She had a safe career as a "lite" TV reporter. Who would have thought she had the tenacity to take on the world?
Although I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., I knew I was fortunate to have my job as the entertainment co-anchor for the morning show Good Day New York. Still, when I was sent out to interview pumpkin growers and third-rate magicians, I bristled at the lightweight assignments. I had asked to do more serious journalism but was told that my beat was to be "lite" and "perky."
Which was why I was organizing a man-on-the-street shoot to ask New Yorkers what they thought about Mayor Giuliani's divorce at the same moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Initial reports pointed to the PLO, but I suspected this could have something to do with Osama bin Laden. I jumped on the Internet and contacted several sources I'd met in Afghanistan in 1985, when, as a freelancer for TV Guide, I covered the Soviet occupation. My sources believed this horror was indeed the work of Al Qaeda. I relayed this information to the news director at my station, Fox 5, which airs Good Day, telling him about my previous experience inside Afghanistan. I could help with this developing story, I offered. He politely took my e-mail printouts and said, "We'll see."
In the days that followed the attack, a "lite" and "perky" beat no longer existed. My man-on-the-street interviews became heartbreaking encounters with victims' families. I was hoping to continue in this more substantive direction, but the executive producer of Good Day told me that I'd been hired to make people laugh. Going against this directive could jeopardize my employment. No laughing matter. But it was becoming painfully clear to me that I needed to follow my heart.
I decided the only way that was going to happen was if I somehow got myself back to Afghanistan. I went to the Pakistani consulate and got a visa. Two of my connections from my 1985 trip—General Abdul Rahim Wardak, former chief of staff of the Afghan military; and the mujahideen commander, Abdul Haq—were once again joining forces with the United States, this time to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Wardak promised me an exclusive interview, and Abdul Haq's people promised me any assistance I might need.
I decided to meet with the general manager of Fox. He understood my desire to go but said he would never forgive himself if anything happened to me. "I'm touched," I said with a knowing smile. "What's the real reason?" Without missing a beat, he smiled back and said, "Money." Soon after, Fox hired Geraldo Rivera; I guess the budget for Afghanistan coverage went into his bank account.
In the meantime, a friend hooked me up with Eason Jordan, the head of international news gathering at CNN. During our phone conversation, Jordan said he would consider sending me but that many of his network's most experienced journalists were eager to go. But he didn't say no. As long as Wardak remained at his headquarters in Pakistan, gathering his men, I had time to convince Jordan to send me there. Once Wardak traveled into Afghanistan, logistics would become impossible. The clock was ticking.
I believed my only chance of getting this assignment was to have a face-to-face with Jordan, so I flew to CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Jordan again insisted that too many other reporters were on a waiting list—but, he had to admit, he found the Wardak angle intriguing. As I left his office, he said he would think about it. At the door, I paused, gathered up some courage, and said, "You should think about it really hard. I can do this." I held my breath, my heart pounding. He shook his head and smiled. "I'm sure you can," he said. He didn't say no. Again.
A couple of weeks went by. On Good Day, I was doing stories on how to rake fall leaves and make the perfect martini. The straw that broke this humiliated camel's back came on November 12: As Kabul was falling, I was reporting on Girl Scout cookie-selling season. There I was, live on Fifth Avenue, dancing with little girls dressed as Thin Mints.
That night, dejected, I mixed a perfect martini, turned on CNN, and watched Kabul fall. I called General Wardak, who, understandably, was very preoccupied. He was going in soon. Time had run out.
I hung up and booked a ticket to Pakistan leaving two days later. I needed to pack, organize, walk out of my Fox contract, and—just a small detail—convince Jordan to give me the assignment. At the crack of dawn the next day, I called him. I don't remember what I said, but I know I didn't stop talking for at least five minutes. There was silence on the other end.
Then, finally, he simply said, "Okay."
"Okay. You can go."
The next day I began what would be the most extraordinary five weeks of my life. I spent time on the front lines in Tora Bora, as the Spin Ghar Mountains were pummeled with artillery. But most of my pieces for CNN were in and around Jalalabad. Day-in-the-life kind of stories. I felt I'd make the most difference by bringing the faces of the Afghan people into the homes of Americans. So I reported about women emerging from under the oppressive burqa, and about the desperate hope that Afghan parents have for their children. Now that I am back home, each day I say a prayer never to forget those five weeks, and to remember how I got there.