What’s it like writing stories about the Middle East for American audiences?
Well, the Middle East, of course, brings its own set of biases and prejudices. But the main issue is less bias and prejudice and more lack of interest. That’s the real issue.
On the part of the American public, you mean?
On the part of any public. When you look at the Middle East media, it’s the same — what is more local is more of interest. It’s just the human condition. Arab audiences are more interested in what’s happening in the Arab world. But as a print guy who’s about to go into TV, one of the things that’s always struck me is that when people talk about the media, they almost always mean television. Almost always. They’re always like, “Oh, the media doesn’t really cover it. It’s so superficial, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you think, well, that can’t be true. Are you reading my stuff? But they’re not — on television it’s different. So I think there’s a lot of this criticism that’s directed at TV. And I guess a lot of it is quite well deserved.
And then there’s the way everybody shapes stories into familiar narratives — maybe more on television than in print.
Absolutely. There is that. There is definitely that.
Could you talk about a specific case?
Look at the Syria conflict, for example. I mean, for several years it was all “Assad, Assad, Assad is a demon, he’s a devil, he’s committing genocide, he’s killing innocent people, we should bomb him, we should intervene.” And then all of a sudden two Americans get their heads cut off on the internet, and it’s “ISIS is the bad guy. ISIS are the ones we need to attack. They’re the guys.” You know, all of a sudden it switches. And it becomes a totally different thing. It’s no wonder people are confused. And then there’s this massive refugee crisis, and everyone’s thinking, “Well, these people are fleeing ISIS.” Well, no, they’re not. They’re fleeing the Assad regime, which was our old enemy. It’s whiplash. And if I wasn’t following it very closely, I would probably give up. I can’t imagine. It would just be so mystifying to wrap your head around it.
But I can sympathize, because when it comes to the Assad regime, that’s a devil we know. They’re the bad guys, they’re evil, they’re killing people, but the world has seen that kind of evil before. When you look at ISIS, that’s kind of a different animal. They’re almost cartoonishly evil, in a way that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. And so when I was at The Wall Street Journal, at least, among my editors there was an enormous appetite for any story that would bring us inside ISIS. Who are these people? What are they motivated by? And not just stories that were trying to demonize them. Stories that were really fascinated. There was a navel-gazing fascination with what was going on inside of this group. How are they so effective? In what ways are they statelike? How are they so brutally efficient? And why were they picking a fight with the West? They must know they would lose. What was the calculation?
Were they interesting just because they were new?
Yeah. I’m trying to think of a parallel. It’s just kind of a freak show — maybe the Khmer Rouge, for example, decades ago. There’s a reason that people are still reading books about the Nazis, who have been gone for quite a while. It’s almost as if we wish they were still around, and that’s because they were freaks, and because they were so good at being bad that people wanted to hear about them. Who are these people? What is their ideology? How is it different, and yet similar, to ideologies we’ve seen in the past, and how have they become so potent? That’s another sort of fascinating element about ISIS. Their PR is so effective.
So does the press bear some responsibility? If ISIS is being a circus, at least to some extent, intentionally, does the press bear some responsibility for playing into that?
Yes, they do, because, of course, the press propagates their message for free.
What about Trump? Do you think the media bears responsibility for him?
I suppose. Everybody can say, “Ugh, the media is just feeding us Trump and more Trump,” right? Well, are you watching? Are you entertained? I am. I’m watching. I’m hanging on every word, and I consider myself to be a pretty savvy media consumer. So I could criticize, but, you know, you are giving people what they want. It is a business at the end of the day.