Thursday, 10 July 2008

Some further thoughts on Fisk and the perils of embedded journalism

Thanks to OPL for this email, further to my posting on Fisk:

"Fisk is a powerful messenger of non-embedded journalism--all too rare in this corporate media dominated world. Shouldn't respectable news organizations only allow journalists to report from a region after having lived there long enough to really understand it?"

Here's audio of Fisk's lecture on journalism I recently attended in Rome (MP3). PART I: II:

I couldn't agree more about news organizations only allowing journalists to report from a region after having lived there long enough to really understand it. And, might I add, speak the language extremely well.

Fisk speaks of embedded journalists with disdain, those too who constantly rely on unnamed sources, and 'security experts' who speak from the comfort of a TV studio in London, not having spent more than a week here or there in countries they act as talking heads about. Their sources are then, inevitably, the 'pouvoir'. Witness J. Miller and WMD.

There's a powerful passage in Fisk's book when he is attacked by an angry crowd, civilians repeatedly bombed by American airplanes whilst fleeing the 'liberation' of Afghanistan en route to the Pakistani border. He fights with all his life to hang onto his bag - why? Because it contains his contacts book, the product of years of living in the region.

Fisk however is unusual. He is, as far as I know, unmarried and without a family (although no doubt without a shortage of female admirers), and this is something he has presumably had to trade off to persue his story. Equally, he constantly refers to journalists he has worked with who have done their shift in the Middle East, before returning to London or New York to work as TV presenters, editors, foreign editors, in short, people working the coroporate ladder, their goal being (although he doesn't say this) to 'make it' in their field. Fisk however is interested in his story, and has remained in the Middle East for over 25 years. He has no ambition, as far as I know, to be the editor of The Independent.

When injured in the above mentioned incident, the then President of Lebanon was the second person to call him, offering to send his private jet and get him to the American hospital in Beirut within hours. He politely declined, despite the trauma he had undergone and his injuries - 'reporters don't take favours from prime ministers' he writes. Later he was to be in Beirut and hear the explosion that killed the President, and ran there quickly enough to witness 'security personnel' apparently removing evidence from the crime scene, which was an extremely large crater caused by the bomb that killed the President and many of his entourage.

Christianne Annapour didn't make it time, but she was there in time for his funeral. Parachute journalism of zero value.

It would be interesting to know what is the average length of 'service' in a foreign bureau of a typical overseas NYT or IHT correspondent. Certainly IHT people like Dempsey and Smale, Vinocur of course, have served years in various countries, their connections deep, their knowledge profound.

I can't speak to this subject with regard to the ambitious NYT journalists, keen to do their time, earn their resume points and get back to NY. Tom Sheppard for example, the new IHT business editor worked in Paris in the early 90s for less than three years and is now back. I'm not 100% sure, but I'm pretty certain he couldn't conduct an interview in French, however good a business editor he is.

As to German and Italian - just to name two other G8 countries in Europe on his beat, again, I don't know, but I doubt it.

This is an interesting point, because it means that many IHT editors in Paris, coming from the NYT are only able to follow and report the news, select the stories from English language sources, namely AP and Reuters. That's a pretty narrow window. (Most of the content on is in fact AP or Reuters copy.)

I think the solution has to be the ability of the IHT to hire its own people, and not to rely on the NYT and the wire services. But that's money, and counter to the goal of working within a seamless global NYT 24 hour news operation.

People like Fisk should be working for the IHT, it's that simple. Big name hires, journalists with no ambition to one day be the editor of the NYT. Expensive. But imagine the power of the paper.

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