Trust and Sand

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

This job as a news reporter in Kuwait, and perhaps soon in Iraq, is a physical and technical challenge. The wind and the heat beat you up, and then the technology confounds you.
We are pushing the limits of our gear in this environment. Sand is our worst enemy, and the wind never seems to stop. It’s either strong, or very strong (think: sandblaster). My face is windburned red.
The military allows two people to join them in the desert for two to three days per visit. Any reporter can find dozens of stories once in the field. That is the easy part. By and large the military has allowed us to do as we like and has given us what I would consider behind-the-scenes access.
The [Department of Defense] says they’re trying to establish “trust” with journalists. I would say I’ve found company and battalion commanders working diligently to show they trust us, and they want us to see what it is the men and woman of the U.S. military do in the buildup to war.
We do not have live trucks or satellite trucks on our shoots. When we have breaking news, we have to battle the technology. The easy part is to take the video, all shot on DV cameras (mostly Sony PD 150s or Sony VX 2000s) and load it into an apple G4. We’re using Final Cut Pro 3.
Hiding your laptop from the grains of sand is a losing battle, but we’re trying. Often the best spot is in the tent that you have pitched. Yes, I forgot to mention, we’re also responsible for our own tents, sleeping bags, water, food and electricity.
We’ve already had two real gas attack alerts. They turned out to be false positives, but to the U.S. Marines in gas masks (and for both NBC cameraman Bill Angelucci and me) the moment the siren began to whir and our rush to put on the masks began was very real. We taped that moment: what many in the business call “as-lives.”
Our report was about two minutes and 30 seconds. I then took the tape, loaded it in the laptop, exported it from Final Cut Pro 3 and ran it through a program called Discreet Cleaner. That process took about one hour.
At the same time, Bill was facing the biggest challenge: getting the Inmarsat phone to find an ISDN connection to the Indian Ocean Satellite. It took us more than two hours to finally get the connection. From there we did a file protocol transfer of the video. About 17 minutes later (total time: more than two hours 17 minutes) the story was in New Jersey and ready to air on all NBC broadcasts and cablecasts.
By now you’re beginning to wonder: I thought Kerry Sanders was a correspondent, not a technical staffer. In this war that is yet to begin, editorial and technical lines are blurred. Cameraman Bill Angelucci can’t do it all, but thankfully he does most of it. He says, “Today we’re all cook, cleaner and bottle washer, and it’s for the same pay.”
The most troubling part of this job: the psychological fear associated with chemical and biological threats. NBC sent me to a one-week survival course, and then another three-day specific chemical and biological course. I also attended a five-day Department of Defense “embedded media” course.
Yet none of that that prepared me for the near-panic when the siren sounded, and the Marine captain yelled, “This is not a drill!” Once I had the mask on, my face began to sweat. My eyes were stinging and I was sure I had been contaminated by some horrible chemical agent. Of course, it was a false alarm, but the mind does funny things to you out here in the desert.
Add to the mix, the stories I’ve reported previously about the consequences of an attack. The hardest part is getting the mask on in seconds. I failed this time, in part because I delayed when I heard the siren: I thought it was just a test for the U.S. Marines.
Tonight we’ll do gas-mask drills back in our office. Before we begin, I’ll remind everyone the next time you put this on, it could be real.