Welcome, 2016. This is going to be a big year.
Writing today in for The Guardian, George Monbiot was at it again with a column sporting a memorable title: “On climate change this government is indifferent to life, in love with death.” He was referencing David Cameron’s government, drawing a clawing comparison between the British handling of ISIS [“We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now,” Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament] with the government’s unsatisfying treatment of climate change [increasing subsidies for fossil fuels, tax breaks for extraction of oil/gas from the North Sea, and the curtailing of its carbon capture and storage competitions —something Monbiot highlights as even more necessary given the UK’s focus on the oil and gas as economic stimulus.] The crux of the argument: unclear understanding of how ISIS might come to harm Britain has not stopped clear action. Reams of scientific evidence regarding the consequences of climate change has spurred little action.
Sufficed to say, Monbiot is frustrated.
This latest article —one of many contributions Monbiot offers through his blog, column and website— slides into the growing volumes of meaningful (and well-intentioned) reporting on climate change. For those who accept the brash facts of our steadily warming (intensifying, increasingly variable) globe, this week’s talks in Paris have highlighted (and expanded) the journalistic contributions to understanding climate change and what it means for —or to— the average person.
Striking, however, is the tactic Monbiot employs to cajole readers —offering the grim and gory analogy of war as political statement in the article’s opening paragraphs, before resorting to a worn trope of “Whataboutism” —i.e. if you think ISIS is bad, well, what about…”
I don’t blame Monbiot for this. Should we blame journalism?
In 2007, a UNDP working paper on the media’s treatment of climate change was penned here —where I am currently— at the University of Oxford. Writing out of the Center for the Environment, the two researchers found “the press has been quite reformist in its portrayal of the needed action on climate change, when the scientific projections suggest the issue may call for truly revolutionary changes.” This was seven years ago.
Last year, a survey by Media Matters revealed broadcast news had increased their coverage of climate change from 129 minutes of coverage in 2013, to 159 minutes of coverage in 2014. The study also found a clear increase in climate change discussion on Sunday morning programs compared to nightly news. This change, the authors explained, was due to demand from U.S. Senators committing more of their own time to discuss issues related to the climate.
Interesting here: the number of minutes devoted by broadcast networks to climate change remains below 2009 levels, despite —one presumes— what is increasing clarity over the nature of the climate change risk.*
The media’s appetite for —and production of— climate change stories will continue to fluctuate over time, but the struggle for many journalists is to write compelling enough stories to attract attention, without inflating (and in some cases unseating) the central thesis responsible climate journalism ought assert: climate change stands as the most influential trends defining our relationship with the planet.
For some, like Andrew C. Revkin —who writes volumes for Dot Earth, his op-ed page at The New York Times— the internet provides space and opportunity to report out (and through) climate issues and their effect on natural resources and the environment. When this valuable endeavor was shifted from the news division to the op-ed pages in 2010 —to afford flexibility, certainly— it also carried a dangerous (and perhaps inaccurate) signal: climate change and our reporting of it is not strictly “news.”
Thus, the media has to assume even more responsibility both, in navigating fact vs. fiction landscapes (more prevalent in US coverage, and, as a September report highlights, in providing concrete examples of how we might find solutions to our global crisis.
The report, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, found that news coverage of political action (or the lack thereof) on climate change breeds significant levels of apathy in readers. The data shows a steady demand for consumers of climate change news —the “well-informed”— for “information about how to take action.” Positively, respondents also found new stories about “everyday heroes” taking initiatives and leadership around environmental issues particularly inspiring and exciting.
Returning to Monbiot (and in his defense) his wide array of stories cover the dramatic and the dry, and his subjects range from the level of individuals to the complex collective action problems around climate negotiation and governance. The intention —and it is a honorable one— is to fire warning shots over as many bows as possible.
To close on a positive (and cautionary) note, this week’s climate negotiations have clearly drawn the interest of international press, and media have been quick to respond with “highly localized” stories about the causes and consequences of climate change (highlighted for their positive impact on consumers in the CCPA report). The challenge, as always, is finding the editorial freedom to report these stories before and after we lose the specific gravity of this week’s events.
*Print newspapers have faired better than broadcast news, with increasing number of stories each year. The United Kingdom significantly outpaces the United States in volume of coverage.
This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.
Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.
Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.
If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.
Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.
But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.
According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.
Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.
These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.
“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”
But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:
Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.
But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:
While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.
While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.
Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments. Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.
In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.
While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.
This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:
There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.
A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.
Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site)
I can only hope Dominic Tierney’s book, The Right Way to Lose a War, is more persuasive and useful than his latest missive for The Atlantic. Published last week, Tierney’s 2,400 words, cribbing quotes from the usual political suspects, advanced a largely unenlightened and pulseless addition to current debates on America’s military machine.
His thesis, that America continues to lose wars because it is a “superpower in a more peaceful world,” offers little in the way of remarkable thinking. Not only because his assertions are staid, but also because they are not particularly original. Even the low-appetite consumer of political news will recognize the arguments below:
1) Modern warfare has shifted from interstate to intra-state conflicts.
2) Intra-state conflicts (i.e. civil wars, etc…) are messier, and waged in territories where Americans seed the “home-field advantage.”*
3) Overlapping American security commitments ensure each individual contest is a “limited war” for America, while it is a “total war” for those fighting America.
4) Americans don’t have doggedness to see out campaigns where the “prize on offer is less valuable” and where the consequences are less threatening than previous “trials of national survival like the (U.S) Civil War and World War II.”
In addition, Tierney’s “essay” is gummed up with over-used political euphemism. Terms like “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds,” ought now be banished from any political writing which aspires to be intrepid. To use these line-items, so bled of meaning, betrays reality and makes cogent analysis impossible. Tierney deploys them both in the same sentence.
But this clumsy writing allows Tierney to glue together his battalion of straw men, as they wait to be mowed down by a series of banal circularities (“Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out”) or overwrought assertions that gesture towards substance without isolating it (“Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality.”) These constructions might appear profound, but offer little to dwell upon. What I want to know is just why such quagmires present, whether there is sound justification for engaging in complex conflicts in the first place, and why —given the abysmal modern history Tierney sketches— armed conflict remains some measure of American “national vitality”? Maybe they are in his book. Maybe not.
One can almost picture him offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But one yearns for the best-read, historically-sensitive and most-curious in his class to raise their hand. “By whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?” they might ask.
America’s poor record in conflicts since WWII shouldn’t only prompt queries of American war-fighting mechanics (or strategy, for that matter), it should inspire meaningful debates about the principles —those bowling alley bumpers— that might guide reasons for war itself.
Where and when the United States decides to enter a conflict, there ought to be a considered and compelling justification. But that justification cannot and should not be pegged to whether America is likely to prevail. The question should be whether America (and the many other states of this world) can afford not to try.
As Tierney rightly points out, “[g]lobal warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.” But his globe appears to have only one superpower and a blank slate. Lost in the space between these sentences are these “few dozen” countries, home to a remarkable number of potential political “collateral damage.” And if America is ill-equipped to wage these wars, should the political leadership abandon the project entirely? I’m not sure what Tierney thinks, but I do know what he wrote: “It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict.”
I just wish he had tried.
*Given that the US has never been “home” to a major international war (save the attack on Pearl Harbor, which —at best— was an instigation and not permanent location of hostilities), there is no use speaking of “home-field advantage.” If Tierney is trying to suggest that this home-field advantage is gained by improving American service people’s knowledge of the “theatre of battle” then I would agree. But that isn’t an original contribution either.
Yesterday, Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, tore into foreign news coverage of April’s earthquake in Nepal.
The international media arrives in herds and hunts in packs. Everything has to conform to a preordained script: you parachute in and immediately find good visuals of ‘utter devastation’; recruit an English-speaking local who doesn’t need subtitling; trail the rescue teams with sniffer dogs you flew in with as they pull someone out alive, after 12 hours (the rescuers need their logos on TV as much as you need them in the picture).
His words are sharp, burnished —it seems— by his frustration at the sight of equipment-laden voyeurs who shadow disasters. However, Dixit loses his ferocity within paragraphs, his vigor replaced by a wariness that the story of Nepal —what the 7.8 earthquake wrought, other than a surplus of media— will be forgotten as the media cycle ticks stubbornly on.
Dixit is right, of course. We privilege those moments of crisis. These are the shortened seconds and sustained shock where journalistic imperative is often felt strongest. And yes, we left as quickly as we arrived.
But no one I met there, tasked with writing, filming, or photographing a disaster Dixit knows is “too big to comprehend” thought that Nepal (as a story) could be exhausted in a week. Most of us packed our bags because the economics of empathy —at least as expressed in the world of journalism— made it impossible to remain any longer.
There is nothing cheap about covering crisis: hotel rates spike, the demand curve for translators and fixers stretches skyward, access to electricity and Internet are expensive at best. These effects aren’t surprising. But they exist.
This means that every minute on the ground, those necessary moments exploring what Dixit calls “stereotypical coverage,” limits our ability to “catch a deeper understanding of what’s really happening.” You cover your bases first, then you start brushing the dust away. If you still have the finances to do it. But Dixit knows this. “There is a formula for news and it’s hard to file a story that doesn’t fit it” he writes.
And so his charges —well-intentioned and worth considering, seriously — struggle with same question that haunts the reporter: What are we (journalists) to do when the audience signals it’s ready to move on?
To care everywhere and always and to cover that everything in real time, is —in part— to report on nothing. Priorities must be set. Today, those priorities are increasingly shaped by scarcity and our growing knowledge of audience interests. As a result, we live at a time where “comprehensive coverage” can appear more aspirational than practical.
But even sustained attention, if you can arrange it, comes at a cost. If Nepal played home to a bumper crop of reporters for months on end, one might imagine Dixit writing stories of local fatigue: calls to leave the Nepalis alone as they rebuild.
Dixit is stuck with media coverage as necessary evil: the tedious, too-predictable peering eyes and pointed pens, effect (and affect) relief efforts. They write the “headlines [that] keep the crisis alive.”
None of this excuses any damage inflicted by journalism done wrong: the irresponsible reporting of fear-inducing rumors (i.e. “predicted” aftershocks, etc…) did much to erase any sense of security and stability just days after disaster. But Dixit struggles to differentiate the system of journalism from the journalists themselves.
I can’t speak for all the reporters who covered those first days in April, as the dusty afternoons stretched into unsettled evenings, as media teams sat bleary-eyed in the small hours of the morning trying to arrange logistics to cover the stories outside the bubble of Kathmandu, but I would bet many would have stayed longer and traded horror stories for those of revival and triumph.
The latter are more satisfying than stunning, more humble than haunting, and they are probably the ones Dixit wants to read. Most of us just didn’t get the time to write them.
We linger on the flesh.
The “we” in that sentence is the journalist, of course. But it’s also you — or the version of “you” that “we” might be writing for.
On my last day in Kathmandu, six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook 7,500* people to death in this small, landlocked country, I decided to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. This river slows to a trickle as it passes one of the country’s treasures, the Pashupatinath Temple.
I had been here before — my first day in Nepal — and had stood watching grieving family members cremate loved ones. Flecks of ash, particles of the once-living, floated across the warm winds, catching in the fine hairs of my arm. Acrid smoke stung the back of my dry throat.
Looking back, my notebook seems chaotic. The words are mere triggers for observations, fragments of sights each straining to fit a story I might tell.
Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They [the men tasked with cremating] drop the fire into the mouth first.
Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster encourages this kind of struggling. There is a searching for sense amid signals too broad and significant. The stories one longs to find, to record and mark as their own, seem instead to linger, trapped somewhere just beyond touch.
So I was there, my final afternoon, at the river. My sleepless body wired to failure on caffeine, the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. I wanted to understand, through mere presence, what grievous loss might feel like.
I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.
Some say death is supposed to tell us something about this life. That, perhaps, these stories of the living are only complete when coupled with stories of the lost. To avoid this would be like trying to trace a circle with only half the ink you need.
But I worry. I worry that true artifice lives in a misheld belief: that we might understand tragedy through broad and ill-timed questions asked of the agrieved.
We forget that questions are always easier. They are the hard-shelled armor we shelter behind. Questions are what make our world stop shaking. Not theirs.
I tried to remember this.
But my eyes drifted downstream to the scurried activity, the cooing of an amassing crowd, and the shimmer of light as it reflected off strange, new, naked bodies.
So I went.
I bled news from this flesh.
*The Times of India has reported casualties in excess of 8,000 (as of Friday, May 8, 2015)
For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Vietnam reporting on the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The product of this trip will be apparent in the days and weeks to come, but I wanted to mark an important anniversary today. On March 8, 1965, the US 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed on Red Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of land in Danang, Vietnam. The date is somewhat arbitrary, of course, as US “Advisors” had been humping through Vietnam since at least 1959, but the marine landing signaled a clear escalation in the use of American power —an escalation that would lead America and Vietnam into a decade-long cycle of violence.
For this generation (and my generation) Vietnam has become little more than an anecdote —a reference, often trite, used to highlight a government’s penchant for military and political mistakes (i.e. Iraq or Afghanistan). Over the past weeks, and with the help of countless sources, guides, historians, and witnesses of this history, I have tried to color in that crude outline of the war in Vietnam. Not just because anniversaries demand reflection, but because wars linger long after the final shots are fired. For the two men pictured below (and for millions more) the war continues to shape their lives.
In the coming weeks, I’ll try and explain why.
Amid a terrible week for journalism, The New York Times has confirmed David Carr, the newspaper’s media critic, has died. Carr was a critical voice in the journalism landscape, one that cut across medium and media offering candid, and sometimes harsh, takes on the latest, greatest and worst that our discipline generates. While the details of his death have not been confirmed, one fact is known: David Carr collapsed in The New York Times newsroom before being rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. For the many readers who awaited his byline each week, it is small consolation to know he left us doing what he (and we) loved most.
The Atavist, and Justin Peters, seem to be channeling HST (Hunter S. Thompson) by reporting from the edges of political sanity outside the RNC this week. Worth a read. For the colour (and the confusion) of it all.
This is my exam week (with all the chaos that ensues). But, during a much needed break, I settled in to an important (increasingly more important) conversation by Bob Garfield, host of On the Media (on WNYC) on the press, Trump, demogagery, and —perhaps most important of all— what journalists ought to consider (in approach and philosophy) as November creeps nearer. For some, Garfield’s call for a more aggressive and confrontational press might inflame. I personally worry that if the media engages Trump on his turf —usually vicious and sensational— the risk to our integrity only increases. But as the conversation continues (and in discussion with CNN’s Jake Tapper and the novelist Alexander Hemon) there is a hard center to Garfield’s position: truth, pursued doggedly and held against the trafficker of lies, is both necessary and missing from our current news cycle. Sure, access is important (Tapper, I think, handles this question with tact and reason, even if I’m not certain it isn’t just an elegant hedge), but access ought not outweigh the negative consequences of the untouched (and often hate-tainted) lies so often invoked by the presumptive candidate, Donald J. Trump. Agree or disagree. Your call. But listen. Please listen. There is more than enough noise out there re: the 2016 electoral race. Here, in this episode of On the Media, is the pulsing of a signal.
The demands of the academy can, at times, appear futile. This malaise is most acute when one’s ostensible “requirements” for continued professional development take them further away from the most inspiring avenues of their field. Reviewing literature for an upcoming essay, I came across a succinct (and edifying) critique leveled by international relations scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
Worried that IR had abdicated responsibility for developing applicable theories to the world’s changing events, with scholars opting for (needing to adopt) quicker, more reductive and less rigorous “hypothesis testing” (i.e. crunching numbers into regression analysis and reporting on any “miracles”), Walt and Mearsheimer explain how the IR’s incentives have changed:
By contrast, almost anyone with modest mathematical abilities can be taught the basic techniques of hypothesis testing and produce competent research. Similarly, teaching students about research design, process-tracing, and historical interpretation can help them do better qualitative research, but it will not turn someone lacking imagination into an accomplished theorist.
Moreover, because graduate programs are reducing the time students take to complete their degrees, teaching a set of tools that enable them to produce a competent thesis quickly has become the norm. Developing or refining theory is more time-consuming and riskier as it requires deeper immersion in the subject matter and the necessary flash of inspiration may never occur. Once a graduate program is committed to getting lots of PhD students out the door on schedule, it has a powerful incentive to emphasize simplis- tic hypothesis testing. In addition, piling on more and more methods courses (whether quantitative or qualitative) while compressing the time to degree inevitably crowds out courses on theory and on the substance of IR, leaving students ill-equipped to think in creative and fruitful ways about the field’s core issues.
Stasis is a terrifying thing. Thoughts?
A life’s work is not a series of stepping- stones, onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, in conversation with the elements. Looking back we see the wake we have left as only a brief glimmering trace on the waters.
David Whyte on “Ambition” in Consolations
As the new year brings a spate of personal resolutions, I found Whyte’s thoughts on meaningful life work particularly affecting.
In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The last few days have offered some incredible vistas —ancient wats, crumbling temples and visual proof of the tireless battle between preservation and natural decay.
One of our last expeditions was to the temple of Beng Mealea, or “lotus pond”, dated (experts believe) to the 12 century. Marking the start of the well-trodden path, however, was a subtle reminder of Cambodia’s more recent —and resonant— history.
The scale of the US bombing campaign of Cambodia, between October 4, 1965, and August 15, 1973, continues to astound. According to Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen (in a 2006 project for Yale’s Genocide Studies Program), 2,756,941 tons of ordinances were dropped in 230,516 flights on 113,716 sites. Citing official (then-newly declassified) documents, their report revealed the bombing campaign in Cambodia had begun nearly four years earlier than previously known, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. Owen and Kiernan, whose work was then published in The Walrus, write:
The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambo- dia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.
But history never abates.
According to MAG, or Mines Advisory Group, citing the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System, more than 64,000 people were injured or killed by land mines (and other unexploded ordinances) between 1979 and 2013. MAG’s project in Cambodia started in 1992, but the organization says more than 9,000 mined areas (i.e. regions of varying size) have yet to be cleared.
*Caveat: The US might not have the monopoly on responsibility (when it comes to land mines, for instance) but the consequences of Vietnam War era bombing have resurfaced throughout my reporting in Asia.*
Interesting conversation with writer/thinker/consultant, Venkatesh Rao —drifting from Silicon Valley as its own (well-developed) epistemic-sociological space to the responsibility of “bloggers” [def: writers without the mediating force of editors who know more about the audience] to keep the Internet a lively and productive intellectual space.
Click the image below to listen. [Via the always intriguing Longform Podcast]
With temperatures climbing above 33 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit), January marks the start of Cambodia’s tourist “high season.” In Siem Reap, the effect can be a human traffic jam as visitors —clumped into groups around their Turkish, Israeli, Korean, or Chinese tour guides— clamber over one another for pictures of the city’s stunning (and still crumbling) archeological sites. Mobile phones, GoPros, and too-pricey-for-amateur digital cameras glint in the afternoon sun.
Joining this pilgrimage today, I turned to my wife —who had traveled here years earlier— and asked if the surroundings brought back any memories. “You see so many images [of these historic sites] it is hard to know which ones are remembered, and which aren’t,” she said, glancing briefly at a name-tagged tour group, each member with a camera in hand.
Criticizing the shutterfly sightseer can seem dangerously hypocritical, of course. I, too, carry my camera at a finger’s reach. But watching other paying invaders queue for the chance to freeze their faces amidst these historic backgrounds, prompted reflection. Photographs are cherished for capturing the beauty of time and space. The image’s very existence was proof the photographer was there. So why the need to graft oneself into that landscape?
In 1859, the French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot, had been exploring the tributaries of the Mekong River in Siam (Thailand) when a series of wrong turns, as legend has it, led to his discovery* of the astounding ‘Walled City.’ Years earlier, Mouhot had travelled Europe studying the latest photographic techniques invented by Louis Daguerre. We might imagine an astonished Mouhot, surveying the towering Angkor, wishing he had brought a camera of his own.
Perhaps those times of fevered discovery have come to pass. Today, thanks to images supplied by our digital documentarians —from Instagram to Flickr, through Facebook and Twitter— we can travel wherever we would like with a click of a mouse (or the tap on a screen). And perhaps it is this actuality that now stirs, in today’s voyagers, a hunger to prove that actual people, and not only their imagination, can travel this world.
*As history would have it, said “discovery” is a little more complex, with Portuguese and Japanese explorers having (likely) visited Angkor Wat prior to Mount’s arrival. However, history has privileged Mouhot’s role in announcing Angkor Wat to Europe and the world.
Recently The New York Times reviewed “Stories I Tell Myself”, a memoir by Juan Thompson, son of the manic and mythic Hunter S. Thompson. As an avid Thompson fan (particularly in the early years of my journalistic life), I approach this particular tome with care: Thompson the younger was harmed greatly by the presence (and absence) of Hunter, and his scars from a childhood under duress demonstrate that creative energy —unbound— can leave splinters in lives lived close to such explosions. Thinking through my own relationship —albeit literary— with HST, I found an earlier post (written nearly five years ago) citing some valuable lessons Hunter offered to the next generation of journalists.
For a man often loathed by purists for his latitude with facts and their fictions, Hunter recognized the strictures and responsibilities of journalism-as-craft. You just had to look for the evidence. I’ve reposted that original article (in full) below.
Whittling away the travel hours this week, I found – and subsequently devoured (again) – Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. For those that haven’t read it, the novel tells the ‘fictional’ story of Paul Kemp; a vagabond journalist who, after covering beats in New York and Rome, sets upon Puerto Rico in search of profits and the exotic. The novel is quite short and interestingly it borders on the autobiographical. Indeed, both Paul Kemp and Hunter Thompson hail from ‘small-town’ America, express a propensity for embracing escapism and the drink; and each hold an unsettled view of their own place in the world.
Importantly, this short book contains a critical lesson for aspiring journalists or writers alike. While discussing satisfaction in life with a nubile and naïve lover (companion to his ‘man of the times’ newspaper colleague), Kemp mutters that, “Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong.” For Kemp, and by extension Thompson, a journalist should foremost be concerned with the clarity of their message. For Kemp, these billowy words are not deft enough.
While authenticity and accuracy are surely comparable pillars of any journalistic code, the ability to convey facts, stories and events in a manner clear to all readers, should not be overlooked. For Kemp, the issue with Happy or Love is not that they are vacant of meaning, but merely that they are imprecise (in fact they mean too many things). These words are the layperson’s vernacular of the everyday which, while intentioned enough for random conversation, fails to impart the specifics needed when written. The critique hinges on this relativity (that happy must have an antithesis, yes (sadness) but that it is also a function of degree (happier today than yesterday etc…). According to Kemp, it is the “priest or the fool [who] use them (these words) with any confidence.”
In the end, if these relative descriptors are not made viciously clear, the value of theses words is diminished and the accuracy of the story is reduced. If we consider that the journalist–reader relationship is one of trust, earned through the cagey application of razor sharp nouns and verbs, then any sacrifice relating to the language used will leave the reader with doubt – potentially one that will linger.
For aspiring writers the world over (and I count myself within this group) our lives will always be an expedition to find the perfect collection of letters, lest our own language take away from the power of our thought.
I arrived in the United Kingdom —the first flight into Heathrow that day— on a cool (early) morning in late September. My destination, two suitcases in hand, was the town of Oxford, and my new home at the Department of Politics and International Relations.
As many readers will know, I’ve worked as a journalist for the last five years —a period which has seen stories (or the search for stories) take me from the jungles of Ecuador to the temblor-crumbled streets of Nepal. Between these assignments and adventures, like message heard in static, was a deepening interest among a suite of issues both increasingly relevant and difficult to tackle. One of these was the apparent rise in insurgent (or “terrorist”) groups in West Africa.
For me, this topic was being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change were seeding the grounds for an unwanted harvest. Moreover, the topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.
My return to the academy has been tricky. One of journalism’s great traits is its vitality —its steady, often straining, pulse that signals to readers that this world is alive. But my impatience is mitigated by a steadily increasing gravity in purpose. By this, I really mean a growing confidence in my own ability to identify (and commit) to a story I believe will demand tellers for the rest of my life’s years.
And today, re-checking the The New York Times site before signing off, I caught the following headline:
The piece, strongly reported by Carlotta Gall, makes clear a range of growing security concerns about the expansion and sustainability of insurgent groups across West and North Africa. It might not be a “scoop” in the traditional sense, but it ought to be read as a clarion call. The editors, deciding to put the piece on A1 (front page) ostensibly felt the same.
For now, however, I’ll leave the story link here for readers to explore on their own. And I will be addressing particular conclusions/assumptions/suggestions of this in an upcoming series of posts. In these upcoming installments, I will outline my present work —its potential value and its weaknesses, in the hopes of engaging readers to comment and converse. Above all, this is a (re-)commitment to this online web space so often ignored amid the noisy chambers of the internet.
So, finally, this site —which has served as home for more than four years— might soon shift to meet my current demands, and will ideally serve as a platform to stimulate a new set of conversations. These are tricky conversations to begin, but essential conversations to attempt. I’m also keen to experiment with new ways to engage with readers (and their significant questions). And, of course, it’s 2016. So we better get started.