David Enders is the author of Baghdad Bulletin, an account of his reporting on the American occupation of Iraq. He has reported and produced from the Middle East, Europe and the US for outlets ranging from Al Jazeera English’s People and Power to The Nation, The New York Times and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
Dia: How are systems of oppression connected to the work you do as a journalist?
Dave: It is intimately, connected, it’s something that I was questioning, even before I started my career. Even before I started to work in the Middle East. I see systems of oppression, you know, within journalism and then within like the larger world, right?
In college, I worked at the Michigan Daily, which is a paper that has a long history of doing very good journalism and supporting college students from University of Michigan. We were give opportunities to cover a range of things, September 11th, the invasion of the Afghan-Pakistani Border, national news stories. I mean there was even a Michigan Daily reporter in Cuba during the revolution.
It is the only paper in the whole state that still publishes five days a week, so it’s a launch pad for a lot of careers in journalism. But, we didn’t get paid practically anything. And so as, so you know, it wasn’t long before some of us noticed that there was a certain type of student who was able to afford to bust their ass for free, and get to all the places where the stories were.
I think we had, oh god, one African American woman who was working on the news desk. This was 2001, when the affirmative action trials were going to the Supreme Court, the news editor at the time actually said it was a conflict of interest for a Black student to cover it.
Yeah, so there is that.
Dia: Can you talk to me a little bit about how the structure of how journalism is imperialist or colonialist by nature.
Dave: The euphemism is, “target an American audience.”
Especially when we are talking about race or power or we’re invading and bombing and right. Most Americans don’t realize we’ve invaded Lebanon three times. It almost passes without the batting of an eyelash every time we put troops into Syria. I mean it’s rare that there’s a moment where we invade a country or bomb a country that we haven’t invaded or bombed before. Journalism creates very a-historical narratives; it can often be focused in the moment without a framework or context. I have to every moment of every day make sure that I don’t engage or fall into these traps and tropes. It’s a constant practice, a constant process of analysis and asking questions.
The number of correspondents that actually speak the language the are covering is extremely low.
And, It starts in how we are educated. We are never asked to address our bias, we never had a conversation or analyzed about why our news editor claimed it was a conflict of interest for a black student to cover the affirmative action trials and not a white dude.
The point of view is skewed, like people believing that were in Iraq to do humanitarian good, the lack of incentive to dig around in the economic reasons or to follow money or interrogate power. So often journalists spend time with people that speak English, not on the ground, not in the streets. They are speaking with the elite and the point of the elite is to maintain power. So what gets reported is all the ways to maintain power for the elite, the story ultimately pushes that agenda. We can miss a lot, whether intentionally or through habit. Sources that are local or native speaking are often discarded.
Going back to the Abu Ghraib photos. Those were released by CBS in the spring of 2004. In November of 2003, I was trying to get people to take a story about this. I didn’t have photos. What I had was five dozen interviews with Iraqis that all described the same thing because I was going around the country and interviewing people as they were released from the U.S. detention system. We started to notice that they’re all telling the same stories.” Normally, from a journalistic standpoint, that’s a rigorous, that’s good work. I brought it to major outlets; I even went to ABC. But I got told, “Iraqis lie. We’re not interested.” The rule is – you have two off the record sources or three you can run with it. That’s legit. And yet, in this case, that wasn’t enough, five brown skin sources were not enough. But violence pornography and someone on the US side leaking these photos, that’s works.
Dia: So there is only a certain voice that is acceptable?
Dave: And, I think that’s a kind of a perfect example.
Dia: I: What questions are you asking?
Dave: I mean it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like how do we stop it? How do we do it differently? So, an example, right? NPR just hired its new correspondent here in Beirut. Her name is Ruth Sherlock. She’s a lovely woman. She’s twenty nine, she’s British, she doesn’t fucking speak a word of Arabic, and there were any number of totally capable, totally qualified Arab Americans, Lebanese, any like any number of people who can do this job without a translator, okay. Like NPR can save a ton of money just on that. This their second hire in a row for this position that’s a British woman. I mean, I have heard people say, “We can’t use an Arab reporter because we can’t trust them.”
We can’t trust them to be objective… that’s still something that journalists say. Objectivity. Journalistic objectivity.
Dia: Because American and British people are completely objective?
Dave: It’s just not acknowledged. It just doesn’t even come up and being willing to bring this up can get you ostracized. Nobody is going to fucking say it out loud because then they’ll never get a job again.
Dia: So do you think that there is a way to change this?
Dave: As twenty-two year old I said, “Okay, let’s have Iraqis reporting on Iraq. Let’s promote this.” And my naivety said, “okay we’re going to be a part of this so that when our colleagues in the established press say oh you can’t trust these people you say no.” For me it came out of a sense of solidarity. One thing that struck me in college in Beirut, there was a handful of American students and professors at the American university who – I was protesting in the U.S. before I left and when I got to Lebanon there were of course protests all the time. When the Lebanese would go out and protest in front of the British or American embassies, they’d get hit with water canons, they’d get beat down by the police and no one really gave a shit. So there were about a dozen of us who started going out and all of a sudden the police in front of the American embassy didn’t know what the hell to do when there were a dozen Americans holding their passports up and saying, “no, us too. We’re not down with this.” As a student leaving college I thought maybe there’s a way to be in solidarity. So a group of five Brits and me go to Bagdad and start a publication in concert with a bunch of Iraqis with the idea of “you can’t say that they’re full of shit because we’re standing here with them, too.”
That opened up other lines of self-examination and questioning, but you know, at that point that was what I saw as the best way to address it. We have to hope that if enough of us stand up; if us keep fighting something’s got to give. The idea is for a populous or journalists to make it very difficult for the power structures to continue the same behavior to keep asking questions, to keep poking and continuing to make it hard for them to lie and to oppress.