Sunday, February 26, 2006

# Posted 8:03 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE HELPLESSNESS OF AMERICAN JOURNALISTS: A few weeks ago, TNR editor Lawrence Kaplan described just how hard it is for an American corresponent to get any sort of meaningful access to events and people in Iraq. Kaplan wrote that
The difficulty of traveling freely and openly around the country leaves most American journalists dependent for their survival on the goodwill of others--either friendly Iraqis or the U.S. military.
Kaplan's essay is mostly descriptive and, perhaps for good reason, never tackles the really tough question of how such dependence influences American journalists' coverage of Iraq. After all, how would Kaplan or any other American journalist really know what they're missing if they're missing it?

One easy hypothesis to throw out there is that journalists will absorb the perspective of those on whom they are dependent. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Their perspective on Iraq doesn't remotely resemble that of the military. Nor does it seem to resemble that of Iraqis with a positive attitude toward the American presence.

Another relatively easy hypothesis to throw out there is that when journalists have limited access to their surroundings, they project more of their own preconceived notions about the world on to the subject they've decided to cover. Conservative critics of the MSM may well agree with that notion, since it suggests why journalists allegedly insist on treating Iraq as Vietnam. I have some sympathy for that hypothesis, although I am reluctant to commit to any sort of interpretation since I, like Kaplan, really have no idea what American journalists can't see.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule that American journalists in Iraq are helpless. For example, freelancer (and OxFriend) Nir Rosen, who has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, NYT Magazine and others, learned Iraqi Arabic and travels mostly on his own.

Amazingly, he spent an extended amount of time in Fallujah while it was occupied by insurgents and jihadists. Fluent in the local dialect, Nir has been able to see first hand precisely how others' dependence on translators makes them extraordinarily vulnerable to misinformation.

FYI, Nir's book about his time in Iraq, entitled In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, is going to be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press this coming May.

As I have argued while eating Lombardi's pizza with Nir during his visits stateside, I still think that his perspective on Iraq is profoundly influenced by his politics and his ideology (just like mine). When only a very few Americans have that kind of access, it's very hard to tell whether what they discover reflects their access more than their preconceived notions. In other words, until a significant number of American journalists learn Arabic and get out into the field, they won't overcome the limitations of dependence.

Perhaps for the moment, one way around this problem is to learn as much as possible from Iraqi and other Arab journalists. It does seems that a lot of major newspaper articles have italicized notes at the end informing readers of the contribution made by irregular correspondents with Arabic sounding names. Are those irregulars Iraqis? Other Arabs? And how were they hired. Until the papers tell us, we won't really know.

For the moment, I guess the take away from all this is that the posture of detached omniscience that characterizes American news reports, regardless of whether they are filed from Topeka or Baghdad, should be taken with a sizable grain of salt when the correspondents don't even speak the local language.
(9) opinions -- Add your opinion

A lot of good points.

But surely you realize that learning arabic (to Fallujah fluency!) is a)extremely hard and b) probably not that rewarding (career wise, as opposed to say, kissing ass).

But really, on the altruistic tip, does it do journalists any good to learn the language and then risk their lives reporting the story at ground level when most news consumers (including some really well educated ones) are going to make the "preconcieved notions" argument regardless?

But yeah, everyone should learn arabic for sure. Kaplan, the press corps, the Army... But I don't believe that speaking arabic translates into credibility (on Iraq) with American news consumers. In fact, with a lot of people it's probably a strike against you.
You refer, in an oblique way, to Rosen's politics. Could his politics be part of the reason he was able to stay in Falluja during the height of the terrorist problems.
You're barking up the wrong tree, davod. Nir obviously had to pose as a neutral party to survive in Fallujah, but I can assure you that he has no sympathy for any terrorist. With regard to his politics, let's just say he'd be at home on the left-wing of The Nation's editorial board.
Nir Rosen has published some of the best articles I've read about the situation in Iraq. I don't think his politics matter much, except that he is not conservative, which basically means he is not error prone. If he is liberal, he is in the same situation as the rest of us who are not conservative in that we are searching for a new way rather than trying to fit new events into preset categories, which is the essense of conservatism.

My best friend from my Oxford days insists that obtaining local language skills is the only way to contribute meaningful analysis about political situations in foreign countries. I differ with him and can offer some of George Packer and Sy Hersh's analysis of Iraq, which appeared in the New Yorker, as good counter-examples.

I tend to believe that American journalists aspire to parrot the arguments of the subjects they interview and that is why the NYTimes is a conservative institution despite the complaints of Republicans.

Though I would concede the strategy of whinning constantly about a liberal media and judiciary is a good strategy for keeping your opponents on the run--so that almost all Democrats are afraid to be described as liberal--lying about the situation is really an uncool (but successful) strategy of the Republicans.
David: I thank you for clarifying the effect Mr. Rosen's politics might have on his commentarty.

I would just mention that hiding your identity to get somewhere is not new. The explorer Sir Richard Burton visted the Islamic holy cities while disguised as an Arab pilgim. He spoke fluent Arabic.

The issue is whether you are prepared to put yourself at risk to get a story.
dropoutpostgrad, I wouldn't take anything Hersh says to seriously. He doesn't usually let facts get in the way of his stories (I believe that's why the NY times fired him). The best example I can think of is when he claimed that the U.S. Army was secretly run by The Gang of Seven (it is obviously bullshit but people believe it because he broke My Lai.) Or when he claimed that the U.S. and Israel were secretly invading Pakistan to destroy their nuclear sites and then changed the article from Pakistan to Iran a few years later. I doubt many of his "sources" are even real but he knows that if you say neo-con enough some people will believe anything.
good point mike. i guess liberals are error prone just as conservatives, but in different ways. conservatives make errors because they try to force a changing world into old categories while liberals make mistakes because they try to adapt to and understand the changing world. sy hersh is a good example. he usually gets the basic ideas of the stories correct, but because he gets there before anyone else, the details are a bit fuzzy. but better to accuse the government of the wrong error while understanding that tyranny has taken a new shape, than to assume the government should be trusted because that is some sort of tradition to which you feel bound.
It's interesting to talk about how American reporters deal with the problems of covering foreign countries but it's irrelevant at this point in time. The problem of having a Leftwing politicized "media" that passes Leftist groupthink as their narrative to explain the world is the biggest and most immediate concern.
dopg, I don't think Hersh makes error's, I think he is a liar. The only reason someone like Hersh would make a claim that soldiers were raping nine year old boy at Abu Graib is because he thinks he can get away with it. When someone called him on his bullshit he had to backpedal. He doesn't get the facts right (see above about invading pakistan and iran.) because it doesn't fit the story he wants to tell (please tell me why some My Lai villagers survived). I don't blindly trust the government but that doesn't mean the U.S. Army is run by a secret gang of seven;)

I am going to add that I am in the States and I am not a right-winger. Tyranny may have taken a new form in your opinion but people like Hersh, Ramsey Clark, Pinter or Lynn Stewart don't agree. The real tyrants are Americans not Hussiens. It is still about communism vs. capitalism for these people and it will be until they finally die.

I don't mean this to sound like a "you're with us or against us" type of statement, but you don't believe that a dictator like saddam (who really was a facist) and the United States are relativly the same. Do you? I don't really a big change in the nature of tyranny, brutal police state with wars fought to gain more ground to build more statues for the beloved uncle.

sorry about the rant I am in a hurry and drinking, which is never a good combo;)
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