Author and Journalist Kevin Sites, dubbed by some as "the granddaddy of backpack journalists," turned the spotlight on himself during his November 14 visit to Catawba College. Sites spoke to first-year students, faculty, staff and community members about his book, "In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars," selected as Catawba's 2009 Common Summer Reading and also as one of the selections in the 2009 Rowan-Salisbury Community-Wide Summer Reading Challenge which focused on the theme, "Stories of Courage."
During his 11 a.m. presentation in Keppel Auditorium, Sites quipped that he was going to share one of his favorite stories with the audience, a story "about me." His power point presentation began with a quote from Virginia Woolf: "If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people." With that set-up, Sites then used his remarks to turn the spotlight on himself and to share his story which he noted was "not always a flattering story either personally or professionally."
"Serendipity" was a word Sites used to explain how he landed his first job in journalism at age 15. Although turned down initially in his bid for a part-time job as a photo journalist with the Geneva [Ohio) Free Press, his hometown paper, he was eventually hired for the position. He was a teenager with a bicycle and a camera who "wanted to touch danger, taste it, lick it, and maybe even sniff it."
He got the opportunity to get close and personal with danger at a 4th of July 1979 celebration in Geneva. There were Hells Angels motorcycle gangs at the event, and Sites snapped several photos of them. The gang members made him give them the film and Sites recalled feeling "humiliated by the instance."
Twenty years later with his journalism degree and some real journalism experience, he landed a job with the network, ABC, as a field producer. Although he was happy on the road and working in the field, his then wife was not, he explained. The couple moved from Washington, D.C., to California where he took a job as a lecturer in the broadcast journalism department at California Polytechnic State University. That department, he joked, "was in as bad a shape as my marriage."
In helping get the Cal Poly broadcast journalism department shaped up, Sites also honed his own skills. He taught himself to edit and taught his students to be "one-man bands," who could report, shoot video and edit that video. His marriage failed in late 2000, and when September 2001 rolled around, Sites was ready to return to the network, working first as a freelance producer for NBC and later CNN.
He created an independent blog and started KevinSites.net, transmitting his stories on the Internet. His only mistake was that he had not told the network about his blog. When they found out, they made him shut it down. Later, when he returned to work at NBC, part of the employment agreement was that Sites could keep his blog.
In November 2004, Sites was working as a one-man band in Iraq for NBC. He videotaped a U.S. Lance Corporal executing a captured and wounded Iraqi insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. That video, which Sites called "the most controversial footage of my career," documented a clear violation of the Geneva Convention by a U.S. soldier and landed Sites "in a sea of gray."
NBC and Sites agreed to censor the actual shooting on Sites' videotape and only show part of the tape, but in doing so, Sites said, "we botched a very important story." Editing the mosque shooting video took the incident out of context and created confusion among viewers. Looking back, Sites explained the whole story about what happened in the mosque "was too costly not to tell." He said his and NBC's failure to do so "fueled a firestorm."
Sites received hate mails and death threats. NBC, he said, "began to distance itself from me." Sites said his blog allowed him "a rare chance for a do over." He used it to tell the whole story of what happened in the mosque and how he as a journalist was motivated to report it.
In 2005, Sites and a colleague approached Yahoo.com about underwriting an "In the Hot Zone" project which was to be a yearlong project that would take him all over the world to cover war zones. His mission was "to tell the small stories" online "with no headline chasing." He now calls it the best job he ever had "while it lasted."
At the web project's peak, "In the Hot Zone" had two million viewers a week, but by 2008, Yahoo opted not to continue projects like this and again, Sites was out of a job. Thanks to a book by the same name and a documentary, he said, "the project lives on," transcending the web to print and DVD.
While Sites admitted that he has spent most of his career "neck deep in the sufferings of others," he said what he has tried to present "was the truth as I saw it." The incident in the Fallujah mosque has become "my burden always, but it's a burden that motivates rather than paralyzes."
What he has learned in the course of his work is "1) that people are resilient; 2) that people's resilience does not absolve us from seeking long term solutions or providing immediate assistance; and 3) we should define war by its largest feature — collateral damage."
Today, Sites is in residence at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., having been named a 2010 Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellow. He is also working on his second book for Harper Perennial to be released in 2010, "The Things We Cannot Say: What the World's Warriors Can't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War." When not in the classroom or writing, he also works on developing new technologies for one-man bands in the field "to shrink the footprint of a journalist."
PHOTOS: Kevin Sites Speaks at Catawba