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Fighting for 'What Murrow Himself Stood For'

Interviewee: Kathy Gannon, 2003-2004 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
October 20, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Kathy Gannon notes the impact of being the only western journalist in Taliban-controlled Kabul on September 11th, 2001. She also laments the "particularly worrisome" decline in international coverage at a time when it is increasingly important to have a deeper grasp on world events, cultures and people. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

It's difficult to choose a single story or topic but if I had to choose it would have to be my coverage from Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001 and after October, 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom when I was the only western reporter in Taliban-controlled Kabul.

It was three weeks before the Taliban were driven from power. At 9 p.m. each night the city would be in complete darkness as the Taliban shut off all electricity thinking the U.S. aircraft couldn't find its targets in the dark. Across the street from The AP house was the house of the minister of vice and virtue. Filing was surreptitious to avoid the Taliban discovering our satellite telephones.

The true significance of those stories was that I was the only western journalists getting out the other side of the story, telling about the people, the ordinary Afghans who hid under their tables and in their darkened rooms as the bombs fell around them. The stories gave another face to the Afghans, one that wasn't the turbaned, bearded Taliban but the ordinary men, women and children who faced the wrath of a western world at war.

For journalists our one goal, other than documenting history, is to try to give a complete picture, to give both sides to the story, to inform people about the impact of decisions made in capitals tens of thousands of miles away.

The glimpses that this coverage provided were unique and I think had a deep impact on the coverage at one of history's crucial moments. It gave a look at the other side but more it made us think about the need for the right for all sides in a story to be told.

At the time there was some resistance to stories that sought to explain the effects of Operation Enduring Freedom on ordinary Afghans; that by doing so gave them a sympathetic ear that they didn't deserve because 9/11 had emanated from their country. Yet it was critical I believe to understand the Afghan perspective and life at the time and I think this really embodies what Murrow himself stood for -- the right to report and inform without concern for accusations that stories reflected a lack of patriotism or had anything to do with patriotism, the right to simply report and inform.

While this is a fundamental of journalism, post Sept. 11 and the attack on the United States I think we needed to reinforce those values because for many the attack was personal.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind that you believe has had a significant impact? This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

Another story that was neither widely cited nor considered was the history of the Northern Alliance, those western allies who took power in Kabul following the collapse of the Taliban. While many were reporting the success of putting them in power, I was recalling their last stint in power between 1992 until 1996 when their brutal fighting destroyed Kabul, and killed 50,000 Afghans.

Those stories attempted to remind the world that Abdur Rasoul Sayyaf was the one who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, not the Taliban, that Mohammed Fahim, had been deeply involved in the corruption and the warlordism that has brought the Taliban to power in 1996 and that it was their ally Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani that gave more than 600 Afghan passports to an assortment of Arab warriors, many belonging to Al Qaida. An article I wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2004 predicted the Afghanistan of today.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else's--for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

It's difficult in the current environment to know how to sustain serious international reporting. Newspapers are reducing the space they devote to international news and it is particularly worrisome because it comes at a time when it is so important for all of us to have a deeper understanding of world events, cultures and people.

Sadly that isn't happening. The internet, the financial difficulties facing newspapers has all served to reduce attention to international news.

One way to try to maintain some quality in international coverage is perhaps more collaborations, more pooling of resources, less consideration to promoting ones particular news outlet but combining talent and resources to provide the good solid international coverage that is needed to understand the world in which we live.

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