'Not on our radar'

Award-winning photojournalist Kevin McKiernan '66 has made a career out of reporting stories that major news outlets often neglect

Kevin McKiernan’s passport reads like a study guide for a geography bee. An internationally respected photojournalist, McKiernan has worked in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Kuwait, Iraq, West Africa, China and Turkey, to name a few — some locales proving to be more exotic than others.

McKiernan graduated with an English degree from St. Thomas in 1966. The Vietnam War was gaining momentum, Surveyor 1 would soon land on the moon, and Time magazine had the foresight to name an entire generation (those 25 and under) as the Man of the Year. As global issues dominated the evening news, McKiernan found himself back at St. Thomas in 1969 as an English instructor in the department that his father, Dr. Eoin McKiernan, chaired from 1960 to 1972.

He taught for a year before turning to free-lance journalism. Long fascinated by Indian history, McKiernan began spending time with Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, and other members of the Minnesota Indian community. "The police would patrol Franklin Avenue — or what they would call ‘The Reservation’ — pretty hard," McKiernan recalls. "Every time they would see Clyde on the street, they would throw him in the back of a squad car."

In those days, many Indians who lived in the city would take weekend retreats to the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Cass Lake in Northern Minnesota. They would sit with the old people, who never departed for the concrete reservations in the city, to get to know their own history.

"Indian history is our only real, original story in this country," McKiernan said. "So I was fascinated by the stories Bellecourt and others would tell when they returned from the reservations."

In 1973, the occupation of Wounded Knee again brought the often-contentious relationship between the U.S. government and American Indians to a critical point.

Bellecourt and others informed McKiernan, from an Indian perspective, about what was really going on at Wounded Knee. "My first reaction was ‘Oh, I don’t believe this,’" McKiernan said. Eventually, McKiernan’s journalistic curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to find out for himself what was happening in South Dakota. "I just didn’t want to read about it in the Minneapolis Tribune, from an outsider perspective," he said.

Arriving at Wounded Knee, McKiernan found himself amid the hot point of the conflict. It would be a position he would seek out many times in the years to follow. Three weeks into the standoff, all reporters were barred from Wounded Knee except for one independent — McKiernan. All other reporting was done from the outside, through government sources. McKiernan, however, had his reports smuggled out through roadblocks to the wire services and television networks. His voice would serve as a single, inside source throughout the remainder of the 71-day siege.

The experience McKiernan gained while at Wounded Knee would prove significant. And one thing was certain — his interest in Indian issues had not diminished. McKiernan not only returned to cover the nine-month Wounded Knee federal trial in St. Paul, but he also went back to South Dakota in 1975 to report on a gunfight that took the lives of an Indian and two FBI agents. His work there earned him a Pulitzer Prize in photography nomination. McKiernan would later co-produce a documentary, "The Spirit of Crazy Horse," for the PBS investigative news program Frontline. The program used some of the 16mm film footage he had taken during his time at Wounded Knee.

Although he had established himself as a well-respected journalist, McKiernan took a career detour following the federal trial. "I always wanted to be a public defender or work in legal services," McKiernan said. "I guess sitting on those wooden benches at the courthouse for three-quarters of a year really got my attention. I saw that law could be a valuable instrument of social change." So he enrolled in law school at Northeastern University in Boston, where he received his degree in 1979.

After passing the bar exam, McKiernan pursued his goal to work as a public defender in Alaska, and then went into legal services in South Carolina and Massachusetts. But his former life as a journalist was never far from his thoughts. In 1982, he returned to the free-lance news business for good.

Since then, McKiernan has focused his efforts primarily on international stories. As an independent, he is able to take more time on a story, hoping to develop an angle not being covered by the major news sources. For instance, McKiernan told Newsweek what he thought would happen when Saddam Hussein threatened to invade Kuwait. Newsweek told him to get on a plane and report back on what happens. "Photojournalism is one of the last professions where somebody can say in a phone call, ‘Go find out what happened and we’ll pay you later.’ " McKiernan said. "There’s no contract, no fax, e-mail or even a handshake. If they trust you to be able to do something, they leave you alone to do it."

McKiernan covets the independence that allows him to follow his instincts. And one way he can afford the luxury of spending more time on a project is by optimizing his presence while covering a story. He might pitch a story in two different mediums (still photos and text) to two different news outlets. Or he might get a story to do for one media outlet and use his plane ticket to do another story while he’s there. He has reported on such events as the Contra war in Nicaragua, the civil war in El Salvador, violence in Northern Ireland, the fall of Marcos in the Philippines, the elections in Guatemala, and the Gulf War.

In 1991, following the Gulf War, McKiernan began to cover what would become a nine-year account of the struggles of 25 million Kurdish people — the largest ethnic group in the world without a home state. After the war, the Iraqi army made a deliberate effort to force the Kurds from their homes in northern Iraq into Turkey and Iran. The horrible conditions endured by Kurdish refugees, huddled together in makeshift tent communities, were well documented on the U.S. evening news. In fact, McKiernan helped to report those atrocities through his work for Time, the Los Angeles Times and the CBS Evening News. The angle was fairly clear: Saddam Hussein was a bad man doing a bad thing to the Kurds.

What McKiernan discovered on subsequent return trips to the region was that there was another, not so clear part of this story. While Iraq was ridding itself of the Kurds, Turkey, a U.S. ally, was doing essentially the same thing. Backed by an arsenal that was 80 percent U.S. made, the Turks were systematically displacing two million Kurds from their country. Iraq had destroyed some 4,000 Kurdish villages, whereas Turkey had burned and razed nearly 3,500 villages. "I was struck by the enormity of the comparison, the parallel between the two countries and the fact that one was being covered in the press and other wasn’t," McKiernan said.

McKiernan went on Today, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News to talk about what Iraq was doing to the Kurds. He recalled the insatiable appetite at the networks for information on the Iraqi-Kurds story. "Yet when I turned around and tried to break the story about Turkey, there was silence. The editors at Nightline told me, ‘You have great, exclusive footage, you’ve got the ‘bang-bang’ we like, but the story is not on our radar.’

"I was amazed by the disconnect on this story," McKiernan added. "The fact that the Clinton Administration gave some $6 billion in arms to Turkey, and much of it was being used to fight the Kurds, struck me as a double standard. It was a stealth story on the media’s radar."

McKiernan made a dozen trips to the region, reporting on the Kurds directly, or taking a different assignment so he could use the ticket to further his independent coverage of the Kurds. In all, more than 40,000 Kurds lost their lives as they were herded out of Iraq and Turkey. Although the story never fully appeared on the media’s radar, McKiernan was committed to telling it.

With the help of three-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, McKiernan collected the information he had on the Kurds and put together a documentary titled "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds." The documentary was screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world in 2000. "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" was awarded the Human Rights Prize at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and was named Best Documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Atlanta Film and Video Festival. The documentary also received very favorable reviews from The New York Times and Variety.

At first glance, the issues surrounding the Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey may appear to be quite removed from the conflicts McKiernan once covered in South Dakota, but he sees significant parallels. "Once you examine the stories of the Kurds and American Indians, you begin to discover their many similarities," McKiernan said. "The Kurds could easily be considered the Native Americans of the Middle East. They were driven from their homes, and some scholars even believe that they may be one of the original people. The tribal nature of the Kurds in Iraq and Iran was similar to what I had witnessed on reservations in the United States. And when you go into the homes of either people, one of the first things they say is ‘Have you eaten, yet?’ That sense of hospitality intrigued me. Probably because I was always hungry at the time."

Given the resistance he experienced while trying to report on the plight of the Kurds, it’s understandable that McKiernan has soured a bit on the role of local and national news. The end of the Cold War brought about a dramatic shift in the way foreign news is reported. Most of the television bureaus that were active in Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall have closed. And NBC has eliminated the category of foreign news altogether. They will now report only on major international news events.

Network news is focus group driven through pressure from advertisers. People are asked directly about the kind of news they want to see. As a result, newscasts have become increasingly personalized. "Now we get news you can use. And Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings offer stories on ‘Your Money’ or ‘Your Health,’" McKiernan laments. "There are so many stories on health and crime — especially in local news — that it’s unhealthy!"

On balance, McKiernan prefers the unexpected to the mundane. His profession assures that he will awake in a foreign country more often than in his own; eat more unrecognizable food than McDonald’s; and hear strange and beautiful words not similar to his own. It comes gratuitously with the job. "When you get off a plane in these places, you are bombarded with the smells, the sounds and the language — nuances you don’t even recognize," McKiernan said as if he were now arriving at this undefined place. "It disorients you, and it takes a while to get your stability. But I know that I do my best work during the last week that I am there. I am finally able to see things with some distance."

McKiernan will continue to rely on verbal handshakes with major news sources to purchase his stories. We will rely on his vision to keep us informed of global conflict and resolution. In a world of media-empire news and instantaneous communication, photojournalism is a job that brings new and increasingly difficult challenges to the workplace every day. So why deliberately choose to stay an independent? "Sometimes I think it’s because I couldn’t get a regular job," McKiernan laughs. "I’m not too good at covering city council or baby animals born at the local zoo."

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Note: McKiernan lives with his family in Santa Barbara, Calif. For more information on "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" and his other work, please visit www.silcom.com/~kevinmck.