The Guts of the Story

Home from assignment in Iraq, the Star Tribune's Paul McEnroe talks about fear, bias, and embedded journalists

When the Star Tribune decided to send someone to cover the war in Iraq without the protection and constraints of being an "embedded" journalist, there was no question that it would be Paul McEnroe.

The 52-year-old McEnroe is old school: a shoe-leather reporter who runs five miles a day to stay in game shape; the sort of guy other guys swap stories about over drinks after work, deadlines be damned. Legend has it that when McEnroe went to Philadelphia in search of missing Minnesota Viking Dimitrius Underwood in 1999, he stood on a street corner, distributing business cards and the player's photo. Then he went back to his hotel and waited for the phone to ring. Twenty-four hours later, he had his man. "There are a few editors at the paper who really don't want to know how Mac does what he does," one Strib staffer says with a laugh. "But they love the guy, because they know he's going to get the story and get it right."

Star Tribune photographer Richard "Shooter" Sennott and reporter Paul McEnroe on the road to Kirkuk in northern Iraq
Richard Sennott courtesy of the Star Tribune
Star Tribune photographer Richard "Shooter" Sennott and reporter Paul McEnroe on the road to Kirkuk in northern Iraq

In mid-February, McEnroe and Strib photographer Richard "Shooter" Sennott were hidden in the back of a potato truck and literally smuggled across the Turkish border into Iraqi Kurdistan to report on the imminent war. Unlike many of their colleagues, they were not embedded with U.S. military. Not coincidentally, the stories and photographs the two sent back over the next two months--about what the people of northern Iraq had suffered under Saddam Hussein, and what they wanted after he was deposed--were on a par with the nation's best reporting on the war.

McEnroe covered the Gulf War in 1991. On occasion, he took risks that prompted some in the newsroom to mislabel him a cowboy. Two years later, he traveled to Bosnia with Sennott, and produced award-winning coverage of the horrors of that civil war, including the "ethnic cleansing" of Vitez, where Bosnian Croats had turned on their Muslim neighbors and killed 300 people. The experience seemed to make McEnroe more introspective about what he was doing and why. When he left for Iraq this time around, he says he took to heart the parting words of his 82-year-old father, a veteran who was a ball turret gunner in World War II. "Before saying goodbye, he said, 'Don't take any chances. You have nothing to prove.' And I tried to remember that."

 

City Pages:What did you do to prepare for this assignment?

Paul McEnroe: The team from the paper went down to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We ended up hiring a company that trains people on how to deal with certain dangerous situations: everything from car bombs to driving escape routes. Rick went with a group of soon-to-be embedded journalists to New Jersey, just in case he was going to be embedded himself. So, we did a lot of preparation.

CP:Did the training come in handy?

McEnroe: Yeah, we always changed our routes as best we could when we went through small markets that were clogged up with donkey carts and stalled cars and people swarming around. You could tell by the eyes and the tension in these markets that you best not come back that way again. The training we had just put us on our toes more, taught us to take evasive action when we were stuck in places, to get out of there quick. It paid off. The areas we were in were really volatile; the terrorists were doing suicide bombings in the cars near Halabja.

CP:How did you prepare your family?

McEnroe: [Laughs] I had a mother-in-law who said, "If you get killed, I'm going to kill you." The thing is, [my wife] Catherine is my best support and understands that if this is what I want to do, then let him do it, or he'll be miserable otherwise. Once in a while, my wife would express some anxiety, and I'd say, "Don't ever worry, nothing's going to happen to me." And she would say, "Why not?" And I'd say, "Because I'm Paul Joseph McEnroe, that's why not." And you have to feel as though you have this aura about you where nothing will happen to you. Otherwise, you go around believing that something could.

CP:But there must be fear, especially in the field? How do you deal with that when it comes around the corner?

McEnroe:Rick and I talked about that issue: about how far do you go and how far do you push the bubble? We had a philosophy of always being afraid but never being in fear. Because being afraid means your guard is up at all times and you have a better sense of preserving yourself. If you're in fear, you'll be paralyzed, you won't be able to function and do your job. So, there was a lot of afraid but there wasn't much fear.

CP:What sorts of stories did your editors want you to seek out?

McEnroe: They said, "We'll cover the wires and let the wires pick up whether or not there's some sort of conference or meeting. Don't get into the inside baseball with the Kurds and the Iraqis, the Shiites and Sunnis. Don't worry about that. Get into the human stuff, and we'll take care of the rest." That was the only mandate.

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