Trust yourself: Thoughts on writing and journalism 1


Someone recently accused me of paternalism and of being in need of an education in journalism. Introspection is good; writing is better. Something else happened recently: Someone I counted as an acquaintance and from-time-to-time drinking buddy had completed a book about to be published that I wanted to review. Then he wrote something so offensive on Facebook I couldn’t bring myself to review it. It makes me think, I’d interview a commander of ISIS if presented with the opportunity, but I won’t interview someone far less extreme, just because I know him and expected more of him. How does one balance the personal and the professional? That I’m not sure of, but here are some other observations.

Trusting yourself in writing: Some people seem to do endless re-writing. Editing goes on forever. The product is never delivered. And even if it is delivered it is a disaster. Other people seem to submit copy that is full of jargon, endless run on sentences, garbled paragraphs, badly organized and boring. Let’s admit that being a good writer is primarily a natural instinct, like having an eye for photography. Being a good writer also requires working on one’s craft. Good writers are often lazy because their skill is natural. So they have to sharpen it through reading other writers they admire. Admiring other writers’ craft is important, whether it is Hunter S. Thompson, or Thomas Friedman. It is important in writing and journalism to join in the dialectic of the audience you are writing for. That means elevating writing, not dumbing it down. Some newspaper purposely dumb down writing and working within the constraint may not be writer’s fault. But if one has the license to use copious elegant words without hubris but with faultless elocution, do so. One has to trust themselves when to “unleash” the inner beast, the savage instinct to be honest from time to time, and when to go about their task in a workmanlike manner.

Patrick Henry speaking to the Virginia Convention in 1775

Patrick Henry speaking to the Virginia Convention in 1775

Sources, notes, recording, writing: What I find works well for an article is to use some skills that come from an academic discipline. This is particularly true in hunting down sources. We are gifted today with an internet resource that allows us to search thousands o books on Google; to look through old photo archives, to search newspapers. But what is extraordinary is how lazy many aspiring journalists are. I asked interns once to help with an article on social media and conflict, particularly looking at Israel’s ‘hasbara’ industry. “We can’t find much,” was the reply. I asked once to look into articles on the olive harvest in the Middle East. It was a mystery to them. But a cursory look reveals videos of how to trim olive trees; experts readily available in California to identify the age of trees, historical works about ‘planting and conflict’ in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It just takes a nose for searching with the right key words.   Most people don’t even bother.

One needs to take copious notes. John McPhee in a recent article talked about recording interviews and not trusting memory. There’s nothing wrong with recording interviews, especially for contentious subjects in which one may be accused later of lying by politicians who don’t want to be caught in a scandalous statement.

Some people think notepads and computers get in the way. McPhee addressed this issue also, saying sometimes he would pretend to scribble notes during interviews even when he knew the interviewee was saying nothing of importance. That’s true. I interviewed the Israeli ambassador to Russia once and after a few minutes she said “let’s not waste our time, I worked in journalism, you will only use one sentence from this interview.” That happened to be true.

But if you can type up the interview as you conduct it, say because it takes place in the office, or at a coffee shop or another convenient location, why not type as the person talks. This means you’ve got to have a quick typing speed (mine is about 80 words per minute, average is 41).

The problem with recording an interview without taking notes or typing it simultaneously is that the lie of “I can concentrate on them” is revealed. Yes, you can concentrate on the subject. Maybe it relaxes them. But then you have this hour of tape you have to transcribe. Maybe you want to waste all this time. But maybe if you had your notes and it was already typed that would make your life easier. Why work hard when you can work smart?

The scam of “I concentrate more on them” is revealed in that, without organized notes or a computer with existing prompts for questions typed up beforehand, you could do an hour or so of chit-chat and never have any real meat at the end. In the end it is the “killer quotes” that you need to frame your article around. Better to write them down as they come up.

Do your background research: The worst journalists and the worst articles are those that have no perspective and are forever reinventing the wheel. You’re doing an article on the harm done to olive trees by “Jewish extremists in the West bank.” Well let’s find out how many trees there are in total. What does it mean if 3,000 trees are uprooted. Is that a lot. Is it more than last year or ten years ago. Do your background research so you can ask pertinent questions. If they are shooting “Eichmann in Jerusalem” then if you haven’t read the book or are not familiar with the controversy around it, can you begin to ask whether the new movie will address the controversy. If you are interviewing a new member of parliament for the communist party, try to find out what legacy they are fulfilling, whose shoes they are filling. When they drop names, you need to be familiar with them.



Many journalists, relying on press releases, fixers and guides will be taken to the same people who are always interviewed. In a sense the journalist stops playing the role of communicating a story and just re-packages material for interest groups. The sad part is the journalists give the material an imprimatur of truth now and in that sense the original propaganda is “laundered” to become “fact.” It isn’t that the journalist’s job is to necessarily ferret out “truth”, but not being informed allows naivety to become authority.

Endless curiosity: There are two types of bad journalists; those who are overly biased and those who are not curious and don’t even like the people they interview. One can’t always be interested in everything. But sometimes a little suspension of disbelief is necessary, benefit of the doubt, and accepting people for who they are. A lot of articles are structured in such a way that there is one thing the article tries to convey and then reactions by the “other side.” Inevitably the “other side” gets shafted in this. It might almost be more wise to not even include them, than to pretend to have included them in order to have “balance”.

People are interesting. A lot of writers forget why they became writers in the first place, and have no interest in the things they cover. Why is that? Isn’t a rancher as interesting as a sewage worker. In this business in the Middle East one is presented with extreme cases. But why not give them a fair shake. Stone throwing Palestinian youth are as interesting and have as good a reason for what they do as the brigade commander of an Israeli army unit. In the end these are all people. One writer referred to Israeli Border Police as “thuggish.” Are they thuggish? Did he writer do their job for a week? Did the writer ask if he would like to do their job for $100 a month for three years? Puts thuggish in another perspective, maybe. Sometimes one has to be willing to understand the ‘other’ and have compassion in their writing, not just dismiss those who aren’t on their political wavelength or from their community as “bad.”

Paternalism, advocacy and giving the voice to the weak: I told someone that it was important to give voice to the weak and was called a paternalist. It seems there is a difference. Some journalists truly find “natives” exotic and don’t treat them as people, but as a living museum. One sees this when one finds journalists talking about “tribes” and “clans.” Moroccan Jews are “clannish” while German Jews aren’t. That’s nonsense. We are all clannish.

But giving the weak voice is a different issue. Thai workers in the UAE subjected to inhumane working conditions and raped by capricious and cruel employers can’t write an oped at a newspaper. To communicate their life is a commendable role. To help just one person makes everything worthwhile. The basis of much of modern journalism, from the writers progressive era to the man who said it was the duty to “speak truth to power” have illustrated that giving a voice to the weak is essential. The powerful have their own influences to get their message out their, they can buy advertising time, they use corrupt methods to influence media anyway; so one can report on the non-powerful and feel perfectly legitimate.

Ahmed Tibi and I (with green bag) dodging stun grenades in Shuafat

Ahmed Tibi and I (with green bag) dodging stun grenades in Shuafat

Go to the places where the story is:   There are writers out there who one feels have never entered the very places they supposedly write about. One has to smell the coffee in the hut and see the color of the drapes in the governor’s office to understand the story. Real writers are with the people they cover. One wants to smell the tear gas, and see wreckage after a disaster. Fear has to be overcome. Journalists have a variety of covers to go where others cannot. They can feign being part of the group. They can dress like the surroundings. Or they can do the opposite and wear a press sticker and dress the diametric opposite. Both will help protect them. Someone told me once that a certain area is dangerous. But to who? If the people want someone to tell their story it won’t be dangerous but welcoming. In the opposite it can be dangerous when one is seen as an enemy. You don’t want to be photographing in a red light district and end up taking pictures of ‘johns’ and drug dealers. So you have to think about how to cover a story. The minute the note pad or camera emerges, your cover as “one of a crowd” can transform the scene. People like to act for the camera. Or they stop talking. A happy medium can be found. A good amount of listening is a good thing. Sitting in a barber shop, having a long coffee, waiting in line. And then you can decide when the moment is right to ask questions, to reveal your job. Or one can play it the other way and aggressively assert your authority as a journalist, as if acting, to get the most information the fastest.

Palestinian women at a checkpoint;  (Seth J. Frantzman)

Palestinian women at a checkpoint; (Seth J. Frantzman)

Details: Pay attention to a person’s shoes, their cigarette brand, how the words roll off their tongue. Details add truth to a story and make it accessible. It’s interesting that Saddam Hussein liked Johnny Walker Black. There are terms for people who are fat, tall, rotund, lanky; all of them help set the scene. Muslim women might be wearing hijab; but is it brightly colored, are their jeans tight? But make sure you get the details right. Is that the smell of tear gas. Are those stun grenades.   Is it an SUV or a UTV, a glock 9mm or a .45. Is the uniform regulation or have they cobbled it together with a bunch of other gear that is non-normative? Are the children starving or emaciated?

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