By. George E. Curry
Editor-in-Chief, NNPA News Service
If Air Force Col. Ray B. Shepherd wanted to know the importance of his job during the past month, all he had do to was walk into his office here and look at the 16 television monitors mounted on the wall. Shortly after 7 a.m. Eastern time, each of them carry live the daily briefing of Army Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks on the war in Iraq.
Were reaching people you could never possibly imagine, says Shepherd, director of public affairs for the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for U.S. troops in 25 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera, which is an Arab satellite, has sold rights to its program to the Chinese, who run it live. Russians are looking at BBC and CNN International automatically goes to 140 different countries.
When you start doing those permutations as to what that means, there are not too many places where this is not being seen at some point in time during the day. Its pretty frightening.
But the military brass was not afraid to make Shepherd responsible for such an important operation because he, like other top African-American officers here, had prepared for the job all of his life.
The son of an Air Force veteran, Shepherd had traveled the world and graduated from high school in Madrid, Spain. He then enrolled at Texas A&M University, picking up extra cash by serving as a local sportscaster for the local PBS station, shooting photographs for the student newspaper and writing for the athletic department. He joined the ROTC along the way.
I had planned to do my four years and go off, interestingly enough, to be a photographer, he recalls.
But thats a snapshot that never developed. Instead of serving four years in the Air Force, Shepherd has just completed his 28th year.
Its been one good job after another, he says. I enjoy the challenges, I enjoy the experiences and, of course, I enjoy the people Ive met over the years.
Over the years, the good jobs have included heading up public affairs for the military investigation into the 1996 plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, serving as chief spokesman for the U.S. European command and as commander of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), the largest radio and television network in the world.
Established to provide news, information, sports and entertainment programming to U.S. military families around the world, AFRTS provides satellite service to more than 450 outlets in at least 130 countries and U.S. territories. When Shepherd directed the service, he separated the news and sports channel into separate units.
He was appointed director of public affairs for CENTCOM, based in Tampa, Fla., last year. He has about 50 public affairs officers from different service branches working under him in Doha and is responsible for the other offices throughout the command. For the war in Iraq, CENTCOM temporarily shifted its headquarters to Camp As Saylihay, just outside Doha, Qatar.
Unlike Desert Storm, when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf briefed reporters in a hotel ballroom using an easel and a single television set, the military has since gone Hollywood. Literally.
George Allison, who was art director for the Mike and Kirk Douglas movie, It Runs in the Family, was brought in to design the $200,000 stage used by Gen. Brooks. What had been a 17,000 square-foot warehouse for tanks and armored vehicles, has been transposed into a glitzy $1 million, high-tech media center.
There are five 50-inch plasma screens, two 70-inch TV projection screens, a color map of Iraq, an elevated platform in the back of the room for TV cameras, 350 seats for journalists and a row for public affairs officers along the side, all available for live television or radio feeds after the briefing.
Its a huge operation and what makes it larger is that its international, explains Shepherd. We have more than 700 journalists from about 30 different countries in this building: the Chinese, the Russians, the Australians, the Irish, the Brits, you name it. Its a whole group of people that you have to deal with, all of whom come to the table with a different set of agendas and different ways of reporting.
In addition, there is the issue of having to deal with television. Print guys are easy. I can give you a desk, a phone and a place to put your computer and youre happy. But television is very demanding. It requires everything from setting up microwave shots to making sure the set looks the right way to making sure the audio is correct. These things are very important to communicate the message.
Because of the different time zones and the insatiable appetite of cable television, some correspondents are filing live reports as late as 4 a.m. They leave for a few hours of sleep and are back in the media center at 10 a.m. Shepherd arrives around 6 a.m. and does not usually leave until 14 or 15 hours later.
Aside from the technical considerations, communicating with the international community requires different sensibilities, Shepherd says.
Every time we show a graphic, I run it through my culture guys, particularly when I look at the Arab press, to make sure that were not going to offend somebody, he explains. For example, we had a photograph of a young solider putting his thumb up and reaching down to a young kid and theyre exchanging thumbs.
We thought that was a good deal. Well, it wasnt a good deal. Its offensive. The kid thought it was cutehe wasnt trying to be badbut we had to pull that. Shepherd says in some cultures the gesture could be interpreted as obscene.
He said using photos or tapes of women serving in the military also presents certain problems.
We think nothing of it because they are part of our culture, Shepherd says, referring to women. Touching men that they arent married to or even lending them medical aid would be something natural to us, but not necessarily accepted in other cultures.
My European experiences have made me very sensitive to make sure that just because it looks good in our culture, it might not translate that way into somebody elses culture.
To Shepherd, its all about framing an effective message.
Its not just the words you speak, its also what the people see that makes a difference in how they think about the message thats delivered, he explains. So you have to take all of that into consideration when you put everything together. He adds, We broadcast this live and we only get one chance.
Shepherd views his current job as a natural career progression from his earlier stints in Italy, Germany and the Middle East. He says his work in public affairs during military tensions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Beirut, as well in Operation Desert Storm, has prepared him to manage an international communications system.
Your life is never routine, its never boring, he says. When you walk in the door, you never know what youre going to do. But very quickly it becomes exciting to you. More important, you know you can do it.
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