When did the power of the Times help you as a reporter?
All the time. It opens a lot of doors. People return your calls. The institution is powerful enough to provide protection and the resources for protection. I had a $100,000 armored car in Bosnia and Kosovo, thousands of dollars of body armor, satellite phones, translators, drivers. Money was not an object. I walked around with thousands of dollars -- in the former Yugoslavia the currency was German Deutschemarks -- wrapped up in rubber bands in my pocket.
When I was taken prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard in Basra, I disappeared. Although the Iraqis were holding me, they denied knowing what had happened to me. This, by the way, is very dangerous. It means that if you are too much baggage, you can be disposed of quickly, and no one is responsible. The Times got General [Norman] Schwarzkopf to call the head of the Iraqi army. They got [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev to call Saddam Hussein. They even got the pope to call the foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, who was a member of the Chaldean Catholic minority in Iraq. Then, after I was released, the publisher had to pay the rental company $30,000 dollars for the jeep the Iraqis stole from me. I was in violation of the rental agreement.
You talked earlier about how you didn't follow the pattern of Middle East bureau chiefs at the Times in how you covered Israel -- can you explain that a bit more?
When I visited Israel [from the Times' Cairo office], I lived in Gaza. In those days Gaza did not have a hotel. I lived in a run-down boarding house. Most reporters, especially Times reporters, didn't want to go to Gaza. It was physically uncomfortable -- I don't know if it was that dangerous, but it wasn't pleasant. The Times ran my stories almost always on the front page. They did not bury them. Most reporters drove down from Jerusalem, went through the Israeli checkpoint, stayed for a few hours to get the dateline and were home for dinner. They wrote canned stories, stories that had already been written in your head on the drive down from Jerusalem. This meant that the real stories rarely got out.
If the Israelis bombed Gaza, I'd go into the streets and count the bodies. The Israelis were furious. But what could they do? I was there. It blew a hole in the fiction they put out about surgical strikes.
So Israel's official reports would minimize the casualties?
They lied. Constantly. They claimed not to target civilians while using their air force, tanks, naval gunships and heavy artillery to obliterate civilian neighborhoods. Their dishonesty is quite breathtaking.
When it comes to moments in your newspaper career like this, did you see yourself as more than a journalist -- as someone, perhaps from your religious background, who was bearing witness?
Yes. I was clearly bearing witness. This is why I took the risks I took. But I also, like all good anarchists, distrusted all forms of power, even those that were ostensibly on the left or claimed to represent the oppressed.
I covered the war in Kosovo. I spent my time reporting on the suffering meted out to Kosovar Albanians by the Serbs. The moment the Serbs pulled out of Kosovo, I was reporting on the harassment and murder of the ethnic Serbian minority that remained behind. I never confused institutions or structures of power with the oppressed. I would never lie for a cause.
Journalistic objectivity is a fiction. I can take the same set of facts and spin a story to tell the truth or obscure the truth. Now if you're a careerist, you're going to spin the story in such a way that the power elites, both within the news institution and outside of it, are pleased. That is what they call balance. If you care about the truth, you are going to use those facts to convey the truth. That is what they call advocacy. And for them that is not a compliment.
Nonetheless, you're saying that when it came to your coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you were respected enough by your editors that the Times ran your stories on the front page -- even though your stories ran counter to the Israeli, and perhaps the Washington, line?
That's what often happens with a foreign bureau -- you're almost always in conflict with the powers back home, whether it's the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA or the Washington bureau of your newspaper. This became especially true when I covered Yugoslavia and [diplomat] Dick Holbrooke [who was in charge of President Clinton's Balkans policy] tried to discredit everything I wrote. This made things difficult for me back home, because the Washington bureau is always going to give precedence to the official line. Editors and reporters based inside the Beltway are always doing lunch with the power elites. They depend on those lunches for their stories. And my reports from Bosnia -- which after the war made clear the war criminals and warlords were still in charge -- were irritating Holbrooke, who had invested his reputation in the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war. Holbrooke was the quintessential mandarin. He cultivated social ties with the powerful and the press, especially the hierarchy of the Times. He put a lot of energy into discrediting my reporting. I am sure he did damage.
So foreign correspondents like me can file their reports out of Gaza or wherever, but the preponderance of your newspaper's foreign coverage is spewing out of official Washington. The paper gives a lot of play to what the Israelis want to be reported. The Israelis were always giving "intelligence briefings" to Judy Miller [the Times reporter who later became infamous for her false reporting on the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program]. These Israeli briefings saturated the paper.
The point is that, yes, the Times prominently played my reports from Gaza, but the weight of the [Israel-slanted] coverage was such that it kind of overwhelmed the reporting from the field.
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