On Tuesday evening, former Newsweek Bureau Chief Scott Johnson spoke to the Pell Center community about his experience as a journalist during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Johnson had worked in France earlier in his career–it goes without saying that transitioning from Paris to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2003 was a drastic change.
“I had never covered a war like this,” Johnson said about Afghanistan. His job now involved sitting in trenches in the middle of the desert and depending on three objects that would be “paramount” to his survival: a backpack, a satellite, and a generator. The desert itself was “an eerie experience,” being in a place that seemed “primitive” compared to lively urban areas.
To accompany his talk, Johnson presented images of the Middle East at the time of the landscape, the people, and the frontlines. “Reporters take pictures,” says Johnson. “It isn’t until time passes that the meanings come alive and they’re understood.”
Johnson also shared even the smallest details of his experience, from the colleagues he met and worked with and the security detail living in Iraq’s Green Zone, to riding a donkey to see the frontlines in Afghanistan, an experience Johnson can only recount as being “uncomfortable.”
There were two ways Johnson found material for his stories–he either worked with editors or stumbled into a story himself by being caught in a crossfire or ambushed.
While In Iraq, Newsweek had assigned Johnson to get independent coverage as much independent coverage as possible. In order to travel around the region safely, Johnson and his cameraman “leapfrogged” from convoy to convoy to get to where he needed to be. During one trip, when Johnson was unaccompanied by military, he was ambushed by insurgents while driving, but managed to escape.
When Johnson returned to the United States, he experienced great culture shock and became afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After Johnson’s lecture finished, someone in the audience asked Johnson what his favorite part of working in the Middle East and what was his favorite part about working as a journalist. Despite the demands of an intense environment, Johnson loved working at a publication that, at the time, had prestige and credibility among the public–Johnson acknowledged that the world of reporting has changed during the past decade. Nevertheless, Johnson continues to enjoy working at a profession that involves travel and adventure.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” says Johnson.
On May 22, 2013, Scott Johnson released his book The Wolf and the Watchman, a personal story of how he grew up as the son of a CIA officer, only to find out in his later years that his own field of journalism was not so different than his father’s spy business.