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'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' Dramatizes War Reporter's Experience


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew in hundreds of reporters from the U.S., many of whom had never reported from abroad, let alone a foreign war. And in newsrooms around the country, there were versions of conversations like this one.


SCOTT TAKEDA: (As Ed Farber) The network needs reporters on the ground in Afghanistan. And you folks are all the unmarried, childless personnel in this bureau.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, sobbing).

TAKEDA: (As Ed Farber) Kim, are you going to be joining in?

TINA FEY: (As Kim Baker) The travel or the crying?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, sobbing).

FEY: (As Kim Baker) How many people do you need?

MARTIN: That was a clip from the new film "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." Tina Fey produced it, and she stars as the lead character Kim Baker whose name is remarkably similar to the name of our next guest. Kim Barker wrote the memoir that the film is based on. She initially called it "The Taliban Shuffle," and it chronicled her personal experience covering the war in Afghanistan.

Kim Barker joins me now live in our studios this morning to talk about what it's like to see Tina Fey play you in a movie. Hey, Kim.

KIM BARKER: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Good morning. We're happy to have you here.

BARKER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first off, we should acknowledge you and I know each other.

BARKER: We do. We met in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: We did, indeed. I think it was - I think it was 2004.

BARKER: Yeah, you invited me to my first party there.


BARKER: Afghan Gardens.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. OK. Well, we'll get into that - or maybe not.

BARKER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So, you know, we just heard this clip...

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Of this kind of conversation, which is clearly dramatized. But, you know, this was a thing that was happening. Newsrooms were looking around, and they were looking for people to raise their hand.

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: How did you get to Afghanistan the first time?

BARKER: The first time I - well, the first time I went overseas, it was actually Pakistan. So I actually did go into the foreign editor's office 'cause I heard they were looking to send more women overseas - that they were looking to try people out because we had a female editor at the time, Anne Marie Lipinski, who said - why aren't we sending more women out? So I walked into his office. I said my name is Kim Barker. I'm a metro reporter. I'm single, and I'm childless and therefore, I'm expendable. And I'll go anywhere you want to send me.

MARTIN: Did you really say that?

BARKER: I really did.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BARKER: I was joking. I mean, I was - like, I was trying to differentiate myself from everybody else. I'm, like, we all have equal skill sets here. We've all been, you know, metro reporters at the Tribune.


BARKER: We could write - clearly.

MARTIN: But you had no ties.

BARKER: I have no ties.

MARTIN: So you're, like, send me.

BARKER: Nobody will sue.


BARKER: Nobody will sue, so send me (laughter). He laughed. I mean, I was going for a laugh with that, yeah.

MARTIN: So, did you expect to just go for a few months and have that be it?

BARKER: I did. The first time I went overseas, I did go for a few months. It was in 2002. January of 2002 to April of 2002 was my first trip. And I basically went first to Pakistan, then a little bit to Afghanistan and then I went to India, where there were riots where, I think, more than 1,000 people were killed. And then I went to Sri Lanka. I just was trying to send - stay one step ahead of the metro desk, so they didn't call me actually.


BARKER: And then, you know, I went over. I spent the war - the war - I'm using quotes here. You can't see that on the radio. The war part of Iraq in 2003 - March and April - I spent that covering the war in Afghanistan, which is really sort of when America first, like, looked away from what was actually happening in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Because that's what had happened...

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...So much of the attention...

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Had shifted to Iraq.

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: And then you were in Afghanistan, a lot us...

BARKER: Imagine covering it at that point. It was just, like, there was - the last reporter in Afghanistan, shut the door. But of course, you know, things changed. I moved over there to the region in 2004 and ended up staying there until 2009. I didn't think I'd ever stay there that long. It was always, like, for me, I'm going to try to do this for a year or two and see if I can do it. And then at a certain point, it was, like, I couldn't see leaving.

MARTIN: So the movie really plays up the ex-pat scene in Kabul, and this is something you spent a good deal of time talking about in the book.

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: It is hard, probably, for a lot of people to imagine...

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...That an ex-pat, young, white woman from, you know, Chicago could go to Kabul and have what turned out to be a thriving social scene. And that's complicated. Can you unpack that a little bit?

BARKER: It is really complicated. And I think some people say - you went to parties in Afghanistan? - but it was war. You know, it must have been all the time. How could you possibly have fun? Well, here's the deal. It's, like - I think anybody who's actually been in those situations knows that you're covering horrible things during the day. You know, you're talking to, you know, women who would rather throw acid on themselves than, like, be in a forced marriage, or you're covering suicide bombs. And you're dealing with these stories that you can't necessarily, like, go to the gym and exercise and, like, go for run outside. My mother was always like - why don't you do yoga? Like, you do yoga, Mom. You know? Because it's like - you needed some sort of sense of release. And you were in this pressure cooker, and you couldn't ever - you know, you just led such an inside life most of the time. So, yeah, there were parties, and you became really, really close with this group of people that were all sort of thrust into the same situation. And I wanted to show that because, you know - and I wanted to show my part in that because I found it so interesting. And it was something people didn't know about. And I didn't want to be a hypocrite and just, you know, point at everyone else...


BARKER: ...Going to brothels to sing karaoke.

MARTIN: Can you read an excerpt...


MARTIN: ...From the book that I marked? I think this really illustrates what you're talking about there.

BARKER: (Reading) Some foreigners wanted to make Afghanistan a better place, viewed Afghanistan as a home rather than a party and even genuinely liked Afghans. But they were in the minority, and many had left, driven out by the corruption and the inability to accomplish anything. For most, Afghanistan was Kabul High - a way to get your war on, an adrenaline rush, a resume line, a money factory. It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes - a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between seventh center and Vegas.

MARTIN: And like you said, you're not pointing the finger. You are acknowledging that you were part of that.

BARKER: Right. But the taxpayers, at least, were not paying my salary.


BARKER: Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: So this is a funny book, which make sense because Tina Fey looked at it and said - I'd like to make this into a movie.

BARKER: Right, because of Michiko Kakutani.

MARTIN: From The New York Times...

BARKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Who wrote a review actually saying that this character seems a lot like Tina Fey?

MARTIN: Have you bought her, like, glass of wine - Michiko?

BARKER: I mean, I kind of feel like I can never be in the same room as Michiko Kakutani because she also named it one of her top 10 books of the year. And I feel like if she met me in person, she would be sorely disappointed.

MARTIN: So we're getting questions in from Twitter. Obviously, people want to know what it's like to write a book about your own life and then Tina Fey plays you. I mean, that's crazy.

BARKER: I know. It's - you asked me how things were going this morning. I mean, it's surreal. It's really weird, you know, because this book - I wrote it - you know, I wrote it years ago. And now it's getting this second life, and I'm so excited about that, you know. And it's - Tina Fey's amazing. She's smart. She's funny. I think, like, when I first found out that this was actually happening, I just said to people - yeah, guess who's going to play me in the movie. And I was sort of kidding because you never knew if this was going to happen. But I said guess who'd going to play me in the movie. And people would say - I don't know. There's a lot of people out there? And I said - smart, funny. Tina Fey.


BARKER: I mean, everybody got it right away.


BARKER: So - you know, it's - and it's her project. I mean, she's one of the producers on it. She's...

MARTIN: How much say did you have in the final product?

BARKER: I mean, absolutely none.


BARKER: Right.


BARKER: It's Hollywood. I mean, when you sign away the option to your book, you pretty much trust the people that take it are going to do it right. I was so afraid - you know, in the beginning, you're afraid it's going to be like "Anchorman" in Afghanistan.


BARKER: And, like, while I love "Anchorman," I wouldn't want that to be the story of our time over there.


BARKER: And I think that they did such a great job. I mean, obviously, I'm now a TV reporter. And I'm really sorry to print journalism for that because all my print colleagues were, like - why TV?

MARTIN: Yeah, they made the character into a TV reporter...


MARTIN: ...For dramatic reasons.

BARKER: Right, right, right.

MARTIN: I want to read a couple of these questions.


MARTIN: @JennaFisherTAB says I'd love to hear Kim's thoughts about how being a woman impacts her reporting.

BARKER: It's always difficult to say how it impacts it because I don't know what it's like to be a man. But in Afghanistan - you know, you were over there. It was, like, it was better to be a female reporter over there. And I think that's really surprising to people. But you look at some of the top correspondents over there, whether they're Pam Constable or Carlotta Gall, a lot of women came through there. Kathy Gannon - I could go on, you know, about all the great women who've reported out of Afghanistan and Pakistan because you weren't really seen as, like, a local woman, and you weren't seen as a foreign man. You were this weird...

MARTIN: This weird in-between space.

BARKER: Third sex. You were like this third sex who could go talk to the women and do women's stories in a way that male reporters just, frankly, couldn't do because women wouldn't feel comfortable talking to them. And then you got access to all the male who, I think, were somehow charmed by the idea of you running around the country, you know. And maybe, you know, they just wanted to meet you and talk to you.

MARTIN: I also want to ask about leaving South Asia and leaving Afghanistan, in particular. And @GeorgeMinde2 also had a similar question. In "Taliban Shuffle," he says, Kim talks about how hard it was to leave reporting in South Asia. What's that been like for you? Do you miss it?

BARKER: Of course. I mean, don't you? It's like Afghanistan is one of those countries that really, really, really gets under your skin. And I think every reporter who goes there kind of falls in love with the place. It's beautiful - you know, these gorgeous mountains really did remind me of growing up in Montana (laughter), right, and then the people. And you just really want to have - you really want the country to have some sort of chance at peace. It's just, like - it's hard, you know. And I felt really guilty when I first decided to stay. Because when I first came back, it was this idea of just having a fellowship and I was going to write this book and then I was going to turn around and go right back to Afghanistan. I mean, I left all my stuff there, you know, carefully packed to go back to it. And then at the end of being - you know, doing the fellowship and writing the book, I thought - maybe it's not the healthiest lifestyle. Maybe you can see if you can actually adjust back to the States. But it took me a couple years. It took me a couple years of being here to actually feel like it was home again.

MARTIN: Will you go back?

BARKER: I would like to go back at some point. Yeah.



BARKER: I hope my mom's not listening to this.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BARKER: I'm just kidding, Mom.

MARTIN: Kim Barker - her memoir is called "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," as it is newly released. It's the basis for the new film with the same name starring Tina Fey. Kim joined us in our studios live here in Washington.

Kim, thanks so much for talking with me.

BARKER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.