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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Megyn Kelly's choice

by digby

Media expert Jay Rosen tweeted about the hazards of Megyn Kelly's interviews with Vladimir Putin and Alex Jones. He repeats this "fable" he wrote some time back on his blog Press Think:

There is a story I heard once about the press in Bosnia. I tried to verify it numerous times with people who might know, but I never succeeded. (Possibly I will with this post.) My informants always told me they knew of things like it that had happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Let’s say then that it is not a true story, but a fiction about a journalist set in Sarajevo sometime between April 2, 1992, when the Siege of Sarajevo began, and February 29, 1996, when it was declared over.

During the siege a correspondent from a Western news agency is contacted by an intermediary, someone he knows, who has an offer: to go out one night with Bosnian Serb snipers and see for yourself what they do.
A deal is struck, and he accompanies the men to one of their perches in the hills above the city, where they train their rifles on civilians, who might be trying to cross the street. This is where the siege “happens,” in a sense. This is the action itself.

“Come here,” says one of the men, after he has located a target. The sniper motions to take a look. The reporter, who in his own mind had come to see, leans over and peers for a second or two through the lens of the rifle.

He sees two people who think they are out of range standing in an alley, completely vulnerable. That is when the sniper, retaking the lens, says: which one, left or right?

This alarms the reporter. “I have no answer to that,” he says. “I didn’t come to be involved in what you do.” The sniper throws back his head to laugh, and returns to his rifle. There is a pause. In two quick bursts he kills both people just seen through the lens.

“You should have answered,” the sniper says to the Western correspondent. “You could have saved one.”

That’s the story I heard. As I said, I don’t know if it ever happened, or if it did, whether it happened that way. Maybe it’s a story told about journalists in every war, and only the details change. What I do know is that, treated as parable (not a truthful account of what went on in the hills above Sarajevo one night, but a fiction invented from shards of fact) this story, which I have not been able to verify or forget, is about something very real and alive today.

It is the problem of publicizing evil, and of when you become a part of things by observing them.

The reporter went “only” to observe. But the sniper changed the observer into a culpable person, a participant in the criminal siege of the city from above. This was done against the journalist’s will, and so a kind of mind rape goes on within the prism of the story.

Back home, in a moral zone he can recognize, the reporter can always say: “the sniper intended to kill both of them anyway, so I had no role…” but in fact a truthful correspondent will always know that the man may well have been speaking truthfully when he said, “you could have saved one.” Those who have the power to kill, arbitrarily, can also let live on a whim, an act which equally enhances their power.

Show me what you do is the clearly implied contract for the climb into the mountains with the snipers. (And they delivered on their end.) That explains what the reporter thought he was doing: witnessing a terrible reality that nonetheless should be told to the civilized world. Sniping against civilians is a war crime, and he will be a witness to how it happens.

And of course criminal gangs and killing squads everywhere have their ways of making newcomers and by-standers into instant accomplices, because when everyone around is spread with guilt that lessens the guilt of each one. This too may explain why the reporter was brought there.

Finally, there is the moment where he peers into the lens. The abyss of observation. But the fatal step into moral involvement has the appearance of a further form of inquiry: come see what I see.

Should we turn our eyes from what bad men with guns do? Refuse to see as they see? In one of the great works of Sixties Journalism, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which is about a reporter trying to think clearly in Vietnam, there is a passage specifically about this:

Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.
“You had to be able to look at anything.” This is the kind of reasoning on trial in my fable.

“Don’t look into the face of evil, you may be changed by it.” As far as I know, correspondents don’t have any kind of rule like that.

When I have told the story to people a first reaction is usuallly, “That was a crazy thing to do. He should never have agreed to go.” But what grounds would a professional news person have for dismissing the opportunity to see how the criminal snipers above Sarajevo operate? It’s part of the siege, often called the longest in the twentieth century, and the siege is responsible for the reporter’s presence in Bosnia to begin with. How can the snipers not be a part of the story?

To me it is plausible to imagine a Western journalist “going out,” because there are no clear grounds for not going. There are clear grounds for not taking bribes, for not making up quotes. But not for this.

Nor would the fruits of “snipers at work”—video footage, for example—be shunned by the global marketplace for news and documentary. On the contrary, a value would instantly be placed on it and once the uplink is made the video would start moving (and publicizing evil.)

Which might be exactly what a faction among the Bosnian Serb forces wanted.

There would be many reasons to go, if journalism alone, or let’s say professionalism in news, is permitted to supply the values. And if the marketplace does it, no problem. One goes, gets video of the snipers, gets a story, gets paid.

I believe there are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional “role” that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don’t trust journalists. They don’t trust that abyss.


Michael Herr, who like the late Hunter Thompson is a Sixties figure, said something in the part I quoted from him that crashes the ethical system of mainstream journalism, turning it upside down: You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. It was a lesson he learned from covering Vietnam.

That’s not the way most journalists think; they say pretty much the opposite. For example: We’re not responsible for what we saw in campaign 2004, only for what we did in reporting it. That’s common sense in the profession. Herr contradicts it. So, in a way, does my fable.

To wrap up, I give you Michael Getler in his current column for the Washington Post:

The ombudsman’s perch is an interesting spot from which to watch all this angst unfold. The attacks on the mainstream media, and the attempts to undermine them, are indeed escalating. More and more e-mails have a nasty, threatening, ideological tone.
From their perch, the ombudsmen of America all report this escalation, but they do not report much progress in the hunt for ideas that would explain it. I suggest that, when there is a moment, they look into the abyss of observation alone.

I somehow doubt that Kelly has given this sort of thing much thought. She's just trying to get ratings, I'd guess, and her reputation as a right wing TV host has given her entree to certain people. But she needs to think this through more carefully than she has.

This is a delicate time and it's not so much that nobody should ever interview Vladimir Putin or Alex Jones. Indeed, they should. But they need to understand what these people are doing and recognize that they are playing a role in the dissemination of their ideas and they have to find a way to deal with that. It's hard for the best of journalists to do.

This piece by Yashar Ali at Huffington Post show is isn't one of the best. They saw the unedited footage of Kelly's interview with President Putin. It isn't pretty.

In the full, unedited discussion, obtained by HuffPost, Kelly repeatedly fails to interrupt the Russian president while he rambles in his responses. She also asks Putin questions he can easily dispute.

The last question Kelly asked Putin, which was not aired, was startling in its pandering. “We have been here in St. Petersburg for about a week now. And virtually every person we have met on the street says what they respect about you is they feel that you have returned dignity to Russia, that you’ve returned Russia to a place of respect. You’ve been in the leadership of this country for 17 years now. Has it taken any sort of personal toll on you?”

A former CIA Russia analyst who spoke to HuffPost was taken aback by the last question Kelly asked. “I can’t begin to tell you what this did for Putin’s ego, and I wouldn’t put it past the Kremlin to use it for propaganda purposes. Putin’s obsession is, by his definition, making Russia great again. He’s obsessed with the idea that he has returned the country to what he sees as the glory days of the USSR. He feels that since the breakup of the USSR, Russia has too often ceded ground where it shouldn’t have. And he’s obsessed with people seeing him as the one who brought dignity back to Russia.”

...Kelly had just 20 minutes with the de-facto dictator. If a reporter interviews a subject for hours, he or she might ask more personal questions in order to get the subject to relax. But Kelly needed to hit key questions quickly.

She didn’t.