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Ex-Washington Post Journalist Recounts Abu Ghraib, Close Call With Al-Qaeda Kidnappers

Jackie Spinner interviews a soldier in Iraq during her time as a Washington Post correspondent.
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Jackie Spinner
Jackie Spinner interviews a soldier in Iraq during her time as a Washington Post correspondent.

In 2003, the Associated Press issued its report on human rights abuses taking place at the U.S.-held Abu Ghraib prison. Jackie Spinner was at the prison a year later to report on the story for The Washington Post when she was nearly kidnapped by Al-Qaeda members.

“It was June 14, 2004. It’s a day I’ll never forget,” Spinner said.

The event inspired the title for her 2006 book about her experiences reporting in Iraq during the war, Tell Them I Didn’t Cry

Spinner is currently a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and the executive director and founder of the non-governmental organization, Angel Says: Read.

The attempted kidnapping occurred more than a decade ago, but reporters are no safer in conflict zones today. The changing role of journalists and media means war reporting has only become more dangerous, says Spinner.

In the past, terrorist organizations and warlords relied on foreign reporters to help spread their message, but that is no longer the case.

“Journalists are no longer needed to serve that role,” Spinner said. “Social media has taken its place … and that has made it more dangerous.”

Spinner also says cuts in foreign news staff and an increased reliance on freelance journalists has made the situation increasingly dangerous for journalists.

“Freelancers are not given the same training that correspondents are given [and] are competing for money and for the story in a way that staffers did not necessarily do… and this has created an environment that has made it very dangerous for journalists,” Spinner said.

Despite the risks, journalists continue to enter conflict zones to bring the story to the public.

“There are risk junkies … [but] I think that many journalists are motivated by that desire to be the watchdog for something that is happening,” Spinner said.

“[Journalists] have to be witnesses… I don’t believe that the government, any administration or any department of defense, should tell [the public] how the war is going… This is a role that journalists play in a democracy,” says Spinner.

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Interview Highlights

On Her Attempted Kidnapping

I was covering the [Abu Ghraib prison scandal] story from the outside as the detainees were released. I convinced the U.S. Military to allow me to spend the night at Abu Ghraib – I was one of the first reporters who was allowed to do that. I went in the night before with a photographer, Andrea Bruce, and we spent the night covering a story about the release from inside the prison and the next morning as I was leaving the prison, I was dressed as an Iraqi, I was going to the Iraqi driver who came to pick me up across the street, and then I got grabbed by two members of Al Qaeda as I was leaving the prison. And they were trying to stuff me in a taxi and take me to Fallujah. It was very fortunate the U.S. Marines rescued me very quickly. And it was June 14, 2004. It's a day I'll never forget.

On Establishing Student Newspapers In Iraq And Oman

And after covering war and conflict for the years that I did, I felt this desire to do something other than take. And so I went back to Iraq in 2009 and then again in 2010 to start Iraq's first student newspaper, independent student newspaper, because I felt this need to give back and to help teach a generation in a country that was undergoing these seismic changes how to do journalism well. I modeled the student newspaper I started in Iraq after the best student newspapers in the United States. I negotiated with the administrators not to censor those newspapers and to teach the students what an independent press is. There isn't really an independent press in either of those countries, in Iraq or Oman. The newspaper in Iraq, at the American University there, is still going. The one in Oman did not make it. I started that on my Fulbright, and the next year, it folded. There just was not the institutional support for that that there has been at the American University of Iraq. But I think starting those newspapers also helped me understand why I wanted to teach. For the first time I realized that feeling that many people have who teach – that I had an opportunity to teach my students to be great, to teach them to be better than I ever was as a journalists. And it was a really, really powerful feeling.

On Angel Says: Read

I went to Belize after I left the Washington Post and I went there to heal after conflict. And I started this literacy project when I was there based on my experiences as a foreign correspondent. When I traveled I always took books with me because I couldn't stand the thought of being somewhere and not having anything to read. And I knew that Belize is a tourist destination and that many people brought books, and so I simply created a mechanism for tourists to leave their books behind. And so I have drop boxes all over the country, at all the resorts, at the spots where the ships come in, the cruise ships. And those books are then redistributed to the public libraries, which have no budget for buying new books. And then I also have a system here in the United States for people to donate books directly to Belize; I have a shipping partner in Texas who ships the containers of the books for free to Belize.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jackie Spinner, welcome to World Views.

JACKIE SPINNER: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, Jackie, you decided early on that you wanted to be a journalist – learning in high school, really, when you got involved with your high school newspaper, that that was the road you wanted to take. And not too long after that, college, graduate degree, you end up in Baghdad, reporting on war. This is quite a leap, is it not? To go from working on the school paper to that degree that lands you in Baghdad. Tell us a little bit about your background there and how that happened and what that was like.

SPINNER: Well I actually never dreamed or aspired to be a war correspondent or a foreign correspondent. I wanted to cover city counsel. When I first started, when I was 13, I started a little neighborhood newspaper where I grew up in central Illinois, and I wanted to report on the neighbors. So my aspirations were quite minimal at that time. And I worked my way up. It may seem very fast, but I started in a very typical way in journalism: at the bottom. I worked for two years for the Oakland Tribune when I was going to graduate school. I got paid $50 for those two years of work. And probably the fortunate part of this that helped launch me as quickly as it did was getting recruited by the Washington Post when I was in graduate school. So I was very young when I started at the Washington Post. It was my first real job. But I started at the bottom as an intern. I was an intern on the business staff and then I covered local government, local politics, everything that ran inside the B section or the C section were my stories for a number of years. But I was cutting my teeth; I was paying my dues. And when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, I was a business reporter – I was covering the billions of dollars of contracts – and my desire to go overseas, to go to Iraq, came because I wanted to follow my story, and my story at the time was the money that Congress was allocating to rebuild the country.

GRILLOT: So you end up in Baghdad and you're covering business stories, yet you end up in the middle of a war. And you're experiencing everything from car bombs and mortar attacks, witnessing what's going on in the Battle of Fallujah, and you actually were almost kidnapped outside of Abu Ghraib. Is that right?

SPINNER: Abu Ghraib prison, yeah.

GRILLOT: So what was that experience like? And how did that happen, by the way – kidnapping?

SPINNER: Well I actually got to Iraq not to cover business stories, but I helped break the Abu Ghraib prison scandal story for the Washington Post. I had an exclusive interview with one of the soldiers, who was ultimately imprisoned by the military for her role in the abuse of the detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. And like a lot of reporters, when I arrived in Iraq, every Friday the military would release some of the prisoners – the detainees is what they called them. And I and the other members of the press corps from Baghdad, we would stand outside the prison, we would interview family members who were greeting their loved ones as they rolled out of the prison. It was very unusual for Iraqis to see prisoners released, because under Saddam Abu Ghraib was a horrific place. It was a place of torture; it was a place people went to die. When the Olympic team lost, they were tortured at the prison. It was just a horrible place. And so people were very curious by the release of these detainees. And the United States was doing it in part because it had to release its prison population. It did not have the soldiers who were properly trained to act as guards, which is how Abu Ghraib, the scandal, happened. And so I was covering the story from the outside as the detainees were released. I convinced the U.S. Military to allow me to spend the night at Abu Ghraib – I was one of the first reporters who was allowed to do that. I went in the night before with a photographer, Andrea Bruce, and we spent the night covering a story about the release from inside the prison and the next morning as I was leaving the prison, I was dressed as an Iraqi, I was going to the Iraqi driver who came to pick me up across the street, and then I got grabbed by two members of Al Qaeda as I was leaving the prison. And they were trying to stuff me in a taxi and take me to Fallujah. It was very fortunate the U.S. Marines rescued me very quickly. And it was June 14, 2004. It's a day I'll never forget. And it was a really humbling experience for a number of reasons. The danger not withstanding, I was really surprised how few people who were civilians that were just standing outside the prison were willing to come and help me. I was pleading, trying to make eye contact with a lot of the women who were outside the prison, and nobody wanted to help me. And I think I later realized that it wasn't me: I represented everything that had gone wrong since the U.S. invaded Iraq and people were very angry. They saw me as the U.S. government. I was not an independent journalist; I wasn't Washington Post – which I had screamed at the Al Qaeda members to get them to release me, that I was just a journalist. They ripped off my clothes, they saw I was wearing flak jacket, and they thought I was CIA, and I knew that was very bad. But I was very fortunate. I was very fortunate because we had just started covering the beheadings of Americans; Nicholas Berg had been beheaded the month before. Things were turning in 2004 and it was starting to become a very dangerous place to be a journalist, to be an observer of what was going on in Iraq.

GRILLOT: Well I definitely want to get to that subject of the dangers of being a journalist because clearly this is not going away. If anything it's getting worse. But you wrote about these experiences in your book, “Tell Them I Didn't Cry.” Why that title of the book?

SPINNER: Well the title came from that experience -- almost being kidnapped. When I was rescued I was brought back inside the prison. And the translator for the Washington Post, the correspondent, who was an Iraqi, BassamSebti, he was waiting for me, and they allowed him to come inside the prison. He was sitting there with me and I was shaking so badly because I realized, particularly with the murder of Nicholas Berg, what could have happened. And I turned to Bassam and I said, "When we get back to the office, you tell them I didn't cry." I guess I was very proud at the time that I hadn't cried. I had a therapist tell me years later that I probably should have because it was a very traumatic experience. It really became real for me when I went into Fallujah with the Marines several months later, in November of 2004, to cover the Battle of Fallujah, because we found the houses where the Al Qaeda insurgents and fighters were holding people and beheading them –the banners and the knives and the blood – and I realized what a close call I had had when I saw those places where I could have ended up.

GRILLOT: More and more people, it seems to me, are heading to these war zones and becoming the stories themselves. We've seen it, obviously, from your experience, onward – so for 10 years now or more. But journalism, of course, has been a dangerous occupation for a long time for war correspondents and others who are covering corruption or other things that might lead them to experience violence. But what we're seeing happening – in many of these Middle East countries in particular – is just an escalation, it seems to me. What are we supposed to do? What can we do? You were almost held captive, or you were held captive. And others that are being held captive now are experiencing beheadings, public beheadings, on YouTube. What should we do to try to prevent or minimize these things from happening?

SPINNER: Well I think two things have made it more dangerous for journalists. And you pointed out, accurately so, that covering conflict has always been dangerous for correspondents. But two things have made it more dangerous. First of all, these terrorist organizations – including the Islamic State, which is currently holding many of the journalists and civilians in Syria – they don't need us anymore. Al Qaeda has its own communication network; it has its own television, it has a way of distributing its message. 25 years ago, if you were a warlord somewhere and you wanted the world to understand who you were and why you were doing what you did, you invited the New York Times or the Washington Post or the L.A. Times reporter to your camp, you explained your story, and you hoped that the world, then, would hear your message. Journalists are no longer needed to serve that role. Social media has taken its place. The Islamic State is very active on Twitter; Al Qaeda is very active on Twitter. They don't need us in the same way, and that has made it more dangerous. The second thing that has made it more dangerous is American news organizations in particular – but this is happening across the world – have cut their foreign news staffs and they're relying more and more on freelancers. And freelancers are not given the same training that correspondents are given. Freelancers are competing for money and for the story in a way that staffers did not necessarily do. And it doesn’t mean that freelancers are necessarily... They're still very qualified individuals, but there's a competition to take a risk in order to get a photo that nobody else has. And this has created an environment that has made it very dangerous for journalists. Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for a journalist right now according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. There were more than 70 journalists who have been killed since that war began in 2011. And the majority of journalists that are being held captive right now are being held in Syria. And these are the two instances of the journalists – we had a humanitarian worker who was murdered a couple days ago. I hesitate even to use the word "beheading" because "beheading" suggests that there was a process, some sort of legal process, and there wasn't. These were murders. These individuals were beheaded. Daniel Pearl was behead in Pakistan or Afghanistan and we don't call that the beheading of Daniel Pearl – it's very curious to me – we call it the murder of Daniel Pearl. In fact he was also beheaded. So we in the media have allowed these terrorists organizations to dictate what we even call this because have co-opted social media. They have co-opted their own story in a way that makes us less and less relevant. Which is why these journalists are irrelevant and their lives are so meaningless to the people who have captured them.

GRILLOT: But despite all these dangers, people are still going, journalists are still going. There's that commitment to sharing this story, to sharing the news from that different perspective. As you said, they're not needed anymore to get the message out of these organizations or these state actors. But [there’s] the desire to still be on the ground and share those stories that they see happening. But [there’s] also the competition. Is the field of journalism just to the point where they can't find other normal jobs? Is it just a certain kind of person that's drawn to this type of activity? Because despite the dangers, the increasing dangers and very public dangers, people are still going to report in these areas. What should we think of that?

SPINNER: I talked to a freelance photographer – he's based in Greece – a few weeks ago for a story that I just had published in American Journalism Review about the dangers for freelance photographers. And he told me that he went and he assumed the risks because 100 years from now, he wanted people to know what was happening in Syria. And I think that many journalists are motivated by that desire to be the watchdog for something that is happening. And I tell my students – I teach now – I tell my students all the time, "Someday you may be the only person in a room and someone is holding a gun to a man's head.” We have to be witnesses. We don't want the government to tell us how a conflict is going. We don't want these terrorists organizations to tell us whether or not they’re succeeding. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State certainly have their own communications network. They don't need the journalists, but the world still needs the journalists, because otherwise we're getting the message directly from the terrorists, and it's not the accurate message. So I think that there's still a need for journalists to cover conflict. Now as to who does this kind of work, there are risk junkies, there are journalists who are addicted to the risk, who like the risk. I am not one of them; I never wanted to go to war because I wanted to get shot at. That was not what attracted me. What attracted me was a story and the sense of importance in telling that story. We had thousands of American troops in Iraq and I just don't believe – and this is not a partisan comment – but I don't believe that the government, any administration or any department of defense, should tell us how the war is going. It's my job to inform the American public, whose tax dollars and whose soldiers and all the other things that at stake in a war, how that money is being spent and how those lives are being lost and whether things are going well or not. This is a role that journalists play in a democracy. And I feel very strongly about that. And that's why I go, or why I went. I don't go any more.

GRILLOT: So perhaps this is related to some of the other projects you've undertaken. You did spend some time in Oman on a Fulbright scholarship; you went back later to Iraq as well. In both cases, you were involved in starting up student-run newspapers. Obviously you teach, and clearly you have a great deal to say about the profession of journalism and what journalists should be doing. Is that what motivated your student projects in both of these countries? To help provide that professional opportunity for young people in country to report on their news?

SPINNER: I think that was part of it. Also, as a journalist, I'm constantly taking. I take people's stories. I take their best days and I take their worst days. I take. I'm the consummate consumer as a journalist. And after covering war and conflict for the years that I did, I felt this desire to do something other than take. And so I went back to Iraq in 2009 and then again in 2010 to start Iraq's first student newspaper, independent student newspaper, because I felt this need to give back and to help teach a generation in a country that was undergoing these seismic changes how to do journalism well. I modeled the student newspaper I started in Iraq after the best student newspapers in the United States. I negotiated with the administrators not to censor those newspapers and to teach the students what an independent press is. There isn't really an independent press in either of those countries, in Iraq or Oman. The newspaper in Iraq, at the American University there, is still going. The one in Oman did not make it. I started that on my Fulbright, and the next year, it folded. There just was not the institutional support for that that there has been at the American University of Iraq. But I think starting those newspapers also helped me understand why I wanted to teach. For the first time I realized that feeling that many people have who teach – that I had an opportunity to teach my students to be great, to teach them to be better than I ever was as a journalists. And it was a really, really powerful feeling.

GRILLOT: Well I have to ask – they're such fascinating projects that you've been involved in, the kind of work that you've done, Jackie – but I have to jump to Latin America. You've actually also started up an NGO in Belize focusing on literacy, called Angel Says: Read. So how did that happen? That you ended up, with all of this work in the Middle East – you've reported in many countries around the world – but then you end up in Belize working on literacy projects? And how is that connected to your previous work?

SPINNER: Well I went to Belize after I left the Washington Post and I went there to heal after conflict. And I started this literacy project when I was there based on my experiences as a foreign correspondent. When I traveled I always took books with me because I couldn't stand the thought of being somewhere and not having anything to read. And I knew that Belize is a tourist destination and that many people brought books, and so I simply created a mechanism for tourists to leave their books behind. And so I have drop boxes all over the country, at all the resorts, at the spots where the ships come in, the cruise ships. And those books are then redistributed to the public libraries, which have no budget for buying new books. And then I also have a system here in the United States for people to donate books directly to Belize; I have a shipping partner in Texas who ships the containers of the books for free to Belize.

GRILLOT: So is this a project that you look to spread to other potential destinations as well, trying to really promote this concept of reading beyond multiple boarders?

SPINNER: Well I was able to get some of the news bureaus as they were closing in Iraq they had books that their correspondents had brought into the country and left over the years. I able to get a number of those books donated to the American University of Iraq when I was there. And I did have an idea at some point of having this be an international literacy project. But it's not really a hobby to run an NGO; it is a full-time job and I am a full-time professor and I freelance still, I still write and produce multimedia and I have a toddler. So for right now it is an organization in Belize that self-sustaining. It doesn't take a lot of money to run and I'm able to help that country. In part because it was a soft spot for me to land after I came home.

GRILLOT: Well it was good for you, I guess, in terms of your healing. But I think the contribution, in that reading helps a lot of people heal in many ways, so what a great thing you've done in that respect. Thank you so much, Jackie, for being with us today on World Views. Your stories are really inspiring, and I appreciate you sharing them with us.

SPINNER: Well thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

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