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War, history, and baseball

An interview with “Talk of the Nation”’s Neal Conan

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-10-25


Neal Conan, host of NPR’s news call-in show “Talk of the Nation” (weekdays at 2 p.m. on WBOI 89.1 FM), will visit Fort Wayne for Northeast Indiana Public Radio’s Annual Greeting on Friday, November 5. Conan has over 25 years of experience as a journalist and a host of distinguished awards. He was a correspondent in the first Gulf War (where he and several other journalists were captured by the Iraqi army), won a George Foster Peabody award for his part in NPR’s coverage of 9/11 and a duPont award for his coverage of the current war in Iraq. The breadth of topics Conan covers on “Talk of the Nation” is enormous, from current politics, science, and education, to two of Conan’s personal passions — history and baseball. For his visit to Fort Wayne, Conan says he’ll be talking about broadcasting and the importance of public radio, and since his visit comes just a few days after the election, he’ll probably be speaking about current events, too (“Who knows? The election may not be over yet,” he says. “It could go in to extra innings.”) The Fort Wayne Reader had a chance to ask Neal Conan about his 25 years in journalism.

Fort Wayne Reader: There’s a lot of talk about bias in the media these days. As someone who has covered both gulf wars, and a number of other controversial subjects, how do you address that issue?
Neal Conan: It’s interesting. Once you’re in the field, the military people that I’ve had experience with, they’re less concerned with whether you’re biased or not, it’s just that you seem to be in the way. And you know, we are in the way. But if you’ve done your homework, if you know what you’re talking about, then I think people get along with you fine. I’ve never had a problem in that particular respect with people in the military.

FWR: Do you get it from people who are listening?
NC: Sure. It’s actually more difficult, in a way, as the host of a program where we take phone calls all the time then it was as a reporter, where you’re relatively insulated from the audience. As the host of a call-in show, people call in all the time with “you’re slanting it this or that way” or “you’re ignoring this or that,” and all you can do is listen politely and try to be fair.

FWR: When you were a war correspondent, you were taken captive with a number of other journalists. How are journalists regarded by the other side in a conflict? Do they see you as a way of getting their message out, or do they see you as strictly part of the enemy?
NC: When I was captured, this was a question that was foremost in my mind. It was right at the end of the Gulf War, and fortunately the Iraqis instantly accepted that we were journalists and not CIA agents. They’d also just lost a big war against the United States, so maybe pissing off the United States was not exactly what they wanted to do. But they accepted us as bonified journalists from the get-go, there was never any question about that. When we were in the hands of the military I was very impressed with their professionalism, at least in the sense that you’re always terrified that someone is going to run up with an AK-47 and say “You’re the dirty rats who killed my brother,” and take vengeance, but there was none of that. These were people in a situation where, during the time we were held captive, they were isolated, cut off from any supplies, so they had little food or water. But what they had, they gave to us first. One of our group, who spoke Arabic and knew the culture better than most of us, had to say “Look, we can’t eat all that, because if we eat it, then they don’t have anything.” He pointed out the principle of making sure your captors are well fed is probably a good idea. So we were treated as well as possible. We were handled by several military units — an army unit, a Republican Guard unit, and military aviation unit, who flew us to Baghdad where we were handed over to the secret police. They weren’t so nice.

FWR: Do you think that attitude towards western journalists has changed with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
NC: Well, Iraq now is just completely different, where you risk your life just walking down the street. You’re going to get picked up and taken captive. I talked to a friend of mine who said “I can’t wait to come back to the States so I can at least sit up in a car when I’m driving.” It’s extremely difficult now. But obviously the view towards journalists has changed. Look at Daniel Pearle (the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan). That makes you think twice. I read carefully about the stuff that he did, and I have to say that he took more precautions than I have in certain circumstances, so there but for fortune… That’s any of us. So things have really changed.

FWR: With the Iraq war, reporters were embedded with the troops. It’s my impression that that was something new, or new in the way they carried it out. Is that a correct impression?
NC: It’s new in the way they carried it out. They had a pool system in the first Gulf War, and before the Gulf War. There was an evolution. Embedding reporters with units was a different way of doing the same thing. The pool system was just really unwieldy for any number of reasons. I don’t find any problem with the embedding system, except they made it very difficult for the people who were not embedded to work.

FWR: So you didn’t think anything had been lost by it?
NC: No. In some ways, I think a lot was gained. It’s interesting, a lot of reporters were attached to headquarters, but I think some of the more interesting things, particularly as you get away from the daily part of it — you know, “where’s the third army today?” — the more interesting stuff comes from the reporters who were with the smaller units and accompanied them throughout. Obviously, to borrow the clichéd expression of the time, it’s a glimpse through a soda straw. You’re not going to get the whole impression that way, but you can get a very interesting, in-depth look at one aspect of it, and I think historians will have an interesting time putting all those straws together, have a much better view of what happened in this conflict than certainly what happened in the Gulf War. But there’s going to be a pretty comprehensive look. Of course, not everybody was somewhere when something happened, but when, for example, that famous incident when a car of Iraq citizens got shot at a U.S. check point, there was somebody there. There were a lot more people in a lot more places. A friend of mine who covered the first Gulf War for the A.P. said (that this time) they did much better in the way they sent people into the field, but the access at headquarters was horrible. They didn’t have the chance to get to the people they wanted. It spin was all much more tightly controlled.

FWR: Why did he think that was?
NC: Because they were much more conscious about selling a message.

FWR: You’re a big history buff and a baseball fan. Do you ever get tired of current topics?
NC: I don’t get tired of current topics. I get tired of the screeching that I hear from both sides. The level of discourse and the degree of anger on both sides has gotten particularly worse, I think, the last six or eight years, with Clinton and then with the 2000 election and the war. Certainly, there’s a lot to disagree about, but it’s just the incivility of people who are unwilling to tolerate other opinions. I find that difficult to deal with.

FWR: That’s something you always hear people complaining about, the level of public discourse. You’re saying it’s a reality.
NC: Well, for the people who call us, yeah. People are extremely angry, and once they’re extremely angry, they don’t think very clearly. Smarter than people than I have written books about this. Again, I started in journalism back in Vietnam Days, and I’ve seen it since then. There have always been gaps in the way people see the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the anger and intolerance. I’m not sure what that’s about.

FWR: Any theories?
NC: I’ve got a lot of theories, but I still don’t know.

FWR: I don’t hear much of that on your show…
NC: Not on the show, no. You know, the people who listen and call into the show are used to the show, and know there’s a certain level of discourse we expect. But certainly, people who angry sometimes get through. Again, I don’t mind genuine anger, it’s when people start shouting. You can go somewhere else to listen to people shout at each other.

NIPR’s Annual Greeting
Friday, November 5,
5:30 p.m. for hors d’oeuvres and cash bar; talk begins at 6:30 p.m.
Fort Wayne Women’s Club
402 West Wayne Street
Tickets: $8 for station members; $10 for non-members.
Call Lea Denny at 452-1189 or (800) 471-9264 for reservations.

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