Covering the War for the Army
Army Spec. Catherine Threat files stories about the military for the military. She wants to be in the middle of the action—but some stories are off limits.
By Jackie Spinner
Jackie Spinner (email@example.com) has reported on the Middle East since 2004. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the paper. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” Spinner is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She wrote about launching a student newspaper in Iraq in AJR’s Spring 2011 issue.
Army Spec. Catherine Threat strode across the cement tarmac of LZ Washington in Baghdad's International Zone, packs strapped to her front and back and a tripod slung across her shoulder in place of a rifle. Her weapon, a Beretta pistol, was holstered on the front of her armored vest and clanked against the tripod as she hoofed it with more than 60 pounds of gear.
The 37-year-old from Atlanta was catching a Black Hawk helicopter to cover a story for the American Forces Network in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. The trip was later scrapped because of a sandstorm, but Threat made the most of the ride from the helicopter pad in the IZ (formerly the Green Zone) to the Baghdad airport and back. She begged the military contract pilot to make sharp turns, dipping to the left and then to the right as she angled her Panasonic P2HD out the open door of the twin-engine utility bird to capture B-roll of the hazy brown Baghdad neighborhoods unfolding in dizzying scenes beneath her.
The next morning, Threat talked some soldiers from the Army's 27th Brigade Support Battalion into letting her hop into the turret until the gunner needed to take his position in the harness. Threat wanted to shoot her camera from the vantage point of the swiveling turret, the best seat in the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, as far as she was concerned. It also is the most dangerous. But Threat is one of those green soldiers in Iraq anxious to get into the fight in Afghanistan without really knowing what it may cost them.
Threat is a backpack journalist — and like most members of the 209th Broadcast Operations Detachment from Rome, Georgia, she sees herself as a journalist, even though her mission is to boost the morale of the troops. As she puts it, she does not want to be stuck in an office, out of the action, when the real story is on a mountaintop with a lonely soldier fighting his own war.
"I like the idea that there's some guy doing something, and he thinks no one cares what he's doing," Threat says. "I get to go out and tell his story and tell everyone what he's doing. I'm not here to tell the world what the soldiers are doing. I'm here to tell the soldiers that what they are doing is important."
AFN Iraq is a network of radio stations and TV programming, both news and entertainment, produced by soldiers for soldiers, a job that has become easier as combat operations abate and all but 50,000 troops prepared to leave by the end of August.
What might have been seen as ridiculously soft news, propaganda even, in previous years has become the real story in the summer of 2010. Morale is fairly high in most parts of Iraq (with hot spots like Mosul and Kirkuk being the most obvious exceptions). The biggest complaint at FOB Prosperity in Baghdad, where AFN Iraq is based, is boredom, routine, having to provide rote personal security protection for diplomats. "The war in Baghdad is still going on, but it's not being fought with mortars," Threat notes. "It's being fought over chai."
Staff Sgt. Nikki Prodomos, TV/News Team chief for AFN Iraq (and Threat's civilian equivalent of an assignment editor), is a radio news anchor from Reading, Pennsylvania.
"It's a balancing act," Prodomos says. "I've told my soldiers that in addition to being journalists, we are public affairs officials."
That means some story ideas might be knocked down because they simply don't fit the image the Army wants to project. Security aside, the Army is not likely to report on what this civilian journalist spotted as potential story lines during a four-day embed: the eagerness of troops on their first deployment to see action; the battle-scarred troops on their second or third deployments who know better; the probability that when the Iraqis assumed control of a U.S. installation, it would be trashed in a week.
During the layover at the Baghdad airfield, before finding out that her trip to Najaf had been canceled, Threat wandered around with her camera, trying to find a story. Most of the soldiers were waiting to catch flights. Threat was anxious to turn her video camera on but said "the Army doesn't want to show bored soldiers." So she didn't bother.
At the same time, Maj. Jeff Weir, the commander of AFN Iraq, says that like any journalist?or station manager, his civilian equivalent,?he strives for credibility. "Walter Cronkite is not the only guy with a camera like in Vietnam," he says. "Everyone has one. If we try to say something that is propaganda, people will see right away that's not true. Everyone knows bad news only gets worse."
Unlike most of her comrades, Threat has not had years of experience as a digital journalist. Or any kind of journalist, for that matter. She was a stay-at-home mom with three children who joined the Army a year and a half ago. She got assigned to MOS 46R (the Army's broadcast specialty) and only after she was sent to training did she figure out what it was.
But Threat learned quickly what many civilian journalists armed with a pen, video camera, digital single lens reflex camera and audio recorder have discovered: Going out with a backpack of gear she knows how to use can be enormously liberating. She is the whole production team, the complete package of journalist who asks questions, picks a medium to tell the story and then comes back to the office (or borrowed sleeping space if she's out on assignment) to put it together.
Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Compton is one of the veteran broadcast journalists of the 209th. He spent six years as a cameraman for CBS and a year as an editor.
With AFN Iraq, he acts as a news director. Occasionally, he assigns himself a story. "I like to get back to my roots," he said, unapologetically, as he set out for Camp Cropper on July 15 to cover the handover of the detainee facility to the Iraqi government. "I'm excited about this story. This is a cool one to do."
Compton had already been to Cropper the week before to shoot B-roll and conduct his interviews. He had special access to the soldiers who had created oversize, symbolic keys for the event. He had footage of the detainee camps and exclusive interviews with soldiers who acted as wardens. But when four detainees escaped the next week, AFN ignored the story.
Still, Compton says the military environment has produced a crop of backpack journalists who are competitive, at least in terms of ability to produce multimedia journalism in some of the toughest environments.
"With other technology, we're always behind, but not this part," he says. "We've been ahead because we've had to adapt. We don't have the luxury in a combat situation to send out two or three guys. We send out one guy."
Because of his dual role as a journalist and public affairs specialist, Compton says he gets the story in a way some civilian journalists may not. Like Prodomos, he calls it a balancing act.
"I work in the media, and I work with the media," he says. "I don't see it as propaganda. It's just the nature of the beast. If we don't push what is happening, no one is going to see it." ###