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The Phillips Foundation Freedom Report Novak Fellow Spotlight: Tom Sileo - 09/04/2012

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Tell us a little bit about your background and your work as a journalist.

 

I grew up in Vienna, Va., before attending Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. from 1997-2001, where I graduated with a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Media.  Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I moved to Columbus, Ga., to start my journalism career at a small local television station near Fort Benning, which was transitioning into a wartime Army post at the dawn of the war in Afghanistan.

 

From 2002-2004, I produced an evening newscast in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., before moving back to the D.C. area in 2005, on what I thought would be a permanent basis.  After getting a call from CNN, however, I quickly moved to Atlanta to start as a copy editor for CNN Pipeline, a live streaming broadband network that later evolved into CNN.com Live.

 

In late 2009, after a round of layoffs that affected some close friends, I decided to leave CNN and launch a blog called The Unknown Soldiers, which strives to tell the moving personal stories of the men and women who protect our freedom.  After about a year of running the blog and building its Facebook and Twitter communities, I was offered a syndication deal by Creators Syndicate to author a weekly newspaper column about the sacrifices of our troops, veterans, and military families.  The column currently appears in newspapers around the country, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to share the powerful stories of our nation’s true heroes with a national audience.

 

In 2010, you received a Novak Fellowship for your project titled, “The Unknown Soldiers: How the Media Celebrates American Idols and Ignores American Heroes.” What led you to explore this topic?

 

During my entire career in the media world, I was uncomfortable with what television executives deemed “newsworthy,” and the tendency to place the endless quest for ratings above the tenets of responsible journalism.  This culminated on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died.  For many weeks following his passing, I watched in disgust and respectfully voiced my objections as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took a back seat to every small detail of Jackson’s passing and the investigation that followed. 

 

While Jackson was undoubtedly a talented, influential, and controversial figure, the young men and women making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom all have compelling personal stories as well, which I felt (and still feel) are too often ignored by the national press. It is in this spirit that I pursued my Phillips Foundation Fellowship project, and I’m grateful to Tom Phillips, John Farley, and everyone at the Foundation for recognizing this void in our national consciousness and helping me do something about it.

 

Why do you think the ‘mainstream’ media hasn’t told these stories about our fighting men and women?

 

That’s a good question to ask executives, producers, reporters, and anchors at national news networks.  While it’s important to note that there are some very good journalists committed to war coverage, there are many others who think Afghanistan is an “old story” and that our nation suffers from “war fatigue,” which justifies less media coverage.  I fail to see how U.S. troops risking their lives every day is old news, nor do I agree with choosing what stories to cover based on a flawed theory of ratings potential.

 

In the past two years of running my blog, as well as beforehand when I worked at CNN, I have found countless examples of journalists at NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC ignoring stories of battlefield heroism in favor of sensationalistic stories like Lindsay Lohan’s embarrassments or the Casey Anthony trial.  A more recent example might be the endless series of presidential debates.  While the decision to send brave young men and women to war is the most important a commander-in-chief can make, the daily sacrifices being made in Afghanistan are virtually invisible in most of these debates.  The lack of consistent awareness about the ongoing war our nation is fighting is astounding, and in my opinion, much of this troubling trend starts with the media.

 

Your award-winning blog, The Unknown Soldiers (www.unknownsoldiersblog.com), remains very popular. As the wars overseas seemingly wind down, do you worry that interest in these stories will as well? 

 

The only thing I worry about on a daily basis is the safety of our men and women in uniform, the well-being of their families, the care being given to our veterans, and the healing of families who have lost a loved one in these wars.  Once all those issues are off the table, my blog will shut down the next day.  But if I had to make a prediction, I think the sacrifices made by our military in Afghanistan and Iraq will impact our lives for decades to come.  And until the day I die, there will be men and women from this new post-9/11 Greatest Generation wanting to share their remarkable stories.

 

I also want to politely caution you and the rest of the country about accepting the notion that the war in Afghanistan is “winding down.”  In my view, no conflict where Americans are being killed and wounded on a daily basis is in any phase other than an urgent one that demands our full national attention.

 

You recently became the Communications Director at the Travis Manion Foundation. What kind of work does the foundation do and what does your new job entail?  

 

Being the Communications Director at the Travis Manion Foundation is the best job I’ve ever had.  Every day, I have the honor of working for the Manion family, which has done incredible work to support our troops, veterans, and military families since the tragic death of 1st Lt. Travis Manion in Iraq on Apr. 29, 2007.  One of the last things Travis said before leaving Pennsylvania for his second tour in Iraq was “If not me, then who…”  The Manions live out that quote every single day and inspire countless others to do the same.

 

The mission of the Travis Manion Foundation is to honor the fallen by challenging the living.  We offer Challenge Grants to link members of the military community who want to challenge themselves to do something in honor of a fallen service member.  We visit schools around the country to present “Character Does Matter” seminars to young men and women, who are then challenged to perform community service in honor of a fallen hero.  We also hold annual 9/11 Heroes Runs in more than 35 cities around the world to make sure all of us continue honoring and remembering all who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom since Sept. 11, 2001.

 

My duties as Communications Director encompass running the foundation’s website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube communities, along with media relations and long-term strategic planning.  One of the best aspects of the job has been seamlessly integrating personal stories of heroism from The Unknown Soldiers blog and newspaper column into the fabric of the Travis Manion Foundation, which is deeply committed to spreading awareness about the sacrifices of the one percent of our population that volunteers to protect the other 99 percent.

 

Finally, how has the Novak Journalism Fellowship Program impacted your career?

 

Without the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, I don’t believe any of this would be happening.  I would most likely be working at some other mainstream media outlet, perhaps with a small military blog on the side, but without the ability to devote my full time and attention to helping the amazing men and women of our military community find an even more prominent national voice.  Aside from the monetary assistance, the Phillips Foundation has provided invaluable guidance, contacts, and public speaking opportunities that I never could have found on my own.  I will always be grateful for my Fellowship and plan to remain active with the Phillips Foundation for the rest of my career.