Dirt Cookies: The Less-Than-Sexy Side of Conflict Reporting

JULY 12, 2011, Kabul, Afghanistan

My Afghanistan cell phone buzzes just after 8 a.m. Its tiny rumble reverberates through the particleboard nightstand like the low-grade guitar amp of a Kinks cover band.

I’m already awake, though not fully conscious, just lounging in bed, thinking about breakfast and a complicated multimedia feature I have to file. Got back to my Kabul guesthouse yesterday after another embed. I’ve got a few more lined up and a couple of other story ideas I’m trying to flesh out. I decided to stay here at least through the summer, possibly longer, if USA Today will keep paying me.

I have work to keep myself busy. Cameras, notebooks, and a tangle of cables are in a pile on the desk next to my computer. I purposefully put them there last night to guilt myself into tackling it first thing this morning. I’ll get to it after a not-so-hearty meal of undercooked eggs, stale bread, half a dozen cups of green tea, and three cigarettes. My morning ritual at the Diana Guesthouse.

The buzzing persists.

First, let me see who the hell this is.

Caller ID says it’s a radio editor in New York.

Blegh. What do they want?

Must be around midnight there. I’m annoyed at the intrusion into my all-too-brief-twilight nirvana.

I answer and a voice starts without the formality of a hello.

“Can you file on the Karzai killing?”

I groggily agree, having no idea what the editor half a world away is talking about.

“I’m on it,” I assure him. “I was just following that up with some sources,” I say in a harried tone, feigning industriousness.

He has to know Im clueless.

My warbling voice is the product of sheer panic at the idea that the president of Afghanistan was assassinated and I, like a dolt, slept right through it.

I turn on my computer. Beads of sweat run down my brow while it boots up at a leisurely pace due to its age and frequent visits to certain cookie-laden websites. I bounce my knee and bite the nail on my right index finger, waiting for it to finish.

Come on. Come on. Get online, you fucker.

The connection at my guesthouse is glacial. Good thing the generator is running. Kabul’s power grid is often overloaded and brownouts are frequent. Sometimes I have to implore the staff to turn it on when I need the Internet. This is how a one-man band in Afghanistan operates.

Here we go. Open browser. Google. Google News. Headlines.

First one:

“Afghan president’s half-brother killed.”

Whew!

Dodged a bullet there. I mean me, not him, him being Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was shot at close range by a visitor who smuggled a weapon into a meeting. So much for comprehensive pat downs.

This sort of thing happens all the time in Afghanistan. Ministers and other lawmakers are regular targets for shooters and suicide bombers. When it’s someone of relative importance here it warrants space in most print outlets, though not cable news. They’re usually too busy stalking Casey Anthony and other tabloid detritus.

But when the president of Afghanistan’s half-brother gets killed, everyone shows interest, enough to remind editors and the American public, albeit only temporarily, that yes, there is a war still being fought in Afghanistan, and yes, more than 100,000 American soldiers are doing the fighting and dying over here, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Afghans in uniform and NATO troops from around the world. They’re up against the Taliban and other hardline militants lurking in the mountains and shadows of every town and city. It’s a full-on, throw-down war, the longest in which America has ever been involved, not that anyone is paying attention, except when a big story like this breaks.

SOLDIERTAKES DEFENSEIVE POSITION ATCOPHM

American soldier, Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, 2011. Photo by Carmen Gentile.

I scan the wire services for their take on the news, make a couple of phone calls to confirm what I’ve already read, then bang out a short brief and email it to the news desk in New York. I read it over a few times, make a correction, and then ready my radio persona, a phony, rusty-throat baritone devoid of accent with just the right emphasis on certain syllables to grab the attention of rush-hour zombies stuck in gridlock, crawling to jobs they can’t stand.

Afghan security officials say the half-brother of the country’s president was killed by a gunman.

They say Ahmed Wali Karzai was shot in the head and chest by a member of his inner circle before his bodyguards killed his assailant.

No one is claiming responsibility for the assassination, though some say they suspect the Taliban.

The president’s brother was a powerbroker in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban.

He allegedly had ties to both the opium trade and US government intelligence agencies.

~

I put extra oomph on the “killed” and “shot,” for dramatic effect. A little pageantry is essential if you want people to really listen. I make 50 bucks on radio “hits,” 25-second reports. Good extra scratch on top of my USA Today money. As more details pour in about the killing, I file new spots. By midmorning I’ve made a few hundred bucks, more than I make in an entire day spent with US soldiers walking along paths laden with IEDs. I contemplate this irony and remind myself that those same soldiers walk those trails every day, many of whom have seen a buddy have a leg or two blown off on those paths, and get paid much, much less.

Requests from other outlets start rolling in. Can you do an on-air appearance on Skype for this TV outlet or a phone call for that radio program? I say yes to them all and start keeping a running tab of what I’m owed after each submission. I basically repeat the same thing over and over again. Between hits I see if there are any new developments. Not much has changed. Gunmen killed by the slain Karzai’s bodyguards. No one is certain who is responsible. Could be the Taliban. Might be a personal beef.

For reasons I can’t quite understand, this story seems to have legs. I can never tell what story is going to resonate with an audience when I’m over here.

Dont question it, moron. Im making money hand over fist to repeat the same thing over and over again.

Good thing, too. I’m literally down to a few hundred bucks in the bank. Everything I’ve made over the last couple of months in Afghanistan has gone to pay off debts incurred during my recovery from an RPG strike to my eye last year .

 

 

My first month here paid off sail-boating in Australia and my assorted adventures in New Zealand. This month is going toward older debts. If interest in this thing keeps up I just might finally pay off that cursed engagement ring. So far today, I’ve made over a grand and the American East Coast hasn’t even woken up yet.

~

My exuberance at landing a single-day score like this aside—and the admittedly grim glee I feel considering someone did die (you ghoul!)—my financial windfall is a troubling indicator of the present state of journalism. Few outlets keep a full-time correspondent in Afghanistan, preferring to send people in once in a while for an easily digestible story for even the most casual of news consumers. Besides waning interest at home, some editors are reluctant to keep people here anymore because Kabul can be expensive. Wartime economies like Afghanistan’s are based on Western dollars and demands, which is why the most expensive hotels in town can cost as much or more than four-star accommodations in Manhattan. Sending a tenderfoot staff reporter to Afghanistan who isn’t willing to scrimp, save, and stay in modest guesthouses can drain an outlet’s travel budget by five figures or more, depending on the length of their stay and the stories they want. Want to travel outside the capital by car? Better figure on at least $500 a day in fixer/translator and driver expenses. Most editors won’t put up with laying out that kind of money unless you can guarantee you’ll come back with Taliban leader Mullah Omar tied up in the trunk and confessing to wearing ladies’ underwear.

Even fewer journalists are embedding with the military  due to waning interest among most readers, as well as the continued and worsening downward spiral of some segments of the news media. I used to meet a half-dozen reporters or more while waiting at the larger bases for transportation to my embeds at combat outposts on the front lines of the war. These days, I often have the reporter quarters all to myself for a day or so till I cross paths with another journalist. Here in Kabul, where there used to be hundreds of Western hacks, now only a few dozen remain.

So, not wanting to completely give up on at least pretending to give a shit, some outlets reach out to any available journalist when news breaks to get something, anything, reported in their name. I work with an organization that supplies faces and voices to outlets in situations like these. They are essentially my pimp—they provide the client, and I deliver the goods and give them a cut of my earnings.

TV news needs a visual for the Karzai story, someone to go on the air and talk about what’s happening. Ideally the reporter is positioned someplace with something vaguely “Afghanistany” in the background—a mountain, some dusty buildings. That scene, and a warm body wearing something khaki, is all that’s really needed to complete the faux tableau of what passes for journalism these days.

I do a handful of appearances for outlets via Skype from my hotel room with the street outside at my back. Then I get a call from CNN in Atlanta. They need someone to go on the air in a half hour. I agree to do it for 350 bucks and head over to their bureau, just down the street from the Diana. I walk the pock-marked and rutted dirt road and knock on their inch-thick metal security door. The slat opens and I state my purpose for pounding on their fortress gate. The guards debate among themselves in Dari before allowing me to enter. Their compound, a one-time private home turned news bureau, is palatial, just like the other news bureaus next door. I head up to their live position with their cameraman and take in the view of the aforementioned mountains and dusty buildings. It’s a wooden box with three sides, same as the neighbors on either side. Apparently, there’s very little incentive for originality.

The cameraman readies me by pinning a microphone to my T-shirt. I forgot to wear a collared button-down.

Oops.

Then I put in the earpiece to hear the producers and see myself on the monitor as they do in Atlanta. I hear hushed tittering among the producers and can guess what has them in a tizzy. My two-month-old beard in all its unruly glory is not exactly in line with the polished look of CNN’s on-air mannequins: a lock of hair across the forehead and an indigenous scarf thrown over the shoulder is the furthest extent of TV-acceptable dishevelment for the image-minders.

“Ummm, we’re having problems with the feed, so we’re just going do this on the phone,” says the voice in my earpiece. I laugh and stick out my tongue for the camera, knowing damn well they can see me. I rattle off the same facts for them that I have a dozen times already today.

~

This is how the TV news sausage is made. I’ve done it a lot in recent years, producing numerous stories for cable and network news that paid big money compared with the pennies I get for print work. But I always feel dirty, like I’m cheating on my true love, writing, with a dirty TV whore in the champagne room.

A few years ago I had an experience so disheartening it nearly drove me from the business.

I had signed on with Fox News to produce a story about a food shortage in Haiti. The reporter, cameraman, and I flew into Port-au-Prince, where rioting over shortages had left several people dead. I suggested we show just how dire the situation had become by interviewing those that had been most adversely affected by the shortages, residents in the city’s slums. Instead, the reporter got it in his head that we should do a piece on “dirt cookies.” Some poor Haitians mix butter and salt with mud and eat it to stave off hunger. While certainly a curious tidbit to the larger story of starvation, the reporter wanted it to be a focal point of the piece by actually eating a dirt cookie on camera, which he did. The editors in New York applauded his moxie, while I hung my head in shame.

Hoping to salvage the rest of the assignment, I suggested we get out of the city to see how Haiti’s rural poor were faring. The reporter said I should keep my hired-hand ideas to myself and stay out of the way while he and the cameraman did live shots from the balcony of our lovely hotel overlooking the city squalor. I spent the next two days in my room watching reruns of “Diff’rent Strokes” on satellite TV. I did, however, catch one of the best episodes of all time, the one where Gordon Jump molests Dudley in the back of his bicycle shop. I called a friend in the states just to tell him I saw it. It was almost magical.

So the trip wasn’t a total wash.

~

The Karzai killing dominates the headlines for the rest of the day. After leaving CNN, I head back to the Diana and resume cranking out news spots for ABC along with phone and Skype interviews. News desks in London and Paris and outlets in the US ask me the same ambiguous questions over and over again.

“What does this mean for the future of Afghanistan?”

I reply with a rambling, barely coherent explanation about Karzai’s many enemies and throw in some historical context about Kandahar being the birthplace of the Taliban, blah, blah, blah.    I do this so many times my answers have developed a pattern that allows me to rattle off the same nonsense without actually thinking about what I’m saying, much like the politicians I harass for sound bites.

The phone interviews I do with my feet up on my desk while looking at last night’s baseball scores. I did a couple outside so I could smoke a cigarette and give my audio some gritty authenticity, until the ice cream man pushed his cart past the Diana playing a twinkly electronic melody. That doesn’t sound very war zoney, so I ducked inside mid-interview.

By nightfall in Kabul the story has a full head of steam. I’ve been at it for ten hours and still the requests keep coming.

Hoarse from a full day of non-stop talking, I perform a quick mental tally of the hits I did and estimate I made about $5,000 from the death of Ahmed Wali Karzai. That just about covers what I paid for that engagement ring, minus the taxes.

About Carmen Gentile

Reporter Carmen Gentile has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is currently reporting along the Turkish/Syrian border. In 2010, he was shot in the face by a rocket-propelled grenade in eastern Afghanistan. Following a lengthy recovery, he resumed embed reporting. His forthcoming book, “Kissed by the Taliban,” is about that experience. Visit www.carmengentile.com.
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