Sites covers world widely for the Web
Posted 4/23/2006 4:27 PM ET

Kevin Sites still gets hate e-mail after an incident in Iraq in 2004 when, as a freelance NBC News producer, he videotaped a U.S. Marine shooting a wounded, unarmed insurgent to death inside a mosque in Fallujah.

"Today someone wrote, 'You're the traitor. We want to see you hanging from a tree,' " Sites says.

The incident drove him away from network news to the Internet.

Since September, Sites has been a "sojo" — solo journalist — reporting on trouble zones such as Somalia, Colombia, Lebanon and the Sudan for His site ( now draws more than 2 million hits a week.

"I am able to explain myself so much more fully, using the Internet, than had I been on a network TV program that was seen by 10 million people," says Sites, who also reported for CNN at one time.

Now on the road pretty much 24/7, Sites produces a story each day, illustrated with pictures and a short video using equipment that he carries with him.

At the end of each week, the video expands into a longer piece with help from three Yahoo colleagues back Los Angeles. By this fall, Sites hopes to have filed from more than 20 countries.

The Iraq incident occurred after the U.S. military learned that insurgents were booby-trapping bodies. A military panel later found the Marine was following the rules.

But as the story initially played out on NBC and other media outlets, Sites' video resonated: conservatives said it showed how the liberal media sought to undermine the administration's war effort while Arab media said it revealed the underbelly of the U.S. invasion, one that Americans rarely see.

"It became an incredible flashpoint, and I took the heat," says Sites, who at the time was serving as an embedded pool reporter, filing for other news outlets.

Frustrated that he had never been able to tell the whole story of what happened, Sites wrote in his personal blog a long open letter to the Marines in which he spelled out what he saw and why he reported what he did.

That helped mitigate a lot of the criticism but "I was a little fried by the whole process and I started to think of ways I could do my job more completely and with a little bit more control."

It got him thinking about shifting to an online gig. "The power of the Internet couldn't have been more apparent to me after this incident."

He reached out to Yahoo, which was looking to create original content and expand beyond linking to outlets such as USA TODAY, CNN, ABC and the Associated Press.

"What excited us was the opportunity to try to test the waters in new forms of online journalism. We weren't out to create our own newsgathering organization," says Yahoo general manager Neil Budde.

Budde says Sites' global trek — which this week takes him to Haiti, then Nepal, Kashmir and Sri Lanka — could become a Hot Spot Americas series. "There are a lot of interesting but underreported stories in the USA that could be given a similar kind of treatment."

One aspect of reporting online, Sites says, is that "you get the information with the same tool that you can respond to it with," which means that readers "can be very passionate and emotional without thinking things out necessarily. We get those kind of responses all the time — as well as lingering hate about past coverage."

His pieces have ranged from a look at a progressive needle exchange program for drug addicts in Iran to the hard life of a child bride in Afghanistan who was invited to meet President Hamid Karzai after Sites' report.

"This is online journalism," Sites says. "My pieces are vetted. There are other people involved. I'm not writing about my favorite CDs or what I had for breakfast."

Russert: I asked on Iraq

Some critics have criticized mainstream news outlets for not challenging the Bush administration hard enough during the buildup to the war in Iraq.

But Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, says he did. "I went back and read all the transcripts of the show leading up to the war, and the questions were asked.

"In fact, the Sunday before the war, with Vice President Cheney, he said, 'We will be greeted as liberators,' and I said, 'What if you are wrong? What if there is a long, bloody insurrection?' I asked about weapons of mass destruction, the cost of war, secular uprising. Those questions were asked."

Sunday, his program was expected to notch its fifth straight year as the most-watched public affairs program on television at 4 million viewers, compared with 3.1 million for CBS' Face The Nation, 2.6 million for ABC's This Week and 1.5 million for Fox News Sunday.

Russert says there was no way for the media to independently confirm administration claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And opposition to the war at the time was not widespread: Polls showed 80% favored the administration and ultimately two-thirds of Congress voted for war.

But contrast the media's coverage of the buildup to the war in Iraq with its coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the media looked much stronger, Russert says.

"We were on the ground with our own eyes, our own ears, witnessing something in direct contradiction to what the mayor, the governor and the administration were saying, but we could confirm it independently and the public believed us. And the government finally acknowledged that we were not just being sensational. We were telling the truth."

As Washington bureau chief of NBC News, Russert once hired Katie Couric as the No. 2 correspondent at the Pentagon and cheered her on as her star rose in the NBC ranks and as a host of Today.

"I'm a big fan," says Russert, who talked to Couric the night before she announced on Today that she was leaving NBC to anchor The CBS Evening News and report for 60 Minutes.

"But one of the things that NBC is pretty good with are these transitions. We demonstrated that with Tom (Brokaw) and Brian (Williams, replacing him on NBC Nightly News), and I think Meredith (Vieira, who succeeds Couric on Today) is going to do very well for us."

Russert said he and Couric "had a long talk. I said, 'I love you, but you're now a competitor. Do well, but don't do too well. I'm a Brian Williams guy.' "