< On the Front Lines


Friday, August 07, 2009

As he discovered, the military and the media have, at best, a strained relationship. The media resents the military’s penchant for secrecy, while the military accuses the media of bias against it. But very few people actually know what it’s like to be on both sides of that fight. Matt Mabe is one of those very few. Mabe had planned a lifelong career in the military before deciding to leave to become a reporter. From his unique vantage point, with a foot in each camp, he found that both sides have grounds for mistrusting one another. One of the tragic consequences, Mabe says, is that the full story of what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is not being told. He wrote about this and about his personal struggle with leaving the military. The piece appeared in The Columbia Journalism Review right before he was recalled to duty this summer. He joins us from Afghanistan to talk about his journey from soldier to reporter and back again. He says it was 2006, on his second tour of duty in Iraq, when Mabe decided that he wanted to help tell the story of what was really going on over there.

MATT MABE: When I got to Ramadi, that’s when it really hit me that, you know, our story was not being told. We were in abhorrent conditions. Our soldiers were under attack every single night. We were clearing roadside bombs. And we lost a lot of guys killed and wounded and I just didn't see the sort of coverage in the press that I thought really did justice to the sacrifices we were making.

BOB GARFIELD: What did you think was the biggest failing on the part of the reporters covering your unit?

MATT MABE: The biggest failing with the ones covering my unit were that they [LAUGHS] weren't really around. We heard all the time that there were plenty of journalists around Baghdad, but they weren't making their way out to us, and when they did, I mean, they covered a lot of lame things, like what the soldiers were getting for Christmas in their packages and soldiers playing soccer on base and things like that. Well, there was a lot of stuff going on. We were in a Marine sector and they were doing very, very intense combat operations the entire time, which just weren't given time in the news.

BOB GARFIELD: But when you were cheek-by-jowl with reporters, you actually liked them.

MATT MABE: Absolutely. Like I said, it was very dangerous where we were, and the ones who made it out to our area were quite brave, in my opinion. And I talked to them a lot about the thoughts I had, possibly going into journalism. They were very encouraging to me. They told me that my experience as an officer in combat would be an asset in telling the real story. And, you know, I really took that to heart.

BOB GARFIELD: So you go to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which is probably the elite J school in the country. You get a couple of internships, really in fascinating places. And then, miraculously enough, in this spiraling vortex of ruin that is the newspaper economy -


BOB GARFIELD: - you land a job at The Newark Star-Ledger. You spend some time there as a reporter, and then very soon you are assigned the military beat, I guess, at least potentially, offering the culmination of this long journey you've undertaken. And how long were you on the military beat before you get a -- a telephone call from your mom?

MATT MABE: [LAUGHS] It was about a week, I think. I didn't have long on it. I got to do one story. It was about this Marine recruiter in Perth Amboy, New Jersey who was the top Marine recruiter in the U.S. And, and I put everything into it because I really wanted to impress my editor with my first story, and it actually went on and made page A1 of the paper.

BOB GARFIELD: So your mom calls and she says?

MATT MABE: She says, Matt, I have something to tell you, and I'm just so sorry. And she kept saying it over and over. And I said, Mom, what’s the problem? Is someone hurt? And she finally just told me, Matt, a letter came in the mail from the Army, and it says you have to -- go back.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, before I move forward in the narrative, I want to say that at this point you have now spent time with fellow journalism students and fellow journalists. What was your take on your now-colleagues and their view of you and the war that you fought in?

MATT MABE: What bothered me most was the stereotyping that I saw again and again in the press. If I didn't know any better I probably would have thought that the Army and Marines were full of mostly poor, uneducated soldiers, immigrants, in a lot of cases, who just wanted to pay for college but who instead wind up with PTSD. Every one of those types exists, but most of us are just normal men and women who had a calling and are quietly serving.

BOB GARFIELD: But when you were in school and when some of your professors or classmates would start talking in ways that were demonizing or stereotypical, and you objected, what was their reaction?

MATT MABE: For the most part, people were very curious about my background, and I was happy to indulge in all the questions they had about my experience and where I’d come from. But there were those few who definitely had an idea of what the military was and were completely against the war effort, and made it known. You know, I, I did what I could to try to convey to them what the military was really all about, what the people who served in the military believed and thought. And, you know, I don't know if it ever got through, but I like to hope that it did, somewhat.

BOB GARFIELD: Meanwhile, your West Point colleagues also took a rather dim view of your decision to become a journalist.

MATT MABE: First off, I've gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from fellow soldiers and West Point friends who have read the essay. But, yes, there was an incident that was really jarring. I went to a banquet being held by the New York Chapter of the West Point Association of Graduates. You know, I kind of missed the old life a little, and so I thought it would be cool to reconnect with people that I'd shared similar experiences with. Anyway, when I told the guy who had organized the event that I was a newspaper reporter, he got real serious and said, press isn't welcome here. And I got other similar reactions that night. I just felt really out of place, and it was – it was disappointing to me. I got called back to the Army the next week, but I don't think I would have gone to another function like that. I just didn't feel welcome. It made me really sad.

BOB GARFIELD: It kind of reminds me of the immigrant story where you are neither of the country you hail from, nor of the country where you have settled.

MATT MABE: You know, that’s exactly right. Leaving the Army I felt like a turncoat, and later in journalism circles I felt sort of like an imposter. I asked myself all the time, you know, was I more loyal to my friends and leaders in the Army or was I loyal to my editors and colleagues? I struggled with that for a long time.

BOB GARFIELD: So now you’re back in uniform, in Afghanistan, and you have this unique perspective of the mutual distrust between the military and the media, and you observe an Army practice which pulls you up short. In talking to our producer, you described a process by which the military, in investigating the reporters who are investigating them, come up with an analysis, with pie charts and everything else, to try to ascertain how negative or positive the reporting is likely to be. Is that really going on?

MATT MABE: Yes, it is. The military is now commissioning private companies to research, profile and make assessments about reporters’ previous military coverage. They rate it using pie charts and graphs, as you said, and finish it off with a summary evaluation, which to me carries an almost Orwellian overtone. For example, we have a reporter on the ground right now, and his assessment reads like this: “Given his neutral to positive sentiment typical in his narrative reporting, as well as the characterization of his media outlet, which is politically center right, one may expect this reporter to produce coverage that is, at the least, neutral in sentiment and representative of the military point of view of events, if not neutral to positive.” Now, the idea here is to figure out the best place to put them or prevent them from embedding at all. And, in my opinion, this just counters the ideals that we who wear the uniform are expected to represent.

BOB GARFIELD: Finally, now you’re reporting to us on the ground. How does the military feel about that, about your CJR piece, about this conversation?

MATT MABE: I don't – I don’t think I'm going to get in any trouble over this, but there are those officers who are a bit scared, I think, of what I'm going to write about my experience. So it’s been interesting. I – I haven't made a lot of close friends, but the truth needs to be told about the relationship between the two professions.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Matt. Thank you very much.

MATT MABE: Thank you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Matt Mabe is a journalist and Army officer stationed in Gardez, Afghanistan. He and his girlfriend, Molly Birnbaum, write about what it’s like for a couple to be separated by war on their blog, Hereandfar.blogspot.com.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, are journalists who court death hardwired differently from the rest of us? This is On the Media from NPR.