War Reporting Q & A: James Gordon Meek

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

James Gordon Meek in Bagram, Afghanistan

James Gordon Meek in Bagram, Afghanistan in August, 2010

James Gordon Meek covers terrorism, justice, intel, and war for the New York Daily News. I emailed him with the hopes of learning more about the life of a war reporter, as it’s a field that has always interested me but been hard to learn about. I asked him some questions that came to mind about war reporting and his answers proved interesting.

Mr. Meek’s articles can be found here, and you can follow him on twitter here. He blogs for the NY Daily News’ Washington Bureau here.

Taylor Dobbs: Obviously, war reporting takes you overseas into war zones. Is there a typical amount of time you’re sent for? Who decides this?

James Gordon Meek: My experience is limited. But when I was in Afghanistan in 2005 I decided to stay a month. What’s the point of going all that distance for one week? This summer, I decided to stay for almost  three weeks to facilitate several embed opportunities I had earned through years of cultivating sources in US Special Operations. I was also in Haiti with US Special Operations Forces after the earthquake and stayed a week.

TD: When you reported in the middle east, what were your living conditions like? What were the big challenges in a general day-to-day sense?

JGM: Living conditions varied. I found the military quarters to be much improved this year over five years ago. Back then, it was typically a cot in a big tent with a blower blasting cold air, so you sleep zipped into a down sleeping bag. This year, almost everywhere I went there were bunk beds in the tents with some kind of cheap mattress. Forward operating bases usually have showers but there were warnings everywhere to only drink bottled water. At a Special Operations command headquarters in Kabul, shared with US Forces-Afghanistan’s HQ, there were concrete barracks with good toilets and showers — but signs were posted saying e-coli bacteria was in the water. Most camps serve hot chow unless you are way way far out in Indian country and have to rely on Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The food isn’t bad most places.

The challenge for an embedded journalist really is making sure you get what you want out of it and get permission to go where you want to go. That becomes a daily, if not hourly, challenge to deal with military rear-echelon bureaucracy and public affairs officers. You have to do a lot of begging, pleading, cajoling and convincing. Most of the time I succeeded — but not always.

TD: In a typical day in, what did you bring with you? What camera (did you always have a camera?), what recording devices, etc.?

JGM: I tend to travel light — and still realize I’ve packed too much gear. I usually had a backpack with my Macbook. I bought an Afghan cell phone, but also relied on an Iridium satellite phone and my Blackberry, which functioned just about everywhere I went from Kabul to Bagram to Kandahar and outlying camps. I had an older pocket Canon Elph digital camera with a micro SD card I could load into my Blackberry to file my stories and photos. Some reporters carry a mobile satellite Internet rig called a V-GAN, but I found no need to do that this year. One camp even had wi-fi, to my surprise. Other places, I could either plug my laptop into the camp’s satellite Internet, file with my Blackberry or burn a CD and file from an MWR tent, where the troops can access the Internet on desktop PCs. I also had a Sony MP3 recorder for long interviews and shot HD video on a Kodak PlaySport video camera.

TD: How were you treated by soldiers you were with? Did they tend to be reserved for fear of being portrayed badly or were they open?

JGM: I’m almost always treated like a prince by the troops I’m embedded with. It’s usually a mix of guys who barely notice I’m there and guys who are really interested in a new face in camp to engage with. Solders are almost always very open. When you take the same risks they take, they respect you and trust you — and open up.

I arrived this year not long after GEN Stanley McChrystal stepped down as the Afghan war commander following the Rolling Stone fiasco, in which he and his aides disparaged members of the Obama administration. Some Special Operations troops and commanders were even more wary of a reporter than usual as a result of what they perceived as one of their own, McChrystal, getting screwed by a journalist.

TD: Lastly, how did you get your start in war reporting? What was your career path like that let you, ultimately, to reporting the middle eastern conflicts?

JGM: I began writing about terrorism and Al Qaeda in 1998. My first big story to chase was the 1999/2000 Millennium plot, and then Sept. 11. My career since has been defined by those events. A critical component of counterterrorism obviously has been the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seemed logical that I would go walk the ground in the country where the 9/11 attacks were hatched and planned.

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