The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson on freelancers, Edward Snowden and the Arab Spring

Jon Lee Anderson is one of the world’s leading war correspondents. Currently working for The New Yorker, he has covered conflicts in Syria, Libya and Ireland over the course of his 30-year career. Anderson recently delivered an address to the School of Journalism at Paris’ Sciences Po university, in which he tackled issues ranging from the risks of freelance conflict reporting, to the murder of his friend James Foley, the perils of social media, and the role of Edward Snowden: “[He] is a spy, he’s not a journalist”.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | September 8, 2014

The World Editors Forum’s Nick Toner was in the audience at Anderson’s Sciences Po lecture and he curated these highlights from the speech.

On the role of journalism as a civic duty

  • “Without getting too self-righteous…I think that if you choose journalism as a path it’s essential to consider yourself ultimately as a public servant in a sense. If you’re going to write about basketball, maybe a little bit less. But if you’re writing about politics, particularly global politics and especially about conflict – which is always a part of this world – then the duty is much more pronounced.”
  • “The role of the journalist is now on the one hand more exalted, unique and precarious than ever, particularly for those who choose to go abroad and report on an increasingly hostile world – and again, it’s not only about our profession. In many cases it’s the colour of your skin, the colour of your eyes, where you come from. That makes you killable.”

On James Foley

  • “I knew Jim Foley, he was a friend of mine, and I’m amongst the people that refused to watch the video because I don’t want to remember a friend and a colleague as he died, but as he lived. The last time we saw each other was on the border with the rebel-held part of Syria, in Turkey. We had a long conversation about the dangers there and whether it was wise to go back in. Jim had spent the last two weeks trying to rescue two other journalists, who had been kidnapped, who fortunately were rescued.”
  •  “Our last exchange – I found it in my inbox, in my computer, the other day. He was expressing his concern about a third journalist who had gone missing in Syria. He was wondering how that person’s parents were feeling. The point I make isn’t intentionally to cast a sombre note because I think more than anything else this has been coming for a long time. He isn’t the first journalist to be killed – it’s become almost a sport in parts of the world. He’s not the first to die having his head cut off in front of a camera, Daniel Pearl was the first in 2002, which somehow set in motion this horrific trend. It’s a cautionary – and useful I think – milestone to keep in mind because it changes everything.”

On the Arab Spring

  • “I had no choice but to throw myself into it, because of my knowledge of some of the places and the fact that I understood the conflict. So I ended up going to Libya in February (2011), and it dominated most of that year for me, the Libyan revolt and NATO’s intervention. And then 2012 was Syria, and again, I spent most of [the year] in Syria. Because I couldn’t stomach it any more – I started losing quite a few friends – Jim Foley is merely the latest, I think I’ve lost seven friends in the last three years. As it’s become increasingly bloody, it’s sometimes hard to stomach, so I went off and I did a couple of stories like the kind I like to do.”

On social media

  • “In the last few years – with the advent of social media – I have had to face the challenge of how much do I [use] Twitter, because my stories require a kind of secrecy, a lot of diplomacy…I very often I’m dealing with difficult people. I don’t know want them to know what I’m thinking. I never misrepresent myself, I’m who I am – I never lie, but you need that necessarily – like you do in diplomacy, like you do in government – you need a certain amount of tact. You need nuance. You need silence.”
  • “I think it’s good advice for Western reporters to [not], or any reporters, reveal too much about themselves in a world in which everyone is trying to use you, close you down, and maybe, eventually, try to find a way to victimise you. It’s dangerous, it’s extremely dangerous, so you must be professional – you must be as professional as possible. That means keeping your personal life personal, which has to almost be retaught to this generation.”

On algorithms and news values

  • “If we allow our newspapers or media to be formed exclusively by algorithms, and by editors who say: “Look, we’ve got to put a model on the cover otherwise nobody will buy the magazine, so put some sexy woman on the cover or an actor even though we’re trying to be a serious magazine”, or they say to you: “Nobody’s interested in Latin America now, nobody’s interested in Africa now”. How many times have I heard that in my career? Entire regions of the world just whacked off for periods of years because they’re not really interesting or because they don’t sell.”

On the rise of freelancers, especially in Libya

  • “Personally I wasn’t too bothered by it, it was part of the pandemonium that that place [Libya] was. I’ve always remembered what it was like to be 25 and starting out myself, so most of us older journalists took these youngsters under our wing.”
  • “Here was a young generation of people who had no way to measure danger, who were having to live for the first time, trying to make sense out of it, with little money, sharing rooms, making mistakes, but trying to do the best they could, and I think they deserve support. Eight or ten maybe of that generation – which I call the Tahrir Square generation – are now very seasoned, and have been through a lot. It’s been a bloody, horrible three and a half years, and some of them have got proper media jobs, and have also covered Syria, and so on. They’re out there. Many of them have learned Arabic, the first time a generation of foreign correspondents has actually taken the care to learn Arabic.”
  • “The established media once paid expenses to people but no longer do, Spain is particularly egregious. There’s a lot of Spaniards out there now…youngsters are doing it on a wing and a prayer, for nothing…they can be paid as little as 15 Euros for a piece from sombeody.”
  • “Yes, there are a lot of freelancers. Yes, they’re unprotected. It’s a problem. There is a consensus amongst editors – it’s an unspoken consensus amongst certain media, serious media – not to hire young journalists to go into dangerous places knowing that they get in trouble. Partly because of the responsibility that falls on the media, and a recognition of the situation they’re in. It’s a really difficult time and there’s a lot out there. Far too much of what we now see as news is in fact coming from, basically, kids without a lot of experience, with a lot of bravery, and without a lot of money.”

On Edward Snowden, cybersecurity and surveillance

  • Edward Snowden is a spy, he’s not a journalist. I think that’s how he defines himself. I think like a lot of people I’ve had an assumption that there are times and places where you’re surveilled, even in the West. I don’t have anything to hide. Therefore if I am surveilled as part of some kind of blanket approach I’m not really bothered by it because I deal with the real world, and I’m aware of the real stuff out there because I’ve seen their faces, I’ve been abducted, I’ve been shot at, things have happened to me – I know what these people are like. I believe that some surveillance is necessary, myself, in the real world, not the kind of imaginary world in which we all sit around in a circle and sing Kumbiyah.”

Picture: The New Yorker 

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