Kevin Sites, author of In the Hot Zone, shed some light to his experiences in an interview with The Millions last week. An edited text of the transcript appears below, please see yesterday’s post for more on In the Hot Zone.The Millions: Did you always have the idea of a book when you embarked on the Hot Zone?Kevin Sites: I was hoping that through the course of the journey that all the material we were gathering would transform itself – possibly a book, possibly a documentary. It just so happened that we were able to get both out of the material.TM: How was it different to write the book compared to sending dispatches from war zones?KS: The idea for online reporting was to make it as subjective as possible. For the most part the people I was covering during the journey were front and center in our storytelling: I really wanted to focus on their experiences. In doing the book I was able to look into two story structures: my journey and unique experiences in covering it and the parallel journey of the people I encountered. This was more of a memoir, more of a chance for me to meditate on what I learned instead of just providing observations from all these locations, actually thinking of what they meant in a cumulative sense.TM: Did the book help you put things into context once you removed yourself from those environments?KS: The book allowed me to think of what I had seen, instead of just reporting it. And the truth is, in all these wars, how we define war is really a misinterpretation. We define it as combat, which is probably its smallest component. When really how it should be defined is collateral damage, which is its most dominant feature and goes on for generations. Battles may only last a very short time, but the repercussions rip along for a long time.TM: We saw and read a lot about collateral damage at the beginning of the Iraq War. Why do you think coverage of the greater effects of war are more limited now?KS: We as journalist have a tendency to focus on the inherently more dramatic. We’re drawn to the guns and the tanks and the armies and guerilla forces because they are easy to report on. The collateral damage is much more difficult to report on in a compelling way, keeping people interested in refugee camps and the suffering human beings for example – it’s our natural tendency to turn away from them because they are harder to see.TM: With so much to cover in Iraq, how did you decide to leave it – albeit temporarily – and go around the world?KS: I’d spent almost the last two years of my life in Iraq, and I hope to go back. But I felt like my mandate was to get beyond the headlines. In most of the places I went, I was the only reporter. The smaller stories also lent themselves to this particular project. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to be on the ground very long in any of these locations, so I had to limit my objectives to putting together profiles of people instead of telling the geopolitical story, for which I used the strength of the Web by linking to BBC country profiles.TM: Any odd, uplifting experiences in your travels?KS: I had a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama. That was kind of funny because I was so star struck that I couldn’t say anything to him even though he sat right behind me in the plane. Here I am a man covering every war and here’s the person who epitomizes world peace in many ways and I couldn’t ask his counsel. I felt very sheepish afterwards.TM: You’re pretty critical of mainstream media in some of your writing, do you see yourself going back to network news?KS: My major problem with it was the limitations of television news – we had so little time to tell our stories, and more specifically how NBC stepped away from me after the mosque shooting. I don’t hate mainstream media and I don’t look at the Web as a medium to displace it. I think we’re in the same ballgame: we amplify each other’s work. I was grateful to do something different, but I still love the impact of television. I would like to continue to be the multimedia reporter that I am, maybe for different sources or maybe one particular company.TM: People point to The Hot Zone as the future of journalism, how was it for you to report for an online outlet?KS: I don’t think it’s the future, I think it is the present. You see the evolution of this multimedia approach really across the board: every television network has a fairly rich Web site that provides both text and video, and every newspaper is now at a point where they’re using still photography in a more animated fashion. Television didn’t kill radio, the Internet’s not going to kill television or newspapers – it’s just going to force them to evolve.TM: Did reporting for a Web publication affect your access to sources, especially in high places?KS: It was interesting because in so many places I traveled as an NBC reporter I had to explain who I was working for. But when I told people I was working for Yahoo! they knew. It also was a double-edged sword because people could access my reporting right away. A Hezbollah source was sort of patronizing: ‘What are you, a blog?’ And then he goes to the site and the first thing he sees is images of U.S. soldiers because I had just been embedded in Iraq. So it was interesting to face that and explain it.TM: It has been three years since you taped the mosque shooting in Fallujah, what are your feelings about the whole episode – the event itself, the hate mail you received, etc. – now?KS: The hate mail has tapered off. For me that particular incident – I think about it a lot, because I talk about it a lot – I certainly came to peace with what happened there. With one exception: I recently found out by putting in a freedom of information request that one of the insurgents was shot 23 times in the back after I left the mosque and I felt somewhat complicit about it.TM: You write about the U.S. media’s decision to self-censor the coverage of the Fallujah mosque event, where are we three years later?KS: It’s still going on. When’s the last time you saw a wounded or dead soldier or marine? The war has become very sanitized for us in America. There’s a problem with that because it doesn’t show you the true face of war. I’m not for showing you gratuitous violence but you do have to show that people get killed in war – it isn’t a sterile environment and we do have to show the good, the bad and the ugly. When we don’t do that, our public and our democracy suffers because the public can’t understand what’s going on and can’t make the informed choices they need to make about those conflicts.TM: Are you yearning to go back to covering conflicts?KS: It wasn’t so much conflict that drew me, it’s the idea that within conflict you’re witness to a lot of different spectrums of human conditions: we struggle with so many different ethical and moral choices within a war, that’s fascinating to me. At the same time I don’t want become one of these war correspondents that can’t come back home again. I think soldiers feel somewhat same way. When you’re gone you’re constantly dreaming of coming home but when you’re here you can’t wait to go back.
There are about 30 ongoing conflicts in the world. Contrary to conventional wisdom and blissful ignorance, the big wars since World War II have not been limited to Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the current wars endearingly known as Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – i.e., the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.Kevin Sites broke with the Iraq-War pack of journalists in 2005 to embark on an ambitious project: covering all current armed conflicts in one year. He missed a couple here and there, but in the end Sites made it to 21 war zones, some planned (like Somalia), others ad hoc (like the Lebanon-Israel 34-Day War). More importantly, however, Sites went beyond the numbers: his coverage was not about the death toll and the money spent, but about the civilian cost of wars.The damages appeared in written dispatches, photo essays and videos on the Yahoo Hot Zone Web site. The project was unusual not only in its geographic span – after all, with more than 4,300 U.S. troops dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post, and many more injured, how often do we hear about Chechnya or Haiti or Sri Lanka – but also for its journalistic ambition. Sites traveled as a SoJo (solo journalist) utilized all media available, reported for the Web and was not bound by editorial limitations of network TV (his previous employers include ABC, CNN and NBC).Hot Zone gained a steady readership; it got more than 970,000 hits a month, according to a New York Times article. And, it became the front page for stories otherwise only intermittently told.Sites is no stranger to telling the mainstream stories, however. He is responsible for one of the most controversial pieces of journalism to come out of Iraq: the shooting of captured enemy combatants in a mosque during the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. NBC’s decision not to air the tape in its entirety showed Sites one of the biggest problems in media: not trusting the public with the information.This lesson, albeit a hard one for Sites who still receives hate mail for being unpatriotic, informed his reporting and style for Yahoo!, where he reported with sincerity, presenting the information without a network filter.It’s been slightly more than a year since Sites came back. In the span of four quick months, he compiled his memoirs, Hot Zone stories and videos in a package that includes a book and a DVD documentary: In the Hot Zone – an intimate look into Sites’ mind and the world he lived in for a year.In the Hot Zone’s best qualities are its quick, newsy style and its ability to add another layer of humanity to war by providing the honest reactions of a Westerner. I couldn’t help thinking of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski while reading Sites’ account of conflict in Africa. And while Sites does not possess Kapuscinski’s lyrical formulation in presenting tragedies, his straight-forward style lends itself perfectly to telling the stories of those most affected by war.Sites accomplishes one of his main goals, “providing more coverage to the world’s nameless and voiceless conflict victims,” by bringing the story home in a published form after successfully keeping readers abreast of developments in far flung corners of the world.In The Hot Zone is a fresh look at wars that flash across CNN once in a while or make for good feature articles in the weekend edition of your paper. What Sites reminds the reader is that his subjects, whose lives are torn apart by wars, are very real – whether you realize it or not.Tomorrow: An interview with Kevin Sites.