From Journalist to Activist

If you’re a regular NPR listener, the name Sarah Chayes may be familiar to you. From 1996 to 2002, she was one of NPR’s best foreign correspondents. In the run-up to the US invasion of Afghanistan, she reported a number of stories that attempted to explain the complex relationships between the Taliban, Al-Quaeda and average Afghani citizens.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t realized Chayes’s voice was absent from NPR until I found this piece on Alternet, reprinted from the Columbia Journalism Review. In a piece called “Breaking Ranks in Afghanistan”, Chayes talks about her decision to leave journalism and become an activist, working for an NGO in Afghanistan.

Early in her career, she thought of her work as a journalist as important and relevant:

…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.

While she initially thought reporting on Afghanistan post-9/11 would be an opportunity to do balanced, nuanced reporting, her hopes were quickly dashed. Her stories were criticized for being insufficiently anti-Taliban – she explains that she had begun to understand that “pro-Taliban” and “pro-bin Laden” were not synonyms, a difficult distinction for American listeners – and her producers – to understand. She quotes a fellow journalist as complaining:

“They simply didn’t want any reporting,” he explained. “They told us the story lines, and asked us to substantiate them.”

So when one of her sources, the uncle of Hamad Kharzai asked her “Wouldn’t you come back and help us?”, she said yes, and became the field director of Afghans for Civil Society, a new NGO in Kandahar.

She’s got lots more to say about being an activist and a critic, moving from talking to sources to being one. While I’m thrilled she’s found a way to help Afghans and to keep Afghanistan an issue in the US media, it breaks my heart that she had to leave journalism to do it. You would think that a seasoned journalist with experience in the Middle East, working for one of the better news outlets in the US would be allowed to show us the complexities of situations like the US invasion of Afghanistan. And you’d be wrong.

My regular rant is about media attention and the problems we court when we ignore countries and regions. Chayes’s article is a good reminder – one that colleague Rebecca MacKinnon has made over and over with NKZone – that lots of coverage doesn’t mean we get the real story unless it’s good, honest, nuanced coverage. And that if mainstream journalism doesn’t do the job, we may need to become activists to ensure important stories get heard.

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