Intro from Jay Allison: Among the braver things Kelly McEvers has done is to make this documentary. In 2011, Kelly started to see things in slow motion. She cried unpredictably. She was NPR’s correspondent in the Middle East, at the time of the Arab uprisings. Colleagues and friends were being kidnapped. Some were getting killed. But still, she went toward the story. The next year, 2012, was the deadliest on record for journalists worldwide. It was a huge hit to the “tribe” of foreign correspondents of which Kelly is a part. Kelly began to wonder, “Why do otherwise intelligent people risk their lives when they don’t have to?” Kelly came to Woods Hole where she and I began to examine this question with the idea of making a radio story together. Over the next year, she kept an audio diary. She talked to doctors, scientists, and fellow conflict journalists like Sebastian Junger, Jon Lee Anderson, and Christiane Amanpour. She asked them about how they’ve kept going, or why they’ve stopped, of if they could stop even if they wanted to. Her quest for answers leads us to understand the sacrifices made by reporters and their families, and the sometimes dangerous allure of the job. Kelly shows bravery as a foreign correspondent every time she goes out in risky circumstances, but it requires courage to do this too: to examine her own vulnerability, fears, and confusion—to turn her reportorial skills on herself. This piece was about a year and a half in the making, and we just finished. I think it makes for a riveting hour of radio.
About Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma
This project was born in the place where so many good ideas come to life — Woods Hole. I was visiting Jay and the Transom Story Workshop to talk about making radio.
Like good reporters, Jay and Melissa Allison, Viki Merrick, Samantha Broun, Sydney Lewis, and Rob Rosenthal asked me a lot of tough questions. As I answered, I realized the tables had been turned on me, that by confronting me with the curiosity I usually apply to the people I interview, they were getting me to say and realize things I didn’t even know were true.
I had deep concerns about my job, but I never would have examined them this fully had it not been for the welcoming, open, supportive, loving hearts in Woods Hole — and, later, for conversations I had with my dear friend, the great radio producer, Sean Cole. At one point I remember writing an email to Jay that said something like, “If I really go through with this project, I will end up quitting my job.”
We’ll see about that. What I do know is that making this story has totally altered the way I look at what I and most of my friends do for a living. It has made me more aware and ultimately more safe in the field. It was hard, it was personal, but I think it was worth it.
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What I learned
One of the biggest lessons for me was that it’s all about perspective. It’s one thing to talk about this stuff casually with friends (and with yourself), but it’s another thing to really dig deep and try to prosecute the ideas, especially when it’s your own life that’s on the stand. Doing this kind of work is hard, and it takes time.
When Jay and I started this back in 2011, he suggested I record diaries as I went along. No expectations — just record what comes to mind as it’s happening. It sounds easy, but for me it was hard.
Just that simple act of stepping back, removing myself from the moment, was a struggle. Some of the diaries were unusable, mainly because I wasn’t able to step back far enough, or because they were just too sad.
Here’s diary I recorded at like 3:00 a.m., in Yemen, the week that Anthony Shadid (the award-winning journalist for the The New York Times) died. I had just heard that another member of the tribe, Marie Colvin (the award-winning journalist for the British paper The Sunday Times), died.
Listening back to this clip, it’s clear I didn’t have much perspective. I talk about how I’m NOT a war correspondent like Marie and others, and yet only a few months later, I was basically embedded with Syrian rebels. Months after that I was at the front line.
Also, I talk about how Marie’s stories had some bearing on the international community’s policy in Syria, clearly because that’s what I wanted to believe. It’s only now that I can painfully admit her stories had little impact. The killing in Homs, the place where she was reporting when she died, continued after her death. More than one year later, it continues today.
Still, keeping a diary was really, really cool. So cool that I still do it, as a matter of course. One great help is that I can do it on my iPhone. I just tap Hindenburg and start talking. That way if I’m in public, I don’t look like a crazy cat lady — I look like I’m talking on the phone.
At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that I think the key here was knowing that someone would be *listening* to these diaries, that someone actually cared to know what I had to say.
It’s a setup I’ve tried to repeat in subsequent stories: I actually imagine the person who might be listening to the diary, while I talk into my mic or into my phone. I often use the “standup” technique in my news radio stories. But rather than making them sound like pre-written News Paragraphs, I do them more like diaries. I try to just record them raw, so they sound like an actual human being talking, observing, reacting to what she sees.
For me, during this project, the faces I pictured while recording the diaries were Jay, my man Nathan, my best friend, colleagues back in the news room — any number of people. It doesn’t totally matter whose face you picture. The key is just that in that moment, you feel confident that someone will want to hear what you have to say.
So a year goes by, then more months, then a year, and you have all these diaries. They’re one beat removed from the present tense, but they’re still very raw. How to put them in perspective? I already was seeking advice from people — the therapist, Mark Brayne, and other colleagues. But once I started seeing familiar themes coming together in the diaries, that gave me a framework for the questions I would ask the learned collection of advisers.
Talking to Anna Blundy (author, journalist and daughter of foreign correspondant, David Blundy) was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. There I was, about to go to Syria on a clandestine mission, and I decided to interview the adult version of my own child, who basically told me I had no business being a conflict journalist.
I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.
But I left her in the piece, because even though some of the points she made were over the top, I still wanted listeners to hear that we’re not all out here, patting ourselves on the back for how great we are. We do have such nay-sayers in our midst, and we do have our own doubts.
While it is about the mission, Anna was right. It’s also about The Life, the parties, the stories, the fun. That’s a hard thing to admit. It took a tough interview with Anna to get me to admit it.
How does it end?
Perhaps one of the hardest things about working on a piece like this is that life keeps going, even though the “story” has to stop at some point. If I did this piece now, it would be different, because I’ve had conversations and experiences that have yet again changed the way I think about my job. At some point, you just have to know when to put down the paint brush. Perspective is nice, but so are deadlines.
I dedicate this piece to the lost members of the tribe and to their families. I stand forever in salute to Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington, Gilles Jacquier, Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin, and Remy Ochlik.
A huge thanks to those who participated in this project by agreeing to talk to me: Mark Brayne, Anthony Feinstein, Paul Wood, Anna Blundy, Jon Lee Anderson, Sebastian Junger, and Christiane Amanpour. Thanks again to the wonderful folks at Transom, who opened their houses and their hearts and reinforced my belief in the principle that if you listen, really listen, great things happen.
Thank you to my true partners in crime — Lava Selo, Rima Marrouch, and Rasha Elass — who have been by my side on every Syria story. Thank you to my dear friend and editor, Doug Roberts, who let me try weird things on the radio despite the fact that I was breaking all the rules. I am forever in his debt. Thanks to the inimitable Loren Jenkins, for believing in me after all those years of trying.
Thank you to Jonathan Blakley, who first put me in touch with Mark Brayne and who helped me understand it’s okay to talk to a counselor; to Barbara Surk and Hassan Jamali, who were with me as we were tear-gassed in Bahrain; to Noor Kelze, who first took me to the front line in Aleppo; to Manoli Wetherell, Jim Lesher, and Suzanne Lennon, who engineered and recorded interviews; to Jennifer Dargan, who helped arrange my interview with Christiane Amanpour; and to Tim Fitzsimons, Susannah George, and John Mangin, who provided early and very helpful feedback.
And perhaps the biggest thanks of all goes to my family — Steve, Claudia, and Dave McEvers — whose support is unwavering despite the pain it causes them, and to Nathan Deuel, my collaborator, my best friend, and my one great love.
Thank you to Matthias Bossi, Carla Kihlstedt, and Jon Evans for the original music they composed for this piece. You can find more of their music at:
Support for this work provided by the
National Endowment for the Arts