J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

A Little More on Farnaz Fassihi and the Imprisioned Journalist

Posted by chanders on June 1, 2006

Just to start, I really want to thank Christopher Albritton for engaging with my last post. Again, his response is in his blog and in the comments section of yesterday’s entry. He quotes an interview he did with Farnaz Fassihi where she argues, basically, that despite all the dangers and difficulties in Iraq, and despite the fact that "the security situation may prevent us from getting a hundred percent feel of the place, …  [I] think we have a better idea of what’s going on in Iraq than anybody else."

Then I had one of those "duh" moments: Fassihi spoke at the graduation at my current school, the Columbia University j-school just a few weeks ago. Though I wasn’t there (us PhD students take a long time to graduate!) the text of her remarks are online. Basically, what she says echoes her comments to Albritton, though at greater length. I’m going to quote her in some detail

Not much has changed in terms of our safety since I wrote that email. In the face of all these security limitations, we learned to get creative about reporting. More and more, we relied on the brave Iraqi men and women who work for us.Every where in the world, foreign correspondents are helped by “fixers’’ and ‘’stringers” — young energetic locals who are resourceful, have good contacts and speak good English. On any foreign assignment, the quality of your fixer makes or breaks your trip but this is especially true in Iraq, where the role of the local Iraqi staff has been much more pronounced.

Don’t take me wrong, of course we still venture out but very carefully. We try to be as unobtrusive as possible, staying no long than 30 minutes in any spot. A simple reporting trip requires hours of advanced planning and security checks.We travel in an armored car, followed by a surveillance car with our armed guards. We go out with walkie-talkies and make sure another reporter is aware of where we are going, the roads we take and what time to expect us back.

But the Iraqis go to places we can’t go; they find us stories and sources and conduct interviews on our behalf; sometimes they even convinced people to come to the hotel so I could interview them myself. They buy our groceries and arrange every little detail of our work and living arrangements. They work for us at the risk of their own lives and the safety of their families.

So in sum: journalism in Iraq is beset on all sides, but the news bureaus there are still carrying on, often very creatively, and at great expense and personal danger.  This isn’t a reason to say that the situation for journalism in Iraq is ideal, or even very good, but its much worse to insinuate, as Laura Ingram did, that somehow journalists are "losing Iraq" because they can’t get the story.

But back to my original point: what should the role of the lefty media critic be in a situation like Iraq?  I noted in an earlier post that "it might be nice to see the left blogosphere distinguish itself from the right blogosphere by praising good journalism, by being fair, and by being merciless when, indeed, the mainstream press f—-s up." I’ve certainly penned my own armchair criticism of the Iraq conflict, and have  especially excoriated Judy Miller, but there must be a way to distinguish the crap from the good. Journalism can, after all, me a powerful weapon in the progressive arsenal; it is true, as Fassihi notes, that "journalists have thus far remained the only independent observers of this [Iraq] conflict." But how independent have they been? Either way, they may be the best we can do.

One last thought: I was thinking yesterday about why Fassihi’s letter made such a splash when it came out. Part of it was because here was a journalist who actually had honest-to-god personal opinions about public matters. That resonates with people. But also because, like so much else in Iraq, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Whether you were on the right or the left, a supporter or critic of the war, this conflict was supposed to be the conflict of "embedding," of too much access. Lefty media critics were prepared to blast journalists for being pawns and prisoners of the military. What they weren’t prepared for, as much doom and gloom as they expressed before the war, was that Iraq would become the hell that it has; that journalists would become, along with being the occasional prisoners of U.S propaganda, real-life prisoners of a seemingly endless war.


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