My First International Incident
Holly Yeager, Washington, D.C.–based journalist

I was 30, working as the Pentagon reporter for a national newspaper chain. Press breakfasts were part of the routine—lots of men and lots of cholesterol around a table in a nondescript hotel meeting room. One morning I listened as the commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Richard Macke, tried to do damage control after three American servicemen were charged with abducting and raping a 12-year-old girl in a rental car near their base in Okinawa, Japan. At the end of the session, Macke said quietly: "For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl." I thought my eyes would pop out of my head. Was he really saying they should have paid a prostitute instead? I looked at the others in the room for some reaction. Nothing.

Walking to my office, I kept going over that remark. By the time my story hit the wires, a few other reporters had filed stories, too. But I was a little nervous: None of them mentioned Macke's comment, whereas I had made it my lead.

My story got noticed, senators started complaining, other media outlets picked it up, and that evening the top Pentagon spokesman called me at home to say, "The defense secretary wants you to know he has accepted Admiral Macke's early retirement."

I was stunned. And then more nervous. The next day there were protests in Okinawa. The U.S. ambassador was dispatched to apologize to Japanese officials.

In Washington some of my colleagues questioned my role, as though I must have had an agenda. Had I seized on that sentence because I was the only woman reporter in the room? Would I have given it a second thought if I had been in the military—as some of them had? Was my story proof, as a few of the old-timers seemed to be suggesting, that someone like me shouldn't be doing this job?

What Macke said should have been news to any ears. But I didn't get angry. I just grew more certain that I should never hesitate to tell a story as I see it. Doing that may rock the boat, but sometimes the boat needs rocking.


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