Journalist shares experiences in war

Public radio producer Graham Smith gave a Master’s Tea in Calhoun Monday, describing his journalism experience and his time reporting in Iraq.
Public radio producer Graham Smith gave a Master’s Tea in Calhoun Monday, describing his journalism experience and his time reporting in Iraq. Photo by Vivienne Jiao Zhang.

Graham Smith first joined National Public Radio as a senior producer, but he said his work turned dangerous when he traveled overseas to cover the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Smith, a senior producer of NPR’s popular radio program “All Things Considered,” spoke to a group of about 50 students and faculty members in the Calhoun College master’s house Monday night. Smith spent the majority of his talk detailing his experience following the Marines, which he said gave him an increased sympathy for the troops involved in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This idea that we’re going to unleash this concept of democracy and Western government [in the tribal areas of Afghanistan]… is not panning out so well,”

Smith said NPR presented him the chance go to Iraq as NPR’s bureau chief in Baghdad. He had always wanted to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime, he said, so he took the opportunity eagerly.

From the moment Smith got on the ground, he said, violence surrounded him. While covering a story in Arghandab RIver Valley in 2009, Smith said the chaos of the war made many U.S. soldiers share their personal feelings about their experiences, particularly their desires to return to their homes in America..

“They were ready to open up and talk about this bad situation that they were in,” he said.

In addition to working with soldiers, Smith said he spent much of his time overseas collaborating with local translators and navigators, called “fixers” by U.S. journalists. Fixers’ experience working with American journalists often opened doors for them to enter a career in journalism after the foreign media left, but these opportunities came at great personal risk to the fixers. The Taliban typically tries to seek out and kill locals who have helped the U.S. troops, he said.

When asked what one piece of advice he would give to aspiring journalists, Smith said that it is important to establish a personal connection with one’s audience.

“In any story you’re going to do, anything you can do to help the person at the other end of that piece of paper, the other end of that radio signal, connect to the individual at home is the thing to do,” he said.

Smith discussed his lengthy journalistic background. As a high school student in New Hampshire, Smith said, he became interested in writing as part of an underground student newspaper called The Athenian, whose name was a foil to the school’s official paper, The Spartan. Smith continued to pursue his interest in journalism as a production intern for The Christian Science Monitor’s “Monitor Radio” while he attended the University of New Hampshire, and he left his final year in college to take a full-time position at the Monitor, where he stayed until 1997, after which he worked with radio station WBUR in Boston until he was tapped to produce “All Things Considered” in 2002.

Three students interviewed at the talk said they thought Smith’s conversational style made complicated issues accessible to them. Ken Gunasekera ’15 said he enjoyed the talk because Smith was willing to discuss things casually with students in a way that most lecturers are not.

National Public Radio was founded in February 1970.

Corrections: Nov. 17

An earlier version of this article contained several errors. The article misrepresented Graham Smith’s statements about his opinions on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The article also incorrectly paraphrased Smith’s statements about American efforts to spread democracy. The article also incorrectly stated the nature of Smith’s job with NPR in Baghdad and his occupation from 1997–2002.

Corrections and clarifications: Nov. 18

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the nature of Graham Smith’s assignment in Iraq. The article also mischaracterized the timeline of Smith’s work in Iraq. The also also stated that the Taliban “typically seek out and kill fixers” when in fact the Taliban only tries to target fixers.

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