Three Reporters at NPR Recall Their Work Covering Wars

From a story on by Sitara Nieves headlined “On the front liners of wars—and their profession—3 NPR foreign reporters recall their work”:

NPR is just one of many media companies that’s announced layoffs this year. After the company announced it was facing a $30 million decline in revenue, it began layoffs and offered voluntary buyouts, leading to some of the largest staff reductions in NPR’s history.

Three of NPR’s longest-serving foreign reporters – and household voices for public radio listeners for decades — were part of these staff departures: Deborah Amos, Julie McCarthy and Sylvia Poggioli. It struck me how much international reporting experience, history and knowledge was walking out the door of the network in such a short time, and I wanted to bring the three of them together to talk about their work, what it had been like to be among the first female foreign correspondents, and how their perspective on how journalism and international reporting has changed.

I calculated that together you have 114 years of experience working for NPR. Sylvia: 41 years. Deb: 35 years. Julie: 38 years. How often did the three of you actually talk in those years?

Sylvia Poggioli: Well, we all worked together at one point or another. (Laughs)

Julie McCarthy: I was actually their editor. I was Deb’s editor and Sylvia’s editor, so we were talking all the time. And I have to say, their shoulders must be aching because I stand on them. Everything I learned to go out in the field, I learned from them and these amazing people who I had the privilege to edit.

Deborah Amos: I mean, the thing about all of us is we were so different in what we were reporting. I mean, there’s always this oddness among reporters. You know, we’re competitive. There’s no doubt about that, but it didn’t matter with the three of us because we weren’t covering the same things. Our issues were the same issues, but it wasn’t like I was going to steal anybody’s story, and neither was Julia or Sylvia. So we were just comrades in this crazy news business, working for this crazy company that was learning it along the way. You know, we were the last ones to have flak jackets, the last ones to have helmets. We were the last ones to have security people, we were the last ones to have trackers. So we had to depend on each other. Not only that, but certainly for me, it was other female correspondents in the field that got you through that stuff until your own company caught up. So, yeah, we talked a lot.

I would love to hear more about what that was like at the start of your careers as one of the few female correspondents – and what’s changed?

Amos: You never thought about it in the office, because the truth is NPR had an imbalance of females – because the pay was so bad in the beginning. 1982 was my first reporting gig, and, boy, there were hardly any other women. By ’91 is when it shifted. More than half of the correspondents in that war were women, and that had not been true until that moment. I’m sorry if the two of you have heard the story before, but it’s my favorite to talk about how it changed. Carol Morello wrote an article (for Knight-Ridder News Service). She was out with a quartermaster, a woman, and her job was to have the stuff that everybody needs on their base.

And her complaint was – and the lead of the story was – “trading body bags for tampons.” Because her problem was she had too many body bags and not enough tampons in her stock. And I said, there’s not a man on this planet who would have written that story with that lead. It just wouldn’t have happened. It told you so much about who wrote it and what the issue was.

Here’s the lede to that story, filed from Saudi Arabia by Carol Morello for the Knight-Ridder News Service on February 19, 1991.

Supply Sgt. Leona Overstreet was perplexed when her counterpart from an all-male combat engineers unit dropped by to ask if she had any female sundry kits to swap.

“There’s an evac hospital down the road that has body bags, and I need body bags,” he explained, “but all they need is tampons. So if you can give me some tampons, I can get my body bags, and I’ll get you anything you need.”

She sent him on his way with a trash bag filled with tampons, and pocketed an uncashed chit for a returned favor in the future.

Poggioli: Just a few months after the first Gulf War, in June, the breakup of Yugoslavia started, first with the breakup of Slovenia, and then the war in Croatia. And that’s when news outlets started sending a lot of freelancers, and many of them were women.

And the rape story (about systematic rape used as a weapon of war) broke out shortly after the war in Bosnia in the summer of ’92. That was a story that was very hard for our male colleagues to cover. It was pretty hard for women reporters, too – it wasn’t easy. It was very hard to get these women to talk, of course, but it was basically women reporters who were able to cover that story. And in fact, for the first time, because of that coverage, because of so many women covering that, rape was recognized at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal as a war crime for the first time.

McCarthy: That was a very, very big deal. That was a very big moment. Not only thanks to the reporters, but thanks to the women who testified before the panels who were creating the Rome Statute (of the International Criminal Court), not the least of which were a group of women in Asia. My first story out of Japan in 1994 was about comfort women, sexually enslaved women by the Japanese Imperial Army.

So that’s my first story. I love this whole idea that you can bookend things. That’s your first story. Fast forward to 2020. And there is a story I do. It’s an investigation, really, on the sexually enslaved women of the Philippines. They had these incredible stories, and they have been seeking justice from Japan and their own government for 75 years. Just a few months ago, the United Nations finally said, “Okay, Japan did not live up to its obligations. The Philippines failed its obligations, and now the Philippines has got to pay these women reparations.” This is a nonbinding ruling, unfortunately for these women. It was just this incredible story of a 75-year-old World War II war atrocity that’s alive today because these women had the guts and the courage to come out and tell the world what happened to them, a la what Sylvia’s talking about: rape as an instrument of war. There you end up with the Rome Statute. What was really extraordinary to me was these women are still battling. They’re in their 90s, and they’re still battling. So it is this fight for justice. It’s a cause to right the wrongs of history. And they are just indomitable.

How have your jobs as American journalists reporting in other countries changed? Have sources changed the way that they respond to you?

McCarthy: That’s a very big question I have many years, decades later, which is: Where have we come? I went out in the world and I thought, “What does it mean to be an American?” I discovered all these great privileges and doors opening, and it was very humbling because people wanted to provide you access. There was just something about that passport. That is a whole different world today.

People think we’re No. 1. We’re not – in so many indices across the world. We are being outcompeted. Economically, this is going to have a huge impact on this country. It already has. What does it mean to be an American, I think, is a kind of a full-circle question. It’s changed dramatically since when I first went out in the field. It makes it much more nuanced and interesting and challenging because people don’t want to talk to you. You’re the bad guy now – and you’ve gotta figure out how you’re going to navigate that.

Poggioli: Where it was very difficult to be an American journalist was certainly in the Balkan wars, not on all sides, obviously, but certainly on the Serbian side. Certainly after the NATO bombing against Serbia and Kosovo, being an American was a very bad thing. Traveling through Serbian-held areas of Bosnia, you didn’t really want to show or say you were an American.

Otherwise, in Europe, generally speaking, I haven’t had negative experiences. But I agree very much with what Julie says: The perception today is very different. The U.S. doesn’t call the shots anymore.

Amos: I covered the Middle East, where it’s not easy to be an American, and it never was. But it got harder over time. Iraq was the worst of it because there were troops occupying the country. It made you very much aware that your blue passport was not going to help you if somebody actually decided that they wanted to capture you. I think the bigger issue than being an American is – and it was true when I first started ’82 – that every side of a war wanted to talk to you. You were a journalist, and they had this idea that if they talked to a journalist, that was a good thing. As time went on, that was no longer true.

I would love to get a sense of how you’re thinking about this particular moment in journalism.

McCarthy: Well, I think it’s completely tumultuous, and it’s a complete upheaval for everyone. I mean, the landscape is just kind of shifting under everybody’s feet. And this is far from settled. My call would be: I don’t care what platform you’re on. Pick a platform to work on, but master it. We have to master multiple platforms. And that requires tricks of its own. You’ve got to design and devise some kind of poetry to push things out in a very short fashion. In fact, I was looking at old transcripts versus new transcripts, and the size of our stories has just shrunk – and you have to stop and say, “Are we serving? Are we adding to the sum total of human knowledge with this kind of brevity?”

The world’s an extremely complex place. Most interesting, complex issues demand time to talk. The people you’re talking to — there’s an emotional arc to a story. It’s usually layered and nuanced, and if you want to get anywhere near any kind of verisimilitude or something that resembles truth, you’ve got to put out nuance, and you have to put it out in a way that’s going to intrigue people, and make them want to listen, and illuminate them, and entertain them. This is a very, very tall order. It’s always been a tall order, but now it’s even taller because you have all these time compressions and all the space compression. It behooves people to strive to push these platforms to be at a more elegant level because without that, without the poetry, I think you are kind of adding to what is very often the white noise of news today.

Amos: I teach journalism, and I always ask, so what do you listen to? In 2012, the answer from my students was The New York Times, The Washington Post on their parents’ subscriptions, National Public Radio on the radio, and Al Jazeera English. And they all said that. That’s what they all did. Now? None of those categories. They do not listen to the radio. They do not read the newspaper.

And it’s not that they’re not informed. They are. But the gap between the professors and them has grown in a remarkable way. And so I have to rethink how I teach journalism – because it’s changed that much.

Poggioli: Looking at it from the point-of-view of the consumer: When I was a kid, there were three TV networks and most Americans sat down and watched one of the three news shows in the evening, and we all, more or less, shared the same information about domestic and world events. We were all on the same plane. That is absolutely not true now. Now there is so much polarization of information. It’s so factional. We’re on different planets. And it’s led to huge distrust of the media, and I don’t know how this segmentation can be repaired.

McCarthy: It’s massive because it has everything to do with, “How does a democracy function?” And can a democracy function in this kind of fractional information environment? The flip side of all this is that competition all over the place is not a bad thing. When we were growing up, NPR was the only radio game in town. Man, are we so not the only game in town now. And it behooves everybody to up their game.

I know you all haven’t actually had a formal send-off. I wonder if this were a send off, what you would say about each other.

McCarthy: I do stand on the shoulders of Deb and Sylvia. I learned enormously from them. I couldn’t have gone out in the world and did what I did. I couldn’t have gone out with the confidence that I went out with. I knew I was ready, and I was ready because I saw how a piece gets put together, I saw what it means to be in historic events, how they flow, how you should flow with them. I was lucky enough to be the European editor when The Wall came down, and that was just an enormous thing, personally and professionally. I thought I had the best job in the world, and frankly, I still do think I had the best job in the world. It just infused in you the importance of history, knowing history as the infuser of your passion, of what it is you’re going to cover, how you’re going to cover it.

You have to know the history of World War II today to cover Ukraine, full stop. Once you know that you’re imbued with such rich texture and layers and understanding, and that’s what you get from reading and knowing history. That’s actually what I would tell people going out into this trade. I mean, pick whatever platform you want, master it, but know what you’re talking about.

It’s a very serious endeavor, and if you take it that way, I think it’ll be extremely rewarding. That and go through the world with a lot of humility, and then it’ll open up to you.

Amos: So, Julie, in 1989, I had the best job in the world because I was there in Berlin.

McCarthy: Yeah, no kidding.

Amos: Here’s the thing about the three of us. You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I am proud that I worked with you guys for all these years.

McCarthy: Me too.

Poggioli: Me too.

Amos: We were good. We had the same values. And we cheered on each other. We made fun of management together. It’s what you’re supposed to do. We traded tricks and insights. We always did. It was very collegial. NPR has been – maybe it’s because there’s so many women there – but it has always been a collegial desk. This was before we could do things like have WhatsApp and everybody can be on together. We used to have to work at this — talk to each other – but we did. I will go back to say that you guys changed my life.

McCarthy: Same here. Absolutely. Directed the course of it.

Sitara Nieves is Vice President, Teaching and Organizational Strategy at The Poynter Institute. Her portfolio includes the Digital Transformation Program and leadership training for newsrooms.

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