behind the news

Bill Gentile on covering Afghanistan

A veteran foreign correspondent talks about his documentary on western journalists on assignment in Afghanistan
July 12, 2007

Bill Gentile, producer and director of the documentary “Dateline Afghanistan: Reporting the Forgotten War”, which follows several Western journalists on the job in Afghanistan, has been a foreign correspondent for the past thirty years. He began in 1977 working for United Press International in Mexico City, followed by stints in Nicaragua covering the Sandinista revolution, as well as the Contra war and the Salvadoran civil war. He currently is an artist in residence at American University in Washington, D.C., where he created the Foreign Correspondence Network, and teaches students the realities of being a foreign correspondent.

PM: What was the inspiration for making a documentary about Western journalists in Afghanistan?

BG: I wanted it to be the first in a series of documentaries about how foreign correspondents do their work. The whole idea behind “Dateline Afghanistan” is to show the reality of a certain country or a certain region of the world through the eyes of the people who cover that country or region. I think transmitting information about those places is a lot easier and perhaps even more effective if I do it through the eyes and the ears of the correspondents who work there. They’re generally youngish people, they’re smart, they’re dynamic, they’re doing interesting things–so if I tell their story, in Afghanistan, or wherever, at the same time I’m telling the story of the people of the country where they work.

PM: You’ve been in the game for so long, what are some of the big changes that you’ve seen in how foreign coverage is presented in the United States?

BG: Reporters are still out there working in the field, but there are vast differences in how the reporters do their jobs technically. Essentially the job is the same: you’re out there to get information. In Afghanistan, that job is much more difficult in many ways, and that’s due to a number of factors. Language has an awful lot to do with that and the cultural barriers are much more significant and harder to break through than they were in Central America.

PM: How are the Western correspondents you spoke to in Afghanistan handling those cultural gaps?

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BG: I had the great privilege of being able to work with some great correspondents. Carlotta Gall of The New York Times, N.C. Aizenman of The Washington Post, Andrew North of the BBC–just terrific journalists who have worked very hard and have been quite successful in reporting the essence of what’s happening in Afghanistan. As far as I know, Andrew was the only one making a serious effort to really learn the language. The others used interpreters and assistants who were very good, but if you don’t understand the language, it’s really tough to get under the skin of a place.

PM: I was surprised at one scene in the documentary where a female BBC producer offended some Afghan brick makers by showing up with her jeans rolled up and without a headscarf. This long into the war, and some reporters don’t understand the cultural mores of the place?

BG: Carlotta Gall never wore a headscarf, and I was a bit surprised by that. Having said that, women journalists working in Afghanistan generally have an easier time than men. The men can go talk to government officials, they can talk to farmers, they can go to a house and the men of the family will invite them into the living room so they can talk about what’s happening in the country. The women can do that, but can also get into the kitchen and speak with the women in a way that the men never could. My first reaction working with Carlotta and N.C. Aizenman was that it must be really tough for them working in the country, but they said that they can get into places that the men simply cannot.

PM: How many Western journalists were over there?

BG: I would say, including staffers, freelancers–a handful, maybe a dozen, maybe not even a dozen. As you know, because of cutbacks, the number of mainstream correspondents is being reduced significantly all around the world, even in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where we need them the most. One of the bitter ironies of this whole thing is that the people who are doing these cutbacks at newspapers and television networks and so forth, their argument is that it’s just too expensive to keep these guys out in the field, and certainly there are costs involved. But these same newspapers that are cutting back so drastically on their reporting staff, some of them are making close to 20 percent a year profit. If you run a business, and if you make 5 percent a year profit, or 10 percent, you’re wildly successful. That excuse just doesn’t hold water.

PM: How often did the reporters you spoke to go out on embeds?

BG: Quite often. Carlotta Gall goes out a lot. Andrew North, who has since been sent to Baghdad–who was one of the most aggressive of the correspondents I saw there–goes out frequently with American troops. The problem for many of these correspondents is that their jobs are multifaceted. On the one hand, particularly for people like Carlotta, she’s supposed to do very analytical pieces, but she’s also expected to cover breaking news as well. The same thing with Andrew but kind of in a reverse way. Andrew’s primary responsibility was to cover breaking news for BBC radio, BBC television, and BBC Web, but to really get under the skin of the place, he’s got to go out there and spend time in the field and not just rely on stringers and telephone calls to do his job, so these guys are very stretched.

PM: How important are fixers/interpreters to what Western reporters do on a daily basis?

BG: The local hires are critical, because these are really the eyes and ears for the correspondents. Western correspondents really couldn’t do their jobs very well without them. In the 1980s I knew people who drove from California down into Central America and set up shop and became journalists, and if something went awry, they were able to drive back home. That’s not the case in Afghanistan.

PM: What would you say to domestic critics who argue that reporters only cover the “bad news” in Afghanistan?

BG: I hear criticism of journalists, and there’s a lot to criticize, and I include myself in that. But I really believe that we’re out there, collectively, trying to tell people the reality of what’s happening. And when you have stories like American bombs accidentally taking out twenty people in a village, well, that’s just by definition a more urgent story than a road being built. Quite honestly, you can find those good-news stories, they’re out there, they just don’t make as much impact as those harsh news stories do.

But part of the problem is not what these men and women are reporting on, but what their editors decide to put on television, in the paper, on the radio. I think some of the editors in our country have lost the sense of their role, and their role is about more than just publishing or broadcasting only what that lowest common denominator wants to see. Part of their role is to actually set the agenda of what Americans see and read and listen to.

PM: What do you tell your students who want to be foreign correspondents?

BG: In my classes I have to be very careful about not giving them a false sense of what’s going on out there. I think being a foreign correspondent is one of the most exciting professions any man or woman–increasingly women–can choose, but the world is much different than it was when I spent a majority of my time covering conflicts. It’s a meaner place now, and where we had a certain amount of license, or immunity, actually, as Americans and as journalists, in most cases we don’t have that any more. In fact, being a journalist and being an American journalist in some parts of the world can be a liability. So the young men and women who I’m training to go out there to be correspondents, I’m trying to make them very, very aware of this.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.