The Guts of the Story

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

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."

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.

CP: Once you arrived, you hired a translator and a driver. How did you find them, and how crucial was their participation?

McEnroe:There are these guys that hang around hotels and government offices. And, y'know, this was like a huge payday for them--it was like hitting three cherries in Vegas on the super slot.

We had six translators. We fired five of them and the sixth one worked out great. He was perfect. The driver was a former Peshmerga soldier, and he knew Kurdistan like nobody. He would put his two fingers to his eyes and go, "Upon my eyes you will be taken care of by me or else I will die." He literally cried, and I had tears in my eyes, when we said goodbye.

We had a great team. It was the kind of team that at the end of the day of reporting, on the way back from something and you didn't have to file that night, we would buy three or four pounds of pistachios and a couple tall boys of Amstel and throw 'em back. It was beautiful, because the driver was a devout Muslim, so he didn't drink. So, we had a designated driver the whole time. There aren't words to really describe what a gift it was.

CP: Even with a great team, how do you develop sources without speaking the language? How do you earn people's trust?

McEnroe: You can feel something that has nothing to do with language between two people in these kinds of situations where language doesn't mean a thing. It's a gesture. It's a touch on a shoulder. It's how you play with their children, whether you ignore their children, how you treat their animals, where you sit, common courtesies of never sitting down until they motion where you should sit, taking your shoes off without being asked. [Peshmerga] soldiers would pick up on that and immediately take us under their wing, and pretty soon we'd be eating a sheep shoulder and soup and bread and sleeping under blankets full of guns and being protected by guys who stay up all night outside a door because you were inside.

CP: How do you pinpoint a source? And how did you get to that person?

McEnroe:You would wait three hours to get five facts. It would be like peeling an onion. You would go layer upon layer in order to get to one guy who could then tell you where the guy you really wanted to talk to was. And the word got around the military that we were pretty straight.

That's the beautiful thing about being a reporter. You end up going to an event, and there are three dozen people who see you greeted by another person who you'd met before. They hug you and kiss you on each cheek. They literally hold your hands, man to man. It's their custom, as if you're boyfriend and girlfriend. For them it's comradeship and brotherhood. And when three dozen people see that greeting, it shows that you have this inside track with this guy. And then you meet others. You just build this beautiful mountain of contacts and sources.

CP: One of the themes in your work is what these folks have gone through at the hands of the Iraqi regime. How did covering that aspect shape your view of the conflict?

McEnroe:That's a great question, because we were in a region where practically everybody was a victim. Everybody knew somebody or had a family member who had disappeared, been gassed or tortured or had had their limbs amputated while being interrogated. Many women were raped in front of their husbands. So, you become sympathetic. You also become numb, if you don't watch it.

CP: Did you support the war?

McEnroe: I asked myself over and over whether I supported the war. Some days I thought I understood why [the U.S.] did it. Other days, I had a completely different perspective. I think it's really hard to say you support the war and that means you don't have reservations. That may sound like a weasel answer, but it's really easy to plant a sign in your yard that says "We Support Our Troops." It's really easy to put a crummy little flag on your SUV and breeze down the freeway and act like you're a patriot.  

I don't know what "support the war" means. Do you support liberation of a people? Well, sure, I can understand why these people thought it was great to be liberated. Do you support our country being the policemen of the world? No. Do you support them going to Liberia? For what? Why do we condone genocide to take place in Rwanda or Congo? Saying "support the war" to me is just too generic, it's too easy.

CP: I assume the people who have antiwar signs give you a similar sort of pause.

McEnroe:I would get phone messages from Women Against Military Madness accusing me of being pro-war. After I wrote a story about the Kurds being gassed by the thousands and dying, this woman, very articulate, left this message saying, "You're pro-war, your coverage is pro-war, your newspaper is pro-war." And I didn't think I was pro anything. I thought I was just reporting what people were saying with a good perspective and a good distance.

Maybe I'm on a rant here, but I always thought the best thing would be to take a handful of WAMMers, as I call them, and take them with me for a week as I travel through Kurdistan. And then let them hear what I heard, see what I saw, and then see what their opinion is. Would it change? Would it stay the same? Would their eyes open more widely or close more tightly? Now that would be a great story.

These people who have the easy answer about do you support the war or do you not support the war, they don't know how complicated it is.

CP: You've told me how much you respected the work of your colleagues who were embedded in Iraq; so, excepting the Star Tribune, how would you evaluate the overall coverage of the war?

McEnroe: I think most embedded journalists didn't see the war, even though they thought they would. They saw only a very, very small portrait of it, as though they were operating with blinders on. You just don't see the big picture if you're embedded.

CP: Do you believe the military knew that would be the case? Did they set out to censor coverage before it began?

McEnroe:Oh yeah, yeah. I thought that the military found the exact way to control public opinion. I thought FOX News was an abomination. CNN acted like the big elephant and arrogantly boasted that they were the most trusted name in news, and there were many times you saw CNN behaving badly--and I'm being very polite when I say that. They would pay for access. You'd hear stories of how they were blatantly courting public officials.

CP: I got the sense that there were many TV guys over there getting off on this.

McEnroe: Oh yeah. Rah-rah, bang-bang. I mean CNN, it was like all of a sudden you're in the Seventh Cavalry and you're going off to fight Indians in Montana. There's too much excitement over the bang-bang and not a lot of thought about what it means. I think that was the military's intention. I thought they were brilliant at it. And I think they knew they were dealing with a completely different generation of reporters. There's a much bigger group of reporters out there than ever before who are unwilling to ask hard questions for fear that they will be denied access in the future. They are willing to get along in order to go along. And that's absolutely horrible.

CP: What about the foreign coverage? Was it more objective?

McEnroe: I don't know. I thought the BBC was completely biased. Three days into the war, they were calling everything a quagmire, and reporting that everything was bogged down. I thought, "Boy, you're really jumping the gun here." There hadn't even been a week's worth of war and they were already coming to a conclusion. That didn't strike me as very professional.

CP: Do you think the way the Star Tribune covered this story under its new editor, Anders Gyllenhaal, is different than the way it would've been covered under Tim McGuire, who left last year?

McEnroe: Well, Tim McGuire let us go in 1991. He and [publisher] Joel Kramer put up a lot of dough for us to go in '91. I believe the difference is that McClatchy now owns the paper and has made it very clear they're willing to spend the big bucks. Tim didn't have the big bucks to throw around. What I want to get across is what a landmark, watershed event in local journalism it was to put out an effort that had such breadth. In '91, we only sent two people.  

Why did it happen? Is it because Anders and Keith see this newspaper with a mandate to break out and have a bigger worldview, and they were able to convince McClatchy to step up and support the flagship paper? I'd tend to say yeah. And I think people inside the building were so thrilled to be feeling that they were supporting this effort that it completely changed the way the place feels. And people will tell you, I'm not a "rah, rah, yes, yes" guy. I don't go with the flow on a lot of things. And that makes me different from a lot of people down there. But this was huge, in terms of morale and in terms of professionalism. There were a lot of talented people that made us look really, really good. A lot of times a lot better than we should've.

CP: Looking back, how did the experience change you personally?

McEnroe:I can't watch anything violent on TV. I can't watch these melodramas or these dramas where there's a lot of violence or emotional violence. I just get up and leave the room. It strikes me much harder. In the last ten years, because of the things I've seen, it's been like that. In fact, I think that really, really started to change in the mid-'90s when I was in Bosnia with Rick and I saw four children burned to death by a flamethrower--by a Croatian soldier, who had just gone into the basement and burned these children to death as they were sleeping. And I saw their remains. And it's the kind of thing...That image never leaves you. And it builds on itself in everyday life.

I heard a reporter, oddly enough from the New York Times, talking on television. He talked about how he had become addicted to this kind of journalism. I knew this guy from '91. And I thought, "What a fraud you are to be saying that." I mean, you're participating in this public exercise of self-flagellation and remorse.

I'm not saying that when you come home you have to be moping around and be so self-absorbed and contemplative that you come off as this deep in thought, always worried journalist. You gotta learn to keep going and live, too. But there has to be a balance. You have to be honest and you have to find a balance, or you will never function.

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