a soldier, I had seen firsthand reporters who were just looking for stories to sensationalize. Stories of soldiers setting up a medical clinic or sweating in 140-degree heat to help rebuild a school just weren’t newsworthy to them. Not when there was a truth to stretch. Or so I thought.
After a few years in the Middle East, I decided to go back to college. My plan was to get a degree and become a manager within the State Department – someone with both on-the-ground experience and the credentials to run the programs I had been worked in. I never thought it would lead me to journalism.
When I was younger I occasionally watched the news. But it wasn’t until I joined the Army that I became truly interested in news. In the military I saw how the news of the day directly impacted my life. In 1995, I watched President Bill Clinton signed the Dayton Peace Accord on live television. A few months later, I was in Bosnia enforcing that very accord.
In Afghanistan, our mission was to hinder Taliban recruitment by winning the hearts and minds of locals. The embedded reporters who followed us, however, didn’t seem to be interested in the work we were doing.
One over-dramatized and sensationalized piece in particular haunted us for the rest of our tour. It was just another story for the reporter – about how there was a higher bounty on the soldiers of my unit than the average soldier – but for my commander and others in my unit, it was devastating. After it was published, my commander spent the better part of an hour by satellite phone trying to get his wife and daughters to stop crying with worry about him.
That experience came to mind when I returned to college in Washington state. Among my few options for a humanities a course was a journalism class. So I took the plunge.
For the first few weeks, I almost thought of it as working for the enemy. Everyone – from my professor to visiting journalists – challenged me to be the kind of thorough and balanced reporter that journalists are really supposed to be. It was a humbling and eye opening experience. And it didn’t take long to see how important journalism can be. By the end of that first quarter, I was hired on to be the opinions editor for the school newspaper. Two quarters later, I was editor-in-chief. Based on a story I wrote, I even got the school to change policies in the student athlete handbook that restricted free speech.
I soon realized that if I got my degree and went back to work for the State Department, I might have an impact on one program in one small sector. But as a journalist, I could report on a whole range of issues and have a much wider effect.
Just as I was a grunt in the Army, I plan to be a grunt journalist – someone who can report truth from the ground level. A few short years ago I would never have imagined being a journalist. Now I can’t imagine being anything else.