Reporter Is First from Black Press Embedded in Iraq
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
After U.S. troops surged into Baghdad, U.S. journalists joined them. But until now, no African-American paper had sent a reporter - that's changed. The Baltimore-based Afro-American sent award-winning reporter Leonard Sparks to embed with troops in Iraq.
NPR's Tony Cox caught up with Sparks just before he left.
TONY COX: Well, I've got to ask you, Leonard, the war started 3 years ago. You guys are getting into this late, it seems. Why so late and why now?
Mr. LEONARD SPARKS (Journalist, Afro-American): Well, that, you'll probably have to - you'll get a more accurate answer from our publisher about. But I think right now, our main focus is on writing about some black troops who are serving over there. And I don't know if your audience is aware, but in June, I sort of went up to Pennsylvania, a training ground up in Pennsylvania and I hooked up with a transportation unit that was preparing to deploy over to Iraq.
And, you know, hooked with eight soldiers from this unit, introduced myself and got to know them a little bit - well, you know, some basics about their story. And those are the eight guys that we're going to be - that I'm going to be picking up again when I go over there. And, you know, the main thing is to, I guess, put more of a black face on this war. You know, a little about, you know, the kinds of sacrifices they're making by being over there - which obviously, they are.
COX: With the history of the war are ready 3 years in, what preconceived notions might you have going into Baghdad?
Mr. SPARKS: Well, you know, I sort of ask myself that. And I don't know that I really have any. And that's the main thing as I keep an open mind. I mean, obviously, with the political debate that's going on back here, it's easy to really have preconceived notions about what's really going on over there. And certainly, you know, when you hear about the crimes committed by U.S. troops, is it's obviously easy to, you know, let biases sort of based on that sort of creep in. But I sort of approach this as I approach anything in life.
I keep an open mind, aware that, you know, as ironic as this is, that the media doesn't necessarily give you a total picture of what's actually going on over there. But I can tell you that going up to Pennsylvania, meeting these guys, I think I came away from that with a newfound respect for what the soldiers are going through.
And, you know, you talk to these guys and they're brothers, they're husbands. I mean, they're leaving their families, they're leaving jobs. I mean, and you sort of have to respect this. Then, you know, obviously, you talk to them, and a couple of guys were pretty much to the point that, you know, this was an opportunity for them with the extra compensation - the combat pay - to actually make some money and sock a waste of money, and that was one of the motivations for doing it. So…
COX: Well, you know the black press historically, in terms of covering wars in the United States, has been an advocate - I'm thinking now about the Double V Campaign…
Mr. SPARKS: Oh, right. Exactly
COX: …from a World War II. So as a member of the black press, how much of an onus is there on you to advocate in the way that the black press has historically done, and at the same time be credible and give information to people really want to hear?
Mr. SPARKS: You know, I guess I haven't really been conscious of that. And, of course, I - you know, I've read about the Double V Campaign a little bit. So I know a little bit about it. And I think there's always sort of an onus on the media to be sort of an advocate. And I don't think I can really go over there without asking some tough questions.
I mean, obviously, we want to, you know, give some sort of really light stories on who these guys are and what they do and what they're doing away from their missions. But I think at the same time, you have to ask some tough questions. And, you know, I wanted - I'm taking an open mind over there, and I just want to be as honest as I can and as, you know, as upfront as I can about what I see.
COX: Is there a black or white perspective when it comes to covering the war?
Mr. SPARKS: Yeah. I mean, I think that's obvious. I mean, of you look at polls and you look at the disparities between how blacks view the occupation in Iraq and how whites view the occupation in Iraq, I think there's clearly a disparity. And, you know, and I think that's another sort of issue I want to pursue.
And I'll tell you, when was up in Pennsylvania, I, you know, two of the guys from this unit are going back over for their second tour. And one of the guys I, you know, I asked him, about the relationship between black soldiers and Iraqi civilians. And, you know, said that he - his basic feeling was that the Iraqis felt more of a connection to the black soldiers over there.
I think there is clearly a difference between, you know, how blacks view the occupation and how whites view the occupation.
COX: Final thing: is this your first experience covering war on the ground?
Mr. SPARKS: Yes, it is.
COX: Are you concerned about, how concerned - I'm sure you must be - but how concerned are you about your own safety?
Mr. SPARKS: Well, probably not as concerned as I should be. I mean, a lot of people, of course, think it's crazy. But I think that's superceded by just that journalistic curiosity and that desire to just be there to actually see for yourself what's going on, what's it like over there.
COX: Leonard, good luck to you.
Mr. SPARKS: Thanks, Tony.
CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox speaking with reporter Leonard Sparks of the Baltimore-based newspaper, the Afro-American.
Sparks left last Friday for Iraq.
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CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.
NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.