The Tangled Web
As a journalist who has spent seven years reporting on war and conflict in the field, I have often butted heads with Washington-based analysts and editors who never seem to leave their offices. In his recent feature [“Sign of the Times,” Report, May], James Harkin touches on the idea that we should be wary of information that comes from those who have never reported from the regions they describe. This should be shouted from the rooftops. For policymakers and journalists alike, the dissonance between on-the-ground and online reporting is of genuine and abiding concern.
War is a deeply confusing, brutally real, but also unreal place in which to find yourself gathering information. Alertness in such circumstances is anything but straightforward; as a result, reporters tend to get details wrong or misunderstand volatile situations. This is neither a criticism nor a moral judgment—if war came to my doorstep, I wouldn’t know up from down. It is incredible that people living in conflict regions have the time or wherewithal to speak to reporters at all.
Because of this increased risk of error, reporters who are not physically present have an even greater responsibility to attempt to comprehend the conditions of such conflicts. As funding for foreign reporting continues to be cut, and domestic political drama takes precedence in the news, it has become normal for media outlets to publish observations from opaquely funded, think-tank-affiliated Twitter personalities rather than the work of reporters. It has also become normal for the mistakes of celebrity journalists to be swept under the rug.
I believe the media can do better. And I don’t think the solution is to exclude people who report on wars from outside war zones—on the contrary, I think their work is often necessary. But reporters must ultimately serve those interested in knowing more about the world, rather than those who award journalism prizes. Accuracy is the goal. Everything else is a bonus.
Harkin blames “internet-led reporting” for the downfall of the Caliphate podcast. This analysis is incomplete. Internet-led reporting, more precisely known as open-source intelligence (OSINT), is not just about the gathering and reporting of facts, but also involves ensuring that those facts stand up to scrutiny and can be verified by other sources.
Harkin himself notes early in the piece that “a simple Google search would have revealed that the method of execution Chaudhry described—stabbing a person through the heart—was extremely rare in Islamic State–occupied Syria and Iraq.” This is one of the fundamentals of open-source reporting: ensuring the facts are plausible and looking for supplementary sources—satellite imagery, online records, etc.—without which no OSINT investigation is complete. The advent of new ways of gathering information does not in any way mean that we can do away with fact-checking in our news-gathering practices.
Rukmini Callimachi’s tendency to play fast and loose with the facts preceded her foray into “internet-led reporting.” As Harkin writes, she seemed incapable of putting a basic timeline together in the case of Marcin Suder. Putting her in charge of a series such as this without adequate oversight was clearly an error at the level of management—this is the real issue at the heart of the Caliphate fiasco, not the internet.
The Fan in Me
In the Seventies, I regularly attended Norman Raeben’s painting class at Carnegie Hall, the same class Sam Sussman describes as the one in which his mother met Bob Dylan [“The Silent Type,” Memoir, May]. I remember clearly the day I entered the studio to find Norman chatting with Dylan, then a potential new student. This startled me for two reasons—the first being that we rarely got new students, the second being that this was Bob Dylan! Norman’s class was never publicly advertised; only a recommendation from an existing student could get you in. How Dylan learned of us at all remains a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, there he was. Norman talked to Dylan the way he talked to any other prospect, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a veritable icon stood before him. I still don’t know whether he had any idea who Dylan was. To Norman, he may have been just another pair of ears. So Dylan took his place at one of the easels, and the rest of us pretended he was nobody special. We smiled when Norman called him an idiot, and when he suggested it was Dylan’s turn to go get coffee for the group.
Norman’s teaching style alternated between laudatory and deprecating. One day we’d shine and he’d congratulate us; the next, he’d make public examples of our failures. Dylan lasted only a few months. I stayed for seven years, other students longer than that. Norman was our guru; we soaked up as much of him as we could. I have read that Dylan, too, found his time in the class meaningful, and that it strongly influenced his thinking.
His brief presence in our class became a story we told and retold. This was our brush with celebrity, but in reality we were all just acolytes, Dylan included. We shared a desire not only to make art that was important, but to become important through our art. At least one of us succeeded.