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Chris Hedges Unmasks American Empire in "Unspeakable"

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Yeah, [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman is the classic example of how to play the game. I think most of the other reporters there thought I was a bit insane. Clyde Haberman, the Times Jerusalem bureau chief, once said, "Hedges will parachute anywhere, with or without a parachute." That was how they saw me. They were not wrong. I had too much of that hyper-masculine bravado that comes with being a war correspondent. I was also acerbic and blunt. This was not part of the paper's culture.

I was covering the war in Yugoslavia. Roger Cohen [another marquee-name, roving correspondent for the Times] dropped into Sarajevo as soon as the ceasefire started.

He was based in Paris at the time. He had been my predecessor in the Balkans. He asked me what stories I'm working on, and I say, "I'm doing this and this and this and so on." So then I go off into Bosnia somewhere, and while I'm gone, he stole my stories. He was gunning for a Pulitzer for his Balkans reporting.

He took what you had written?

No, I hadn't written them yet. He took my story ideas and did them. We later had a dinner in Paris with all the Times foreign correspondents. Roger -- who's a snake -- says to me in front of all the other foreign correspondents and the foreign editor, in this kind of saccharine voice, "Chris, I heard you've been saying things about me behind my back?" And, I said, "No, Roger, there's nothing I've ever said behind your back I wouldn't say to your face. You're a sh*t." You don't do that at the Times. It shows a failure to exhibit the right decorum. At the Times you knifed your rivals or colleagues in the back, but you do it with finesse and cloying hypocrisy and...

A certain corporate gentility?

Yes. That's it. The Times is a fear-ridden place. But it wasn't fear-ridden for me. I didn't care. I knew reporters who showed up for work and the first thing they did was go to the bathroom and throw up. It was an unhealthy place. These reporters and editors cared so much about having the "imprimatur" of the New York Times that the paper was able to carry out sustained forms of psychological abuse.

So, on the one hand, I protected myself because I didn't play the game. On the other hand, it meant I was never going anywhere -- in terms of rising within the hierarchy. Never. Those who rose in the paper had to prove over many years that they were pliant and obsequious to power. They had to endure this corporate hazing. They had to prove that the institution came before all else -- including their own colleagues. They had to internalize the unwritten motto of the Times: Do not significantly alienate those on whom we depend for money and access. You can alienate them some of the time. But if you start to alienate them a lot of the time, your career is over. This unwritten mantra set vague, undefined boundaries that contributed to the deep anxiety that dominated the newsroom. Reporters had to intuit how far to go and intuit when to back off.

Those that persisted in reporting stories that made the elites uncomfortable, like Charlie LeDuff, who cared about the marginalized and the poor, who wanted to write about issues such as race and class, increasingly had to run into walls erected by the editors. You either conform or, as Charlie did, quit. The Times consciously caters to an audience of roughly 30 million people it has defined as the country's economic and political elite. It does not care about the middle class. It does not care about the working class. And it certainly does not care about the poor. The bulk of the paper, with its special sections such as Styles or Home, addresses the concerns of the rich -- maintaining a second house in the Hamptons. Those sections expose its bias.

Reporters who are too obtuse, or too stubborn, to conform become management headaches. If they persist, they are pushed out. This is why, I expect, most people at the Times are so unhappy. They have surrendered their independence and often their integrity. They are nervous about crossing the line that will see them singled out. It is a very hard high-wire walk they have to negotiate.

So the fear that gripped these men and women in the newsroom came from the fact they couldn't see a life for themselves beyond the New York Times. It was the end-all and be-all?

Yes, it was just like Harvard. The attitude was not we are lucky to have you. It was you are lucky to be here. And since so many people at the Times had worked so hard to get there, they bought into this attitude.

And for you, you could imagine a life outside the Times.

Yes, I cared far more about what I covered. I wanted to make voices that were shut out heard. This pretty much guaranteed that I would have to eventually find a life outside the Times.

But there must have been occasions when you appreciated working for a newspaper with the power of the Times.

Of course -- I used the power of the Times, but I didn't allow the institution to own me. And that's the tragedy of the paper. You have a lot of talent at the paper. But they are utterly deferential to authority. They invest tremendous energy into finding out what editors like them or whether their stock at the paper is going up or down. It's a Byzantine court. I was the last person to hear the institutional gossip. It saved me from anxiety. But it also hurt my career. I didn't know what was going on. I would get blindsided and not know it was coming.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of (more...)

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