Sarah Chayes

Breaking Ranks in Afghanistan

Moved to exchange her role as a journalist with that of an advocate, one former NPR reporter discovers the exhilarating power speaking the truth as she sees it.

"Wouldn't you come back and help us?" The gentle question, almost an afterthought, struck me like the bolt from a crossbow.

It was after dinner with one of my favorite, if sparingly used, sources during the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan. Aziz Khan Karzai, uncle of President Hamid Karzai, is a spry gentleman, full of good humor and energy, whose mischievous glance camouflages a penetrating regard upon the situation of his country -- stripped of illusions.

This was in January 2002. I had completed a long rotation for National Public Radio, reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan. For once I was wrapping up with some kind of dignity, making the rounds and drinking a last cup of tea with friends and contacts. Aziz Khan had invited me for dinner the night before I flew out. We talked about the steep road that lay ahead for fledgling Afghanistan.

After dinner, I got up to leave, and then came his question: "Wouldn't you come back and help us?" My ears heard with surprise what my mouth said without hesitation. "Yes."

Surely it's not just me. Surely all of us struggle with the value of what we do as journalists -- with the impact (or lack of it) of our work on the lives of the people we report about, or on any people for that matter; on the quality of public policy in our field; in short, with whether we, as journalists, help. Surely all of us come to some sort of accommodation -- more or less self-deluding -- with this problem.

Over time, freelancing in Paris, I had come to my own: that given the paucity of foreign news in the U.S. media, just being a foreign correspondent was a kind of subversion. If by the end of my career, I told myself, I had convinced some Americans that the United States is not the only country in the world, I would have achieved something. Reporting for NPR, long a goal for me, further hushed my concerns. But after an exciting period covering the Balkans, beginning with Kosovo, I began to feel the old doubts return. A succession of food stories in early 2001 -- the mad cow crisis, a vegetarian three-star restaurant, an effort by Mondavi to buy out a Languedoc vineyard, etc. -- gave voice to an indictment: "What am I doing? Spending my time entertaining well-to-do Americans with the foibles of well-to-do Europeans." I began groping for alternatives.

Then came Sept. 11. What else would one want to be at that moment than an American foreign correspondent with some experience of the Muslim world?

And yet it proved a difficult juncture to be an American journalist. "The worst period in my entire career," a dear friend confided as we were comparing notes afterwards. He sent me a list of story ideas his editors had turned down. "They simply didn't want any reporting," he explained. "They told us the story lines, and asked us to substantiate them." CNN correspondents received written instructions on how to frame stories of Afghan suffering. A BBC reporter told me in our Quetta hotel the weekend before Kabul fell how he had had to browbeat his desk editors to persuade them that Kandahar was still standing.

It was as though, because the 9/11 attacks had taken place in the American nerve center, they had blown out the critical apparatus of the very people we had always trusted to have one. NPR was not entirely immune. My one civilian casualty story, I hasten to note, which drew vituperative reactions from listeners, enjoyed the full support of my editors. But as time went on, I sensed a rising impatience with my reporting. In that same period between the fall of Kabul and the fall of Kandahar, when the BBC correspondent had trouble with his desk, a senior NPR staffer e-mailed to say that he no longer trusted my work as he had in the past:

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