Q&A: CBS’s Elizabeth Palmer on reporting from the front lines of Syria’s civil war

Elizabeth Palmer, CBS News Correspondent, London based Photo: John Paul Filo/CBS.

Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, Elizabeth Palmer has traversed the Middle East, reporting on some of the world’s most complex, catastrophic conflicts for the CBS Evening News. She has reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, uprisings and press crackdowns in Iran, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She is also one of the few Western broadcast journalists to report extensively from within Syria as the country’s civil uprising spiraled into a chaotic war of attrition.

For that work in Syria, conducted over more than a dozen trips into the country, Palmer is accepting an Alfred I. duPont Award, the broadcast journalism equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize, which she will be presented at a ceremony on Tuesday evening. The honor recognizes her series of courageous daily news reports on what she calls “one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time.”

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Palmer spoke to CJR from London about the destruction she witnessed, the challenges of reporting from the front lines, and her position as a role model for women interested in combat journalism. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Palmer in the field. Courtesy CBS News.

Since September 11, you’ve been on the Middle East conflict beat pretty much nonstop. Can you give some context for the level of tragedy you’ve seen during the Syrian Civil War? With few American troops in the country, it seems like it has received less coverage than earlier conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In my career—and I’ve been covering conflict for more than two decades—the kind of things we saw in Syria I’ve only ever seen twice before. Once was only in photographs; it was Berlin after the Second World War. The other, that I saw with my own eyes, was Grozny, after the Russians had finished bombing it to smithereens to end the Second Chechen War.

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Armies tend to do more damage if they aren’t very good, and the Syrian Army wasn’t very good. Many of the rebel groups they were fighting weren’t very good, in the sense that they had poor training and that they had old Soviet weapons or weapons looted from the Americans that they didn’t know how to use properly. That’s just a recipe for massive destruction. Add to that the Russian bombing, and it’s hard sometimes to believe the level of destruction, the amount of pulverization. It’s the architecture of poverty—cement and cinder block buildings—and the lives of people who lived in those. They were marginalized people to begin with and now their homes are reduced completely to rubble the size of pea gravel. And it’s also the destruction of the great treasures of the earth, like the covered market in Aleppo. It was also smashed to bits, mainly by men using weapons they weren’t used to handling and certainly had no interest in being precise with.

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It would seem that those conditions create a dangerous situation for reporters, too. You were often the only Western network correspondent in the country. What precautions did you and your crew take, and how did you weigh the risks  of being on location to get the story?

It’s a moving target. You have to be constantly reassessing. This war morphed; it started out as a civil uprising and became a war of airpower that was using a global superpower’s planes, so that’s quite a distance that it traveled over six years.

Asymmetrical war is always dangerous. In a conventional war you know where the front lines are and you decide how close you’re going to get. You know who the commanders are. In an asymmetrical war, a civil war, a guerrilla war, which this was, you have no idea who the combatants are sometimes. You have no idea where people’s allegiances lie, and so calculating the risk of moving around becomes a function of who you can trust. Contacts are crucial.

We were lucky to be able to keep going in, many times over several years, because we really did learn who we could trust and who would protect us. I can’t, even today, name those people, but they saved our lives more than once. On top of that, the United Nations can do a great job of keeping their people in country safe, and their security people, most of them are former military guys, are amazing at knowing what the real picture is. They have to know the commanders on both sides because they’re arranging prisoner exchanges and food deliveries, so they actually have cell phone numbers of all the key people. The UN was unfailingly generous in helping us protect ourselves.

Even so, in a battlefield like Syria, the actual fighting sort of drifts back and forth around the countryside as groups of rebels and guerrillas were engaging the army here and there or sometimes different groups of rebels would have fights with each other. It was hugely complicated. One of the most dangerous parts of the whole exercise was to get into Aleppo safely. The main highway has been closed for many years so we had to take these little ziggedy zaggedy roads, and we would try to follow the main food convoys. But if you’re the only car on the road and there’s nobody to follow and nobody to ask, you could take a wrong turn and run smack into the middle of a firefight without even realizing until it was too late. So those drives, in and out of Aleppo, were pretty nerve-racking.

 

Several of your reports focus on children in Syria—their deaths, or their experiences living through the war. What’s the emotional and psychological toll that this reporting takes on you and your team, and how do you work to deal with it?

We have a very free hand in the field to say no. Our bosses just hand off to us and say, “You know what you’re doing. Do it in the best way you can.” That pressure that might lead us to make poor decisions is not there. That was a key thing. Secondly, it’s black humor sometimes, but we do laugh a lot and take pleasure where we can. Syria was in the middle of a devastating war but the people were still hospitable, and there were still things like almonds and peaches growing by the side of the road. People would say, “Please come and have coffee with our family.” We would try to take advantage of those moments, those simple pleasures, because it allowed me to remember that, beyond the combat, there were simple, good people, who were just keeping their heads down and hoping to survive, and under that pressure were still able to offer hospitality and friendship.

When things are really tense or we’re close to dangerous situations, I’m very calm. I suppress anxiety, but it has to come out. I find that when I get home, first of all, I’m tired, but my mind also goes back and probes all the anxiety that I’ve repressed. I always have two or three days of real terrible anxiety after the fact. When I explore it, with my mind, I can’t find it; there is no reason. I’m old enough now, and I’ve done this enough to know that it’s just psychological. It’s almost like a pressure valve. I just have to live with it, and eventually after three or four days it dissipates and I’m back to myself. Everybody has a different mechanism. Our minds are such strange plastic things that just find a way to remain in tact.

 

Do you have plans to go back to Syria?

We were banned after the siege of Aleppo, so I haven’t been back for a year. It’s heartbreaking. I suppose it might be seen as a badge of honor that the Syrian government didn’t like that we tried to be correct in identifying the attacks on the besieged areas of Aleppo as being attacks on civilians. The Syrian government line was that it was always a “redoubt of terrorists,” and that there was no choice but to bomb them to bits. So after that we were banned. I’m just now writing an appeal to ask to be allowed back in and I am optimistic that we will.

Palmer reporting from Syria. Courtesy CBS News.

Getting stories about foreign conflicts in areas of the world that many Americans may not be familiar with can be difficult. What have you found works to draw attention to stories, and what do you wish American audiences understood about Syria and the conflict there?

We were very luck because Scott Pelley, who was the anchor of the CBS Evening News at the time, was very personally dedicated to Syria and to shining a light on what was happening there. It is one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time. Every time we went in our stories made air, and that was wonderful. I did feel I was able to keep attention focused on Syria, and maybe to help keep the various parties committing atrocities feeling watched. At least I hope that’s what we were able to do in our small way.

America is, quite rightly, very inwardly focused at the moment because there are really knotty economic and political divides to cross and wounds to heal. But America has enormous moral and ethical stature in the world today, and I wish that Americans understood that and understood how they can be a force for good, how America can be a force for good. We all, collectively, have a responsibility to uphold the norms of human rights and the rule of law—concepts, by the way, that America has been a champion of for many decades. I like to think that when Americans understand things, they stand up for the right things, and it was so important in Syria, and continues to be so.

 

You mention the inward focus, and with the attention on Donald Trump and the actions of his administration, and the internal divides in the US dominating a lot of coverage. Do you find it more difficult to draw attention to stories from parts of the world that might not be at the forefront of viewers’ minds?

Certain of them. I think it’s easier, for example, to draw our editors’ attention to Russia maybe more than we would in other circumstances, because there’s such a direct American connection. I’m enjoying that because I’m covering Russia a lot. But certainly, other conflicts—South Sudan for example, the dizzying demise of Venezuela, the frozen conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine—yes, they have fallen off the mainstream American news agenda. There isn’t room, and maybe Americans also don’t have the energy to get read in on those as well as paying attention to the homeland at a time of enormous stress. ’Twas ever thus, though. It’s just a fact of life. We do our best; we win some and we lose some. The important thing is to be out there chasing stories and trying to get them on air.

 

How would you judge US media coverage of the Syrian war?

I thought that the American media did a very good job, considering the problems. Print media, especially The New York Times and The Washington Post, and to some extent the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy, did very good work out of Beirut, where they were able to cover things by phone. They did a good job keeping an eye on the shifting cast of characters in this complicated war.

Broadcast media were more challenged because, if we weren’t there, we were forced to use social media video, and it’s hugely challenging to get the context right and to make sure that it’s real, particularly in a civil war when everybody is spinning like crazy. But we did a pretty good job, especially for the first three or four years. Once the rebel groups began to splinter and ISIS began to rise, I think everybody slightly lost the plot. It became so complex and there was no access to the rebel sides. In fact, a big portion of those rebel groups were Islamist groups, and we couldn’t go and talk to them because they would kill us. So this huge blind spot developed, for everybody.

During the last two years of the war, we kind of abdicated our analysis of the opposition—the small core group of rebels who really wanted some form of representative democracy. The whole focus shifted to ISIS. So recently, we have failed to follow one side of this conflict, and those are the guys who are going to end up at the negotiating table.

There has been very little attention paid to what has to happen next, which is some kind of dialogue to determine the future of Syria. I’m hoping we will pay attention to that, because it’s really important to the future of the whole Middle East.

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CBS is notable for a lot of its foreign coverage, especially in combat zones, being led by women. We’re well past the Martha Gellhorn era when that was a unique thing, but I wonder if you feel any sort of responsibility or impulse to advocate for women who may be early in their careers and interested in getting into the field.

Very much so. I always try to help young women and encourage them to believe they can do anything. Oddly enough, I’ve always believed this business is pretty gender neutral. Once you get in with both feet, and if you really have the right blend of curiosity and courage, all doors open irrespective of gender. But I’ve often felt that young women are not as confident as they need to be, particularly when it comes to technical functions. I work with a female producer, Agnes Reau, who’s very adept at getting the video out and making streams of information fly around the world. I hope, between us, we function as kind of living role models. I hope that combination of leading by doing and being kind and encouraging has inspired many young women to follow in our footsteps.

 

To wrap up, I should ask you about the impetus for this interview. The duPont isn’t the first award you’ve received, but does it bring any vindication or feelings of affirmation for the work that you’ve been doing?  

I can honestly say that it’s one of the greatest thrills of my career. We’ve been going to Syria year after year, and I was on holiday with my husband in France when the news came. We came into a cafe one evening and I turned on my cell phone. When I saw that I had won the duPont I burst into tears. It’s an honor for work we toiled away at out of passion for the story. I really value the judgement of my peers, which this represents. In the end, I think we achieved something with the collective work, and it just seemed to be the best reward for really honest, hard work.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.