By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006
NEW YORK -- The words erupt in machine-gun bursts as Lara Logan strafes the critics who say she and other journalists in Iraq are ignoring the signs of progress there.
"That's complete nonsense," Logan says. "I tell the American commanders all the time: When we can get in our cars and drive to the opening of a store and interview people on camera without fear of being killed, or getting everyone involved with us killed, the good-news stories will be told."
Her lilting South African voice is tinged with a fervor that a more polished reporter might try to hide. But the 35-year-old Logan has no interest in tamping down the passions that drove her into journalism and fueled her rapid rise to the post of CBS's chief foreign correspondent.
She dismisses criticism of Western journalists remaining in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, saying: "Every time I leave the hotel, I have to justify why I'm risking the lives of everyone on my team."
Two weeks ago, Logan was embedded with a U.S. military unit in Ramadi when the Marine walking just in front of her was shot by a sniper during an ambush. She did a stand-up moments later, even as the gun battle raged. "It was distressing," she says matter-of-factly, as if acknowledging fear might be viewed as a sign of weakness. "You have to be professional. You can't fall apart in front of the Marines."
Viewers of the "CBS Evening News" also saw Logan in a combat helmet, crouching alongside members of the Marines' Kilo Company as gunners exchanged fire with Iraqi insurgents in a deserted building nearby. Some CBS executives have grown concerned for her safety, believing that she takes too many risks.
With her striking appearance and streaked-blond hair, Logan seems like a natural for television, but she professes to be surprised by her success. "I'm not a performer. I don't speak in sound bites. I'm not succinct."
CBS executives run out of superlatives in describing her. "Lara is one of these people that come along every 10 years," says Bob Schieffer, the CBS anchor. "I think she's the next Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer. She is absolutely fearless, a terrific reporter; she never stops and she is quite attractive."
Logan's bulldozing style, however, can rub some colleagues the wrong way. "She's a little high-maintenance from time to time, but she is worth it," Schieffer says.
The British press has had a grand time playing up her looks -- London's Sun calls the "curvy" reporter "34D Lara" -- and the fact that as a student she worked as a part-time swimsuit model. Logan says some of the British reports, such as one claiming she wore low-cut tops during the war in Afghanistan, are false and that their implication is "laughable." To climb the career ladder, she declares, "I slugged my guts out."
Over eggs with bacon and tomahto -- and complaints about the tepid water used in American tea -- a question about how she got hired by CBS launches Logan on an hour-long disquisition about her rise from a South African high school senior who talked her way into a job at a Sunday newspaper. For the weekly story about the death toll from tribal violence, she would go to the morgue and insist on seeing the bodies.
While growing up as one of seven children in a middle-class family -- the daughter of a textile businessman and a mother who belonged to an anti-apartheid group -- Logan says she realized that "beneath the surface was this whole other world. How did a 17-year-old white girl from a relatively privileged upbringing get access to that?"
The answer, apparently, was being pushy and offering to work for little money.
After serving as a nanny in France and a restaurant hostess in New York, Logan enrolled at a South African university and got the Daily News, in Durban, to hire her by complaining that "you don't have anyone young on your staff." She recalls that no one could write about Nelson Mandela, then languishing in prison, without facing criminal prosecution. Logan describes the struggle against apartheid as "a story with a clear right and wrong," as opposed to the murkiness of the Iraq war.
Her next stop, in Johannesburg, was Visnews, a television news service soon bought by Reuters. Logan later quit in a dispute with her boss, moved to London, began doing freelance work for CBS and NBC and then spent a year at ABC as an assignment editor, which she hated. But executives at CBS and ABC told her a South African could never make it as an American network correspondent.
When Logan heard that the British network ITN needed a temporary stringer in Jerusalem, she flew to Israel and pretended she lived there to get the job. She later freelanced for CNN. After the 9/11 attacks, while Logan was working for Britain's "Good Morning Television," French police arrested and jailed her overnight for scaling a railway fence and trespassing onto government property to get access to Afghan refugees streaming into that country.
Determined to get into Afghanistan, Logan flew to Russia but still needed a Tajik visa. She found the head of the Tajikistan airline and hired his nephew as a translator, which somehow facilitated her paperwork. Traveling with the Northern Alliance rebels as the U.S.-backed war raged on, Logan, who had been a CBS Radio stringer, began making television appearances and caught the eye of Jeff Fager, then executive producer of "60 Minutes II."
"I was so impressed by her understanding of the story and her ability to tell it," Fager says. "I just thought, wow, she's really got something special."
Although she had been close to a deal with NBC, Logan signed with the CBS newsmagazine and as a general correspondent as well. Not long afterward, she was in an armored Humvee with members of the 10th Mountain Division on the Afghan-Pakistan border when the vehicle was struck by an antitank missile, tearing out the skin inside Logan's mouth and bruising her face. The soldier next to her lost his leg.
The Army tried to ship her out of the country. "I was just enraged," she says. "I'd already been blown up. I said, 'I'll just put an icepack on.' There was no way I was going to leave, no way in hell." Logan says she never told her mother, who died a few months later, about her injuries.
In 2003, CBS pulled its correspondents out of Iraq just before the U.S. bombing began, but Logan drove back in 10 days later. And she has returned there time and again.
Although Logan has reported from such places as India, Switzerland, Pakistan, France, Britain, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, she says: "I'm not well suited to flying here and there and becoming an instant expert. I come across as hesitant because I am. I'm not a good pretender. My best work is when I'm on the ground and feeling the story I'm doing."
Logan, who shoots some of her own footage, has been embedded with the military several times and says that many soldiers in Iraq "pour their hearts out to you because you're a woman and you're sympathetic." Logan says she would never report such conversations.
She disputes the notion that U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq are going well, noting that one Iraqi contractor was afraid to take her to a reconstruction project out of fear for his life. Such a fatality, she says, would be "a line at the end of a New York Times piece, another Iraqi killed that no one cares about."
Logan has no patience with suggestions that the media, and perhaps the country, are suffering from Iraq fatigue: "You watch your friends burn to death in front of you, and we're going to pretend this story doesn't matter anymore because people are tired of hearing about it?"
Logan, who pulled two all-nighters last week while editing her two-part Ramadi series for the "CBS Evening News," says she has no social life. She has been married to Jason Siemon, an American former pro basketball player who lives in Chicago, for seven years, but says she "hardly ever" sees him.
In a business always on the lookout for the next star, Schieffer sees Logan, who remains a "60 Minutes" contributor, headed for bigger things. "Once people get used to her South African accent -- and they will -- she can just slide right into an anchor chair," he says.
Logan insists she has "absolutely no interest" in being tied to an anchor desk, but she doesn't lack for ambition: "I aspire to be as legendary on '60 Minutes' as Mike Wallace."