war

Elon University faculty engage in panel discussing the implications of President Trump’s missile strike on Syria

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | April 12, 2017

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Panel members left to right: Kaye Usry, Jason Kirk, Baris Kesgin, Haya Ajjan.

U.S. media coverage took an unexpected turn last week when news broke that President Donald Trump authorized a missile strike against the Assad-regime airbase. Trump said his actions were in response to the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people, but some feel the strike was a policy reversal for the president who campaigned on staying out of conflict.

To initiate discussion and clear up lingering questions regarding the strike and its implications, members of Elon University faculty engaged in a panel Wednesday, April 11 at 4:15p.m. in Moseley 215. Safia Swimelar, associate professor of political science and policy studies, said as unfortunate as the events going on in Syria are, they need to be talked about. In moderating the panel, she aimed to provide context on the situation by discussing the humanitarian aspect as well as geopolitics and strategy, foreign policy and domestic relations under the Trump administration.

Ajjan pull“My family and I were actually glued to the TV,” said Haya Ajjan, associate professor of management information systems, speaking of when news broke last Thursday night. Just two days before on Tuesday, news coverage focused on the chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed more than 100 people. Many blamed President Bashar al-Assad and his government, considering it a war crime against his own people.

“I looked over at my husband and actually he was crying,” Ajjan said, recalling the night she first heard about the chemical attack. “We both had tears in our eyes. We cried for the more than 5,000 soles that had died. I wondered, how many babies would be orphaned today?”

Although Ajjan is unsure of the impact Trump’s strike will have on war, she said she thinks it sent an important message.

“In the past three years, we Syrians have witnessed a lot of loss,” she said. “Assad and Putin are under the belief that they could do whatever they want, as they have for years, and no one can stop them.”

What the Trump administration proved with the missile strike she said, though controversial, is that these “atrocities are no longer tolerated.”

But the problem arises in analyzing how suddenly the decision to authorize the strike was made, leaving room for uncertainty in regard to the future direction of the president’s administration.

“As faculty, as Americans, as non-Americans, we’d all be forgiven for being pretty confused,” said Jason Kirk, associate professor of political science and policy studies. “It is an extraordinary shift in the vision of Trump’s presidency, in his goals for the world.”

Kirk added, “It feels like Trump made [what he considered to be] a good decision based off what looked good to him, and those who approved based it on last week. Period.”

Kirk said it’s important to keep in mind that there is often disorganization in the early days of any administration, but feels that what the Trump administration has demonstrated so far is “extraordinary disorganization in the White House.” Part of that, he says, is due to Trump’s shortcomings with staffing members of his team.

“It’s very difficult to conduct foreign policy when you’re missing layers of bureaucracy,” he said. “People who know things about places. Government and leadership requires that.”

Later, he added, “I don’t know how much to ascribe strategy to it versus just they didn’t expect to win the presidency. And they didn’t really plan for a lot of this. They didn’t plan for the White House Easter egg hunt. They didn’t do a lot of things and I think time will tell.”

According to Baris Kesgin, associate professor of political science, the Trump administration has failed at giving consistent signaling as to their course of action.

“Even the congress at this point is not knowledgeable of the Syrian game plan,” he said. “That is unfortunate.”

Though it’s clear that Trump was trying to send a message, it’s unclear of what that message is for certain. Trump felt that Assad crossed the line by waging a chemical attack on his people, but Kirk wonders if that “line” has been definitely laid out enough for the U.S. strike to have accomplished its goal. He says that confusion may only lead to more strife.

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This map shows how populated different parts of Syria are with individual forces of power.

“The stakes are too high,” Kirk said. “There’s an international audience to this. If people are confused by what Trump means by this, if Assad doesn’t know what lines not to transgress going forward, then he’ll either decide it doesn’t matter or he’s left in a position to continue to test the U.S. to figure out where these lines might lie.”

As foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict continues to grow, discussion around it becomes fuzzier. According to Ajjan, as the years have progressed, the plan for finding a military solution to ending war in Syria has become less and less clear.

“We used to have a plan in 2012 and in 2013, but now there are too many players on the ground,” she said.

Though Trump has taken an action he believes will prove that the U.S. won’t stand for abuse and suffering, his questionable long-term motives and haste in decision-making leaves much to be speculated.

Kirk acknowledged that there’s really no way for Americans to fully grasp how the president plans to handle foreign policy going forward, but is confident that it will one day come out.

“Part of the nice quality of having such a chaotic early administration is people are eventually going to write books about this stuff,” Kirk said. “They’re going to be tripping over each other to tell us what’s going on. We’ll just have to wait a few years.”

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Journalist and New York Times’ best-selling author Kevin Maurer speaks on the thrill of war reporting

by Mariah Posey | March 15, 2017

kevin-maurerReporting on war is risky and rewarding, but not every journalist is able or willing to do it. But for Kevin Maurer, a freelance journalist and co-author of New York Times’ best-seller, “No Easy Day,” the opportunity to report on war felt like something he was meant to do.

After landing a job at the Fayetteville Observer in January 2003, a little over a year after the September 11 attacks, the chance to report overseas quickly fell into place. By early March the same year, he was reporting in Iraq.

“As a young reporter, the war was the story,” Maurer said. “It was the one story I felt like I had to cover somehow.”

He spent the next eight years between Iraq and Afghanistan working on numerous stories. He realized that he enjoyed being in the midst of all the chaos, always anxious to return after getting back to the states.

“It’s weird in that you go a couple times and there’s a romance to it,” he said. “There’s something to being over there in that situation. I only find that it gets stressful after the fact.”

Maurer found that living as an embed, he gradually became a part of the unit. But that connection made it nearly impossible for him to get the full story. So according to him, he never tried to.

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Graphic by Mariah Posey

Instead, he said his reporting “tries to put a human face” to the soldiers he was writing about.

“That’s the other dangerous side of being an embed,” he explained. “You’ve gotta continue to make sure you’re doing your job even though you’re starting to like these guys.”

Though that relationship can be easily blurred, Maurer stressed the importance of transparency between a reporter and his sources.

“Sources aren’t your friends,” he said. “They’re your eyes and ears. You do everything you can not to burn them, but they’re not your buddies and you can’t treat them as such.”

Vince Beiser delivers talk on how he worked against the grain and uncovered the global war on sand

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | Feb. 27, 2017

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Vince Beiser shows how much U.S. Sand and Gravel Production has increased over the years.

By chance, the story that would gain support from the Pulitzer Center and lead him to writing a book on the same topic was one that was only stumbled upon by the award-winning journalist. When Vince Beiser discovered his story on sand, he proved that great journalists are ones who read and follow through.

“I do a lot of international stuff so I just read a lot of off-beat publications and I just stumbled across this study about the sand mafias in India,” Beiser said. “Come to find out in India, it’s a huge story. Every single day there’s some story in the India Press about sand mafias.”

Luckily for him, the pitching process was a simple one due to his established rapport with Wired magazine and his editor.

“They know me and I know them, and it makes the whole process a lot easier,” he said. “Wired is so picky. They don’t assign many stories. I just crossed my fingers and they said yes.”

Since then, Beiser has been cracking away at his on-going project on the deadly war over sand while taking on a number of smaller freelancing jobs along the way. During his career, he has travelled to India, Dubai, China and all of the United States completing in-depth reporting and has written for esteemed publications such as Wired, The New York Times and The Atlantic.

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Photo by Vince Beiser | Sand dredgers in Poyang Lake by Hamashu village.

Sand is more than grains of rock

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Vince Beiser explains how sand is used in the construction of buildings and cities.

According to Beiser, sand is the most important solid substance in the world. It makes up our concrete, windows, computer chips, phone screens and more.

“It’s the literal foundation of modern civilization,” Beiser said.

It’s all “just sand,” but Beiser said the urban boom is depleting sand worldwide with constant growing city populations. Riverbeds are being destroyed to gather enough sand to support the infrastructure of numerous buildings. Lake Poyang for example, China’s biggest freshwater lake and the world’s biggest sand mine, has 30 times more the amount of sand being scooped out than the amount that flows in from tributary rivers.

Although there are some ways sand can be recycled, Beiser said there isn’t much to be done on a large scale to substitute its use.

“Just the sheer mass we’re talking about, there’s just nothing else on this planet we have that much of,” Beiser said.
beiser-pullBecause of the immense damage being done, governments all over the world are trying to control sand mining. But where there is law and order, there is crime. There has been a rise in illegal sand mining as well as the formation of sand mafias, leaving some unfortunate souls murdered over the valuable resource.

According to Beiser, this lifestyle is bound to be short-lived.

“This whole model of living we have in America is just not sustainable,” he said. “We’re running out of oil, we’re running out of water, we’re running out of fish. We’re just consuming too much.

“We’re just eating this whole planet.”

The American example has also rubbed off on other countries. According to Beiser, with an insanely large and increasing global population, there will never be enough to go around.

“The entire developing world is growing and becoming richer and they want to live like we do, and who can blame them?” he said. “There just isn’t enough stuff on the planet for everyone to live that way.”

The art of freelancing, writing in-depth and self-promotion

Beiser said freelancing “has never been an easy way to make a living,” especially when doing substantive journalism. But it’s still his source of income. Although he said it’s reporting the issues that concern him, he also has to look for different ways to sell it.

“Part of being a freelancer and part of being a journalist is you’ve got to self-promote,” he said. “I’ve got my own little list of radio hosts and TV bookers.”

With enterprise stories such as the ones Beiser takes on, there can sometimes be a competitive nature present. While following his story in India, he bumped into a guy from The New York Times who happened to also be working on a sand story. He knew he had to beiser-tipspick up the pace somehow if he wanted get his out first. Within about three week’s time, he was able to write the story based on the information he had compiled so far and post the story on the web two months before it was meant to be published.

“That one I actually did in a big hurry,” he said.

As a freelance journalist, Beiser explained the challenges faced when trying to determine where to start with finding sources.

“Because I kind of jump from topic to topic, I don’t really build a network of sources like a beat reporter does,” he said.

He suggested reading other stories that have been done involving a particular topic and finding the activists related to them.

“Once you poke your head into that thing, whatever it is, they know the other people to talk to,” Beiser said.

While scoping out the right people to talk to can be difficult, Beiser said that actually sitting down to write everything is typically less stressful. Though he used to overwhelm himself by going over everything before starting to write, he learned that making a bare bones draft and building from there was the best way to begin.

“By the time I’m done all my reporting, I’ve got a pretty good idea in my head of how the story’s going to go,” he said. “I literally go through all my notes and plug stuff in.”