Senior Producer of Public Radio USA, journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner Graham Smith has 25 years of professional experience. In 2021, he was awarded the highest journalism award, the Pulitzer Prize, for the series of podcasts “No Compromise“
Graham has been a military journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq, initiating and hosting a number of talk shows on US Public Radio. In 1999 he was also in Yerevan. He conducted a seminar for radio journalists and the staff of Internews “Aniv” radio program.
We talked to him about the role of the media, especially in conflict situations.
What is the advantage of being a journalist?
I like talking to people. My profession seems to be an excuse to talk to people with whom I would probably have no reason to talk if I were not a journalist. It’s a kind of license to connect with new people.
I’m also curious, I enjoy digging and finding things that some people have hidden from others. I feel good when I declassify information.
Do you think that you are doing something really important and valuable?
Well, yes. Information is crucial for people to make the right decisions about government and what to do.
There is this debate: What is journalism and what is propaganda?
You have press officers in the government. There are also news agencies that just listen to what the government says and pass it on to the people without any criticism or analysis.
On the other hand, you have people who are really digging, finding documents, going to events, and talking to people on the spot. They see what is really happening and share what they have seen and heard with people.
I have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time. Many of our reports in Afghanistan showed how mixed and disorganized the country’s army and police were, but the US military wanted to inspire everyone and say that everything was fine, well-organized.
If you believed their press releases, you would think that everything was fine.
But if you go there and spend time with the military, the guys on patrol, you see the situation for yourself, then you can tell people what is really going on. “The government is telling you something, but I was there and this is what I saw.”
And it can help people make the right decisions.
What was the role of the media in the military conflicts of the 21st century – in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and now on the Russian-Ukrainian border? Isn’t the media just a convenient tool in the hands of politicians? The best we can do is discuss whether there will be a war or not. Or we can reveal human destinies in the inhumanity of war. But can we stop the war?
I do not know if we can stop the war, I doubt it. In the early 2000s, as we approached the Iraq war, there were journalists who said that the allegations made by George W. Bush and his administration about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and his alleged missiles were baseless. People should have listened. However, we did not avoid war, unfortunately.
The same was in Afghanistan. We, the journalists, had long ago pointed out the puppet government, the exaggeration of the military, the large number of ghost soldiers who were on the payroll, but did not really exist.
We also said that the existing army is very poorly prepared and will probably not be able to fight the Taliban. However, it took 20 years for the US to finally make a decision and leave Afghanistan, whether it was good or bad.
It is difficult when you feel that you are doing your job, you are telling the truth, but it seems to have little effect.
Nevertheless, we continue our work, because I think we ourselves don’t know what we have prevented. We see only what has happened. But I hope that some good decisions have been made in the process, maybe even terrible things have been prevented, because thanks to us, the informed society simply would not tolerate them.
Your “No Compromise” podcast series won the Pulitzer Prize last year. Did it provoke a debate and what effect did it have? Did it change anything?
I think sometimes we give ourselves hope that it is so. But what “No Compromise” did for sure was to give people a deeper insight into what was happening in this country at that moment.
Many in America are aware of the gun debate. Some people think that we should have the right to bear arms: anyone can have any weapon. They want complete freedom for that.
Others think it should be controlled because there are street shootings, children kill each other in schools, you know, terrible things happen. For many, this is a deep and serious issue.
What we did was to get deeper into the groups that are trying to change our laws by weakening the right to arms. We found out what motivates them to do so, what goals they pursue, in addition to changing the law on weapons.
It did not lead to the adoption of a new law or anything like that, but I hope that what we have done will help people in the future to make the right decisions.
I think that one of the reasons why “No Compromise” won the Pulitzer Prize and entered a new phase was that the events of January 6, 2021, took place.
That day, a mob stormed our Capitol building in Washington, D.C., clashed with police, and threatened to harm lawmakers. Many of them were the same people we talked about in our programs.
People saw what happened on January 6, and many realized that maybe they needed to have a better idea of what those people wanted and why they were doing what they were doing.
You were a war journalist in Afghanistan in 2010.
This is true.
You lost your close friend there if I’m not mistaken.
You are now a Pulitzer Prize winner. Do you feel that you and your Pulitzer team can really make a difference?
We must hope that we can change something. Many things we and you do can sometimes seem trivial and simple. For example, to give a human face to those who have been turned into caricatures by state and military propaganda.
The authorities want us to say that this one and the other, which are different from us, are bad. They are dishonest, they have stolen our money, they are our enemies or something like that, and consequently, they can be eliminated with a clear conscience.
But when you go and talk to those other people, you try to understand them, you see that they also have families and children that they love. I think that was an important part of what we did in Afghanistan.
Maybe people will not go to war so easily if they notice that the other person also has a human face, right?
What we do is not only what changes people’s minds. It also changes people’s hearts a little.
You mentioned my friend, photojournalist David Gilkey, who died in Afghanistan. I love David. The main purpose of his works was to show human connections between the people of Sierra Leone, South Africa, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe. He was there to let you know that people are human so that you can have an emotional connection with them and you may not even feel that they are different from you.
Let me say one thing that will probably be difficult to translate. Our job is not only to influence people’s consciousness but also their hearts. We try to humanize people, to explain that we are all together in all this. At least to some extent.
If we succeed, it becomes difficult to divide people.
Interview by Harutyun Mansuryan