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How to read a newspaper like a reporter

OK, so it’s not How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. But the secret of reading a newspaper like a reporter is to pick stories by bylines. I’ve mentioned, for example, that I will read anything Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post writes about Iraqi politics, or life in Iraq.    Another go-to reporter is ...

OK, so it’s not How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. But the secret of reading a newspaper like a reporter is to pick stories by bylines. I’ve mentioned, for example, that I will read anything Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post

writes about Iraqi politics, or life in Iraq.   

Another go-to reporter is C.J. Chivers of the New York Times. I’ve never met him, but I keep an eye out for his reporting from Afghanistan. Here, for example, from last Friday’s paper, is his account of an Army ambush of a Taliban column in eastern Afghanistan, not far from where the Wanat firefight took place:

The lead fighter had almost reached the platoon when Pvt. First Class Troy Pacini-Harvey, 19, his laser trained on the lead man’s forehead, moved his rifle’s selector lever from safe to semi-automatic. It made a barely audible click. The Taliban fighter froze. He was six feet away.

Lieutenant Smith was new to the platoon. This was his fourth patrol. He was in a situation that every infantry lieutenant trains for, but almost no infantry lieutenant ever sees. "Fire," he said, softly into the radio. "Fire. Fire. Fire."

Now, some of these details raised hackles among some of Abu M ‘s readers. The private should have aimed for the lead man’s chest, one says. (My thought: Perhaps he couldn’t see the chest-these are steep hills.) And so on. Read especially the critique by "Old Grunt."  

Be that as it may, I admire both the way Chivers reported this story and wrote it. Read this short, grim paragraph:

Sergeant Reese gave his rifle to another sniper to cover him while he tried to cut away a Taliban fighter’s ammunition pouches with a four-inch blade. The fighter had only been pretending to be dead, the soldiers said. He lunged for Sergeant Reese, who stabbed him in the left eye.

Chivers doesn’t make himself the hero, as some reporters covering combat are wont to do. Indeed, he is barely a presence, just a quiet observer. The straightforward, even dry, prose fits the story perfectly. It reminds me of a lesson I re-learned one day after being ambushed near Najaf: Nothing is easier to write than a story about combat. The hard parts, of course, are getting there, not getting hurt while, understanding what you’ve seen and then being able to file it back to an editor on the other side of the planet.

To top it off, Chivers follows it up with a story in today’s Times about being a patrol being bombed and ambushed. There is a striking, eerie detail in it: The soldier who was in the initial explosion couldn’t be found. Finally they found his body in a tree, hurled there by the blast. Again, Chivers does not make himself part of the story.

Two final points of interest:

  • One of the great false questions placed to journalists has been "what would  you do if you were embedded with a North Korean patrol that ambushes some American soldiers?" The answer, as the two stories by Chivers example might indicate, is: Don’t embed with the North Koreans

And that is why I read every word C.J. Chivers files from Afghanistan.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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