Anthony Shadid: Questions a Reporter Asks Himself

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Shadid. (60 minutes, 36 mb mp3)

I find it almost painful to come to the States… I tell you, part of me is convinced that the legacy of this war is that Americans come away thinking we figured out how to win wars like this. If there’s a worse lesson you could take away from it, I’m willing to hear it, but I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. To my mind the society has been destroyed at some level. Is it going to turn out alright, in 10 years? Or 20 years? Or 30 years? You know, it may. It doesn’t feel that way to me right now. It feels as precarious, as dangerous, as unsettled as it ever has. In fact, it reminds me of 2003 in some ways. There was an incredible amount arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.

Anthony Shadid in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 22, 2010.

Anthony Shadid won his second Pulitzer Prize this spring for his unusual Washington Post pieces from Iraq — personal horror stories, most of them, about the war’s toxic effects on ordinary Iraqis. Underlying our conversation is an awkward question: was anybody reading him?

Shadid is a natural storyteller whose Oklahoma boyhood and Lebanese family roots add his own humanity to big-time journalism. He has an eye for gentle details of Arab social life. “Lunch for a stranger, any stranger, was requisite” is a typical Shadid aside in print. He is the rarity among American reporters in Iraq who lets himself and his readers feel the pain of plain Arabs.

“When you’re in Baghdad,” he says, “it’s almost overwhelming, the sense that this society has been broken… Everyone you meet there has lost a relative or a friend, every single person. When you think about the scope of the bloodshed, it’s breathtaking. The war is over, but it’s not over. It’s legacy is not over… We won’t know for a generation what we’ve done to Iraq, and that’s putting it optimistically.”

Anthony Shadid is in transit this Spring through Cambridge, Massachusetts where he and his wife Nada Bakri, also a Times correspondent, have just delivered their first child. Shadid is talking — fast! — here about the vicious circle of war; about the news industry’s role in exoticizing, then dehumanizing the Middle East; about his hero Ryszard Kapuscinski, who famously mixed fact and fiction; about Shadid’s own switch late last year from the Washington Post to the New York Times, for which he’ll be writing again soon from Baghdad. Will the Times indulge Anthony Shadid, and us, in his long, lingering village sagas? He worries a bit about being the last survivor of a golden age of foreign correspondence. Is there room for ambition in the newspaper game? Are the readers still there? He has the temerity to dismiss objectivity as an absurd standard in journalism. “I’ve always found it more interesting,” he says, “to imagine that I’m out there to answer a question I’ve been asking myself.”

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  • Potter

    This was an interesting conversation. First I had no idea that Anthony Shadid is moving over to the New York Times. I hope that it is a good move for both. Yet again I had a thought and Chris comes in with the question- about Ethan Bronner and his coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bronner think does a pretty good job for the Israeli side and tries hard to be straight down the middle fair to both sides but I imagine that this is really a burden on him and that it would be better if he had a companion at least of his stature and experience covering the other side, the Palestinian side. At this point this is exactly, to my mind , what is needed: Shadid’s storytelling for the Arab side so that we can “see more clearly”.

    I had to look up Mulla Nadhim- I have tuned out of the Iraq story. Now I remember.

    I suppose if we “leave” Iraq with the notion of respecting the results of the ballot box, we will have done a lot, done one good thing after all traumatizing and brutalizing ( on top of and already traumatized and brutalized population under Saddam). But that might take some learning the hard way. Reading Thucydides, though it’s all there, doesn’t do much because the learning – to stay clear of hurting one another and oneself- only comes from suffering, if it comes. I don’t know what it is about us humans, we have to go through it over and again.

    I do read those detailed stories occasionally and they mean so much more than the short ones. I don’t read them often but when one nabs me I am very grateful for the reporting. I hope this is not a luxury we are losing.

    I urge a listen to this 4+ minute radio interview with Sinaan Antoon, professor of Arabic Literature at NYU- about the reality of Iraqi life now- (from “The World” radio program April 27th 2010)- how destroyed Iraqi society is now. This is what I hear from Anthony Shadid saying in this interview.

    And thank you for the mp3 link on this page.