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Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

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Read: Q & As

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Audio: Have a Listen

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Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

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Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

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Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

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The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

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Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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October 8, 2004

Authorized Knower: Farnaz Fassihi's Accidental Baghdad Dispatch

"The e-mail, which has no title, conveyed something elusive: not 'new' information about Iraq (there was none) or a new emotion, but a sense of the situation there that had not come through in other kinds of accounts, at least those by journalists."

“Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference,” she wrote. “Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those reasons.”

Like many others who have noted it, I find fascinating the tale of the wayward e-mail written by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi, 31, who has been stationed in Baghdad.

It was supposed to go to a circle of friends, but then got forwarded and forwarded until it reached the Web (here, among other places), and became what it was never intended to be— a public document. The fact that she wrote it became an item of news, and there were suggestions she might be taken off the beat as a result.

The e-mail is about 1,400 words— the length of two op ed pieces. Part of it is Fassihi telling her friends what life is like for her:

I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip…

The other part of it is her assessment of where the struggle stands:

One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it’s hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can’t be put back into a bottle.

Neither can Fasssihi’s note be put back into her network. “This was a private correspondence that has been thrust into the public domain without my consent,” she wrote to Editor and Publisher.

That’s true and one must treat her as entirely blameless. But whereas we often feel guilty reading someone’s private correspondence when it becomes public (while simultaneously enjoying what was not intended to be ours) I doubt many readers have that half-guilty reaction to this particular e-mail— at least the portions of it we have seen that are about Iraq.

Yes, it’s a personal account, and personal property, but there’s no “personal” stuff in it. It’s not intimate speech. It’s really journalism, an eyewitness report, giving impressions and conclusions about the struggle to prevail in Iraq. Not intended for the public, but that’s different from being unfit for public consumption.

There are millions of e-mails from Iraq about conditions in country. No one would be talking about this one but for two things: it was the work of a correspondent for the Journal, and it was brilliantly expressive in its quiet, detailed way. The e-mail, which has no title, conveyed something elusive: not “new” information about Iraq (there was none) or a new emotion, but a sense of the situation there that had not come through in other kinds of accounts, at least those by journalists.” (Bloggers from Iraq are another story.)

Her e-mail report can have references to what a friend of hers saw on a drive through Sadr City. Her Wall Street Journal report cannot. The “authorized knowers” in her Journal reporting tend to be experts and authorities, often government officials, or they are participants in events, people close to the action.

Fassihi was telling friends what she felt she knew. In her email she herself is the authorized knower, and she speaks directly, not through sources and quotes. As the Houston Chronicle put it in an editorial, “Though the missive apparently does not contradict her reportage, it is blunt, bleak and opinionated in a way that mainstream coverage generally avoids.”

Blunt, bleak and opinonated… said the Chronicle. The advantages Fassihi’s e-mail had were the same advantages bloggers have, including J-bloggers like Chris Allbritton. They can testify in a way that mainstream coverage generally avoids. Fassihi, it seems, was blogging without having an actual weblog.

“Exactly what mistake did Farnaz Fassihi make?” asked Matt Mendelsohn at Romenesko’s Letters (Oct. 5) “Other than the issue of Blogging As Capital Offense, a topic for Human Resources to discuss at a later date, Fassihi simply told the truth.”

She told the truth, yes. Simply? Well…

When shared among her friends; or even when it had spread to additional addresses in a second ring—friends of friends—the account communicates one way. Farnaz, a person you know or know about, is in Iraq, on assignment. She sends you her regards and also this note about conditions there.

But this is not how the e-mail works by the tenth or eleventh ring outward from the author, after it had “jumped into the public consciousness through the power of the FWD button,” as Tom Scocca of the New York Observer put it. Other things come into play then. It gets read by a public code governing trust in the news media, and there we find trouble. This code is the scene of cultural conflict and political fighting.

Tim Rutten, media writer at the Los Angeles Times, thinks the backdrop to the wayward e-mail is the war against Big Media, which I wrote about in my last post.

“At the core of the relentless partisan assault on the American news media’s tradition that good journalism can and should be unbiased, is a campaign to obliterate the distinction between the public and the private,” Rutten writes. “The notion here is that because journalists, like other human beings, have thoughts and opinions about the world around them, those sentiments must ultimately contaminate their journalism.”

Rutten objects to that “must.” He thinks it’s false. Training, discipline, experience, conscience, and pride still make an unbiased account possible in professional journalism. The private does not have to affect the public, he believes. Contamination of news accounts by personal preferences and opinions can be prevented.

Good journalists know how it’s done and Fassihi is one. As Rutten wrote, “no one has questioned the content of Fassihi’s reporting nor alleged that it has been in any way biased.” Her private opinions are what they are. But those views are irrelevant to her reporting because that is the character test for an international correspondent working at the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, gave a statement about the e-mail. What did it address? Possible contamination. A breach between public and private. Steiger’s assurances were these: “Ms. Fassihi’s private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage, which has been a model of intelligent and courageous reporting, and scrupulous accuracy and fairness.”

It’s a remarkable thing, this statement, remarkable too that it was termed supportive of Fassihi by David Folkenflik in the Baltimore Sun. First, there’s nothing “private” about her descriptions. “Fact for fact,” said the Houston Chronicle, “Fassihi’s e-mail offers little that can’t be found in published accounts.”

What has made it dart from Web site to Web site is the contrast of unvarnished personal expression with Fassihi’s status as reporter for an establishment newspaper. What has made the piece resonate is that its voice was not meant for the public.

I disagree with the drift of this, suggesting an illicit thrill. What makes the piece resonate (for some of us) is the simple question: why can’t this be the journalism, this testifying e-mail? Why can’t reporters on the ground occasionally speak to the “public” like this one occasionally spoke to her friends?

It’s inaccurate of Paul Steiger, her boss, to call the conclusions she reached by being there, reporting day-after-day on a changing Iraq, her “private opinions.” On the page, they have far more authority than that. His phrasing is weird, and others heard it:

Her private opinions? She’s the Baghdad correspondent, for goodness sake. The Wall Street Journal didn’t send a laptop or an android to Iraq, they sent a human being. A human being whose particular job happens to be making skilled observations of ongoing news events. Fassihi’s mistake, if you could call it that, was not doing a better job of getting those observations, intended only for for friends and family, onto the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

That’s Matt Mendelsohn again in his letter to Romenesko.

But if you think there’s a war going on against the media (which really means that some critics have joined in a campaign to discredit Big Media that resembles other formations in the culture war) then you have to assume any opportunity to cast doubt on a reporter’s objectivity will, in fact, be taken up— somewhere. This was one: The Accidental Baghdad Dispatch.

When Fassihi’s note became public, Steiger “protected” her from anticipated snipers in the bias wars. Getting him to anticipate this way is half the battle. “Ms. Fassihi’s private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage….” Hone in on what he’s clearing her of, and why, and you can hear what the war is doing to journalism. And remember: this is before any charges were filed or suspicions raised about her reporting in the Journal. Rutten comments:

Still, it’s impossible to come away from all this without thinking that, like so many American journalists and news organizations, the Journal and its staff are feeling around for what used to be familiar boundaries, wondering whether they’re still there and — if so — precisely where.

Don’t attack us, these were just her private opinions is a case of that— feeling around for the right defense.

“Letter from our correspondent…” is one of the oldest and most reliable forms there is for receiving intelligence from abroad. (And that is what the wayward e-mail contained: not information, not “opinion,” but high-quality intelligence from Iraq.) Correspondents have been doing it that way for centuries. Now with the Net that ancient spirit has come back into journalism— accidentally in the case of Farnaz Fassihi’s e-mail, which was like a blog post collecting hits. Except it came around to hit you, rather than you coming ‘round to it.

Here’s what I think: Who is an authorized knower? has been thrown into far greater doubt, and this is confusing for members of the press because the doubts have now reached them— and their business.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Now up at PressThink: Agnew with TV Stations: Sinclair Broadcasting Takes On John Kerry and The Liberal Media.

Here’s a one-hour NPR program, On Point (Oct. 14, 2004), with correspondents from Baghdad talking about Fassihi’s email and what it’s like to report from Iraq. Plus, I provide some commentary at the end. Listen here.

Dexter Filkins, New York Times correspondent in Baghdad: Get Me Rewrite. Now. Bullets Are Flying.

It was no small surprise, then, to witness the reaction to an e-mail message written by Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter in Iraq for The Wall Street Journal, that was intended to be a private letter to friends but made its way to the Internet and a mass audience. Any number of Ms. Fassihi’s newspaper stories have described in detail the chaotic and uncertain state into which this country has fallen. Yet her description of her own working conditions, of the shrunken and dangerous world in which she now operates, shocked many people.

Click here for a Technorati search showing blogs that have discussed Fassihi’s email.

Houston Chronicle editorial: “Fassihi says her rotation in Iraq is over. Even after she’s gone, though, her personal thoughts on the Iraq war will rove through the Internet — far longer, probably, than any single mainstream news story, administration claim of Iraq success, or opponents’ critique of its failures. In a bewildering, tragic conflict dominated by the loud sounds of polemics, the quiet tones of private communication suddenly seem to have unique credibility.”

Greg Mitchell in Editor & Publisher:

After her e-mail surfaced, Steiger stated that, as far as he was concerned, her personal opinions had not gotten in the way of her very fair and accurate reporting from Iraq.

But Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at he Poynter Institute, told Richard Read of The Oregonian in Portland that the Journal should consider re-assigning Fassihi because her views are now so public.

Why these things become sensations… Salon’s managing editor Scott Rosenberg in comments:

The whole affair gives me a sense of deja vu because we ran this drill 18 months ago when Laurie Garrett’s e-mail about the Davos conference made the rounds. Similar situation: Well-placed and -regarded reporter’s private e-mail becomes a pass-along sensation. My take on Garrett’s tale back then, I think, applies to the Journal reporter’s saga: Of course the e-mail is journalism. (“Letter from Baghdad”!) These things become sensations because they confirm people’s sense “that the ‘real story’ of our times is the one that reporters tell each other over beers, and in for-private-distribution-only e-mails, rather than the one they tell in their formal stories.” The unvarnished e-mail is not just a better read than so much conventional copy — it gives people a behind-the-curtains feeling that they love.

I have to say I find entirely disappointing this piece on the ethics of the episode by Poynter’s Aly Colón. (“Some journalists say, while others…”) But he does ask one profound question: can a journalist ever be too truthful? Private and Public: What Journalists Reveal About Themselves.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 8, 2004 5:25 PM   Print


Two things here: would there be all this buzz if the email was positive and optimistic? Also, why hasn't more been made of the fact that reporters are hunkered down in their hotels (why are war correspondents who are afraid of violence sent to cover a war?) and cannot possible give a realistic view of what is going on in Iraq? We are supposed to believe they are giving us "news" when they admit they don't leave their rooms? How is this helping citizens learn about the war in Iraq? I guess like the sainted Adam Nagourney, as long as you are in the general vicinity or are at least watching on TV, your views should appear in major news outlets and be greeted by loud hosannahs and be considered "truth-telling". Yeah, right.

Posted by: paladin at October 8, 2004 6:03 PM | Permalink

I think the letter is a great example of journalism. I wish we had more like it - increasingly, we will.

"If you think there is war going on against the media"

This statement brought to mind Martin Luther and his thesis. Was he declaring war on the Catholic Church? No. He was calling for its reformation.

However, some of the German princes who adopted Luther's banner did so to wage war on the Church and their neighbors. Moreover, some in the Church saw a call to reform (and/or the actual war launched by some princes) as a declaration of war and declared war right back.

Decent analogy or not?

Posted by: Ernest Miller at October 8, 2004 6:21 PM | Permalink

Jay asks why can't this be the journalism

That wouldn't be my question. Mine is "Where can this be journalism?"

Compared to a published article, an email deserves to be treated differently. Hell, a comment to a blog deserves to be treated differently than a full posting. One is measured, the other meanders. Our 94-year old editor passed on, but his case is instructive. He was a marvellous storyteller, but his typewriter was his truth machine. One is measured. One is not. I valued them both, but weighed them accordingly.

That said, even my "Where can this be journalism?" isn't the best way to get value from her email.

To me, the reaction to Farnaz Fassihi's email shows how tightly wound our interconnected world is. It shows that every remark is either a set-up waiting for a takedown or an instrument to be used to takedown someone else.

As knotted as we are, journalism isn't at fault. It simply provides one connection. We are knotted up in our heads with little tolerance for differences that add more perspective to one's map of reality. I'll take every opportunity I can get.

Cue the Bard! "The fault, Horatio, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings."

Posted by: sbw at October 8, 2004 7:13 PM | Permalink

Here's what I think: Who is an authorized knower? has been thrown into far greater doubt, and it's confusing for members of the press because the doubts have now reached them and their business.

According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability (UPDATE)

Reporters strive, as their careers advance, to write with more authority, meaning to report and write stories that convey solidity, depth and knowledge in contrast to the "according to" convention taught in basic reporting classes. Yet, even though good reporters become more knowledgeable in their fields, the forms of journalism discourage overt expression of that knowledge.

Posted by: Tim at October 8, 2004 7:24 PM | Permalink

Who are the Orwellians?

Posted by: Withheld at October 8, 2004 7:44 PM | Permalink

Why doesn't this make the paper and news stories do? Because this is an analysis piece by a journalist whose knowledge of history, experience in nation-building and familiarity with war-torn nations doesn't give her the necessary level of expertise to say with authority "One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. ..."

I found Farnaz Fassihi's compelling as it captured the pathos of the times. It communicates the misery of the moment. But this shouldn't appear on the front page because she is but a witness without the historical context experts and other more-experienced individuals can place these moments. It has been this miserable in Cambodia, in Germany, in Russia and in East Timor, yet they have all advanced.

Farnaz Fassihi may be right. But she is a reporter, not a judge.

Posted by: Just a thought at October 8, 2004 8:28 PM | Permalink

"Who are the Orwellians?"

Oh they'll be in here in just a moment, blathering about how the WSJ having discovered it has a liberal in its midst, should fire Fassihi.

You can't allow truth to get in the way of propaganda.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at October 8, 2004 8:56 PM | Permalink

I think "just a thought" has it right.

Let's use a science analogy again - in science the M.O. is that you don't publish what you think is true, you publish what you've rigorously tested and found via statistical analysis that the probability to have gotten your result by chance is less than 5%.

It's a harsh criterion - there's a lot of info in the shades of gray that _don't_ meet that stringency - but it makes judging the study - and thus contributing to the progress of science - easier.

Journalism - at least the platonic ideal of journalism - has the same rigor. It means they won't publish a lot of useful info. It also means they won't publish a lot of noise.

disclaimer - I've been out of science for a _long_ time. Things may have changed.

Posted by: Anna at October 8, 2004 9:21 PM | Permalink

The 64k question is, in today's world - with the tools we have today, that we didn't have back then - is there a way we can restructure the rules (the filter for extracting signal while excluding noise) for what constitutes "statistically significant" data (in journalism as in science) so as to wring more "signal" out of the data that previously would have been inadmissible?

Posted by: Anna at October 8, 2004 9:27 PM | Permalink

Good piece, Jay. The whole affair gives me a sense of deja vu because we ran this drill 18 months ago when Laurie Garrett's e-mail about the Davos conference made the rounds. Similar situation: Well-placed and -regarded reporter's private e-mail becomes a pass-along sensation. My take on Garrett's tale back then, I think, applies to the Journal reporter's saga: Of course the e-mail is journalism. ("Letter from Baghdad"!) These things become sensations because they confirm people's sense "that the 'real story' of our times is the one that reporters tell each other over beers, and in for-private-distribution-only e-mails, rather than the one they tell in their formal stories." The unvarnished e-mail is not just a better read than so much conventional copy -- it gives people a behind-the-curtains feeling that they love.

Posted by: Scott Rosenberg at October 9, 2004 12:38 AM | Permalink

I read Fassihi's email and was struck by the power it contained. I'm therefore very disappointed in Aly Colon's reaction to it. She is not reporting opinion but fact. Her observations were the purest form of reporting.

And as for "contaminating her reporting. I listen to Diane Rehm, etc. regularly. I regularly hear national and regional reporters commenting on stories that they report. The folks at NPR - my favorite news outlet - have taken this form or interpretative reporting to a new level. So why should the Wall Street Journal be concerned that Farhissi will not be able to report fairly and objectively when the circumstances in Iraq change? If, in fact they do?

Posted by: Afi Scruggs at October 9, 2004 1:13 AM | Permalink

I thought we had come a way from the cliche of the authoritative eyewitness report. The somewhat romantic notion of one lone reporter giving you a picture of an entire country based on his solitary ramblings. Fassihi's report is interesting and valuable but only as a single data point. And it is less valuable than the eyewitness accounts of Iraqi citizens, who can and do blog their observations about what life is like now, in the messy aftermath of the removal of totalitarian rule. It is considerably less valuable given that Fassihi paints her daily life in Baghdad (which is only one portion of the country) as "virtually house arrest".

Fassihi's email merits publication, but only as one of many other accounts (many of which will also be grim) that help us capture a broader perspective, to see the forest *and* the trees (one of the better accounts is Healing Iraq). The first illusion we have to get past is that any single account represents the whole story.

An issue with a personal account like Fassihi's is that the reporter then becomes as much an issue as the facts (or "facts") being reported, which is something news organizations seem particularly sensitive about (they often seem to want "ace reporters" that give them the benefits of a brand name yet who are immune to criticism). Have we already forgotten about Robert Fisk's completely ridiculous dispatches from Iraq? Peter Arnett's self-promoting misadventures? One can see why this sort of thing makes news orgs nervous.

Not to mention that we keep hearing that what makes journalists so respectable, as opposed to the unwashed blogging swine, is that they have Editors! and Standards! and Methods! which aren't much in evidence in Fassihi's email.

David Ehrenstein's comments unconsciously demonstrate where that kind of branding can lead. I have my fair and accurate reporters and you have your "Orwellian" shills.

Posted by: Brian at October 9, 2004 12:03 PM | Permalink

Isn't Fassihi's letter on the same journalistic level as a soldier's letter or an Iraqi's?

All valuable journalism. All important personal accounts of life in Iraq. Each imbued with the same emotional impact for a citizenry anxious and thirsty for information about what's happening and what it is like "over there".

Is the issue with Fassihi's letter the news organization's response, much like our uneasiness with the censoring or publishing of a soldier's letter to home, and how much weight we should give his letter about the conduct and progress of the war?

Posted by: Tim at October 9, 2004 12:59 PM | Permalink

Precisely, Tim. It's one piece of straightforward first-person reportorial observation -- not an ultimate statement about anything. That would require a lengthy article that I hope she'll one day get a chance to write.

And there's nothing "unconscious" about my post Brian. So nice to see you recognize yourself in it though I never mentioned you by name.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at October 9, 2004 1:24 PM | Permalink

Another example of the harmful side-effects of the odious doctrine of objective journalism..

Posted by: John Smith at October 9, 2004 5:45 PM | Permalink

Time for Journalists to Hold Their Own Accountable

I'm waiting for journalists to apply the same level of scrutiny to themselves that they apply to other industries. At what point do we declare a systemic failure and begin looking for the weak links in a profession that is critical to the survival of democracy? When do we stop treating the revelations as unrelated episodes, instead of symptoms of a larger cancer?

Posted by: Tim at October 9, 2004 6:41 PM | Permalink

If Fassihi's email challenges her WSJ reporting... isn't this AP quote

"A final report from the chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq concluded that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, had no programs to make either them or nuclear bombs, and had little ability - or immediate plans - to revive those programs.
challenged by Key FIndings in the actual report itself:
"Saddam Hussayn so dominated the Iraqi Regime that its strategic intent was his alone. He wanted to end sanctions while preserving the capability ti reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when sanctions were lifted.
If email and blogs on the internet have done one thing, they have pointed out how important it is that people use many sources before engaging in decision making.
When are media and political players going to appreciate that an internet driven cataclysmic change has occurred:
  • That poll takers have to realize that a debate "win" cannot possibly be registered until the transcript is well and truely fisked and distributed.
  • That network television doesn't lend itself to complete fisking and print media hasn't really tried -- both are now woefully incomplete.
  • That to internet knowledgeable people, a candidate's repetition of simplistic clichés is detrimental and disrespectful.
  • That the sharpest debate response a candidate can hope for is to commandeerexcellent counter-arguments readily available online. In other words, the candidate who wants to win the next debate better come well armed with new, substantive ammo that shows why the opposition just doesn't get it.

Posted by: sbw at October 9, 2004 8:55 PM | Permalink


Until you learn to use words like "Orwellian" properly--as opposed to deploying them as silly partisan clubs to bash people with--I'm afraid I can't take you or your accusations very seriously. I would ask what about my comments here you find "Orwellian" but I fear the response would simply be more drivel.

Posted by: Brian at October 9, 2004 11:46 PM | Permalink

Excuse me please,

Either I am psychotic, or a post I left this morning has been deleted...;-D

In answer to the question, can a journalist be too truthful, obviously the answer is yes although I have never claimed what I did was Pure Journalism, of course.

Now my question.

What gives, please?

Posted by: J. Toran at October 10, 2004 1:30 PM | Permalink

You force me into the role of cop. I hate it. One of the reasons I hate it is this demand that I explain my reasons for deleting a post to the person who was unreasoning enough to write it. I don't have to explain my reasons. Please go elsewhere. And when you get there you can denounce Rosen as a censor and hypocrite who won't even explain himself. Goodbye.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 10, 2004 1:52 PM | Permalink

Is it heresy to say that a journalist can be too truthful? Surely that is worth a nuanced consideration.

Will this one be deleted too?

What's up here?

Posted by: bc, jd at October 10, 2004 5:26 PM | Permalink

It is not heresy and you won't be deleted for saying it. Posts are deleted very rarely.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 10, 2004 5:56 PM | Permalink

I think the power of "I" is the simple explanation, Jay. The injection of the human voice.

Posted by: praktike at October 11, 2004 4:01 PM | Permalink

Isn't the Farnaz Fahissi story a perfect little parable of the "transformation" we've been talking about for a year now. The embedded institutional press has so hog-tied itself with rules, "objectivity," fear, fear-and-balance, officialisms, sugar-coating, euphemism and all the rest that it's incapable of telling us the truth before our eyes.

Yet on the Internet, including email, where prose style and writerly observation all count forcefully, and where the "authenticity" test is more important than any other, great reporting can travel like the wind. I'm proud of the WSJ editors for standing by Ms. Fahissi: it so obvious she's a great reporter. But it was in the email home to family that she told the real story--which might not have fit the WSJ format.

It's a problem with the format not with her account. As I understand it, one of the people she sent her letter to was Andrew Rosenthal of the NYT, who sent it to his personal list, and it spread like a virus. I'd want to ask Andy Rosenthal: why did you forward it to your email list, not clear a space immediately on the Times Op-ed page--ideally in place of the daily disinformation by the likes of Friedman, Safire and Brooks?

It would seem that Andy Rosenthal felt the power and, dare we say, truth of Fahissi's words immediately--but in the corrupted Orwellian journalism of our time, power and truth did not make it "fit to print" in our most important paper.

Coming so soon after the Dan Rather melt-down, this is a poignant tale of this very moment on the cusp of a great change in media. But it's also just another instance of the great old definition of the newspaper editor's job: to separate the wheat from the chaff, and publish the chaff.

Honor, admiration and thanks to Farnaz Fahissi.

Chris Lydon

Posted by: Chris Lydon at October 11, 2004 5:24 PM | Permalink

The simple truth is that there is very little hard news being reported about the situation in Iraq beyond bare statistics of who's battling whom where. One of the key points in Fassihi's communique relates to how the degraded security for journalists in Iraq affects their ability to gather news, both good and bad. If objective journalism is to exist, journalists can only rely upon verifiable sources, figures, and facts. If it's too dangerous for reporters to do their job, they'll have to stick with the sources they have available to them, which perforce obligates them to spend the bulk of their time talking to authorities and experts rather than people who are just trying to live. The authorities and the experts have their own agendas and have shown no compunction about spinning correspondents mercilessly since before the war even began.

Fassihi's e-mail seems so revelatory precisely because it's not held to the same standards as print journalism; many of us "know" the situation in Iraq is worse (or at least more complicated) than the media are reporting, and her message acts as confirmation -- Rosenberg's comment about the frisson of being behind the scenes or given access to forbidden knowledge is dead-on. To people who don't think the situation in Iraq is so bad, Fassihi's e-mail is threatening for the exact same reason, or at least its obverse: what she's saying is only one woman's perspective, it's not an authorized, validated source.

I think "objective journalism" has been a chimeric mirage which has done a lot of damage to American journalism, and the situation in Iraq is a perfect example of why: it's too dangerous for reporters to go out and gather background on a lot of potentially useful and dramatic stories (and I'm sorry, it's unreasonable to expect journalists to wantonly risk their lives in a situation as chaotic and volatile -- and dangerous -- as Iraq is right now), so those stories are left unreported. Even when there's a lot of anecdotal evidence, it's left unreported (even with disclaimers that it is, in fact, anecdotal), because it can't be confirmed as "fact", and facts are notoriously thin on the ground in today's Iraq. Stories can survive when they're moved over to the editorial pages, but their impact is dramatically lessened then because they become fodder for opinion wars. Anecdotal truth is less valuable than "facts", but it's not the same as pure opinion, either. There has to be a better way to cover tumultuous and hazardous situations than this, particularly when the situation is as important as Iraq is.

Posted by: forrest at October 12, 2004 7:33 PM | Permalink

... many of us "know" the situation in Iraq is worse (or at least more complicated) than the media are reporting ...

I had two reactions when I read that. "Yes." and "No, you don't know."

Yes, Iraq is certainly more complicated than the media are reporting because of the reductivist nature and structural bias of the media.

No, you don't know that the situation is worse, or better, or in what way, than the reporting. In fact, one day it may be worse and the next day better. But the narrative bias doesn't really allow the reporting to reflect that dynamic and the bad news bias "makes the world look like a more dangerous place than it really is. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far more crooked than they really are."

So when you say you "know", you really are saying you're biased to believe the bad news despite the years of experience of doom and gloom in the media. Afghanistan might be an example of things are not as bad as reported.

I also wonder if Iraq was really a better place when you could safely report all the news Saddam deemed fit to print: The News We Kept to Ourselves.

Posted by: Tim at October 12, 2004 8:34 PM | Permalink

IWPR's Iraqi Press Monitor is a daily survey of the main stories in Iraq's newspapers. It features the top 7 stories of the day, along with a political cartoon.

Posted by: Tim at October 12, 2004 8:46 PM | Permalink

After reading this email, I sat troubled in the midst of my youngest brother graduating next month from boot camp and how I am going to cast my vote in the upcoming election. Wondering, just what to do. What can I do? Thinking about what this reporter wrote, I sent the email to my mother to get her perspective.

Just before the Shah was overthrown, I lived in Iran with my parents and my little brother. Although I was very young, I still have distinct
memories of living there. Most of my memories come from my tongue. I remember the rose water sweets that women in the bizarre would give
me and my brother. The fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables are particularly delicious and much more flavorful than our pale imitations. I
sometimes long for their wonderful fresh yogurt and find myself at times, looking at an elderly Persian man secretly hoping he will pull out a
piece of Iranian nougat and offer it to me, as would often happen in Isfahan. Even now, when I walk into a Persian restaurant and smell the
garlic Naan, I am taken back to a neighbors house that would slap the dough flat then make it stick to the top of the kiln. As it baked, my
brother and I would eagerly wait until it fell, so we knew it was ready to eat.

To this day, I still hold an deep, unpenetrable love for the Persian people. I would love nothing more to travel back to Shiraz, the most
beautiful city from my childhood and walk The Holy threshold of Shah Cheragh. Or to see the turquoise and sapphire shades of the tiled
mosaic dome of The Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah. Most of all, I would wish that my Persian friends that live in LA have the opportunity to
travel back to Iran to visit their families. I hope they would be able to return home safely and establish a permanent residence in their
homeland. And at the start of their day have an independent paper delivered to their door. A luxury that is sometimes lost on those who come
to expect it.

This is the middle east that I remember. This is the middle east that I hope, truly in my heart, exists on a good day and that will on day be
blessed with many of those good days, not littered with bombings and oppression. After reading what my mother wrote below, I am again
amazed who my mother had to be to raise me and my brother during those times. I find hope in that seeking the perspective of those who want
to make a difference, even under the dark clouds of adversity can help me not only stay positive in these troubled times, but yearn to make a
difference myself. Thank goodness that this is only one person's perspective. I remember reading stories of our own country, in its genesis of
development. We certainly had periods when the soil that we reside on now could have once been described as "lost beyond salvation".

I would rather not listen to a this person who hides at home, avoiding strangers, shopping in grocery stores because she feels is safety is at
risk. What difference can be made from there? She says he chose to be a foreign correspondent, so she can tell stories that could make a
difference? I believe she is of middle eastern dissent, from her name and photos. She chooses to stay at home.

I hope that this email can get back to her. I want her to read this, so she can see how a young mother, with two very young children lived in
times similar to these. I want her to know what it looked like to take a stand of love, tolerance, respect and patience so that she and her children
could live safely. I am clear what my mother was a stand for. I am clear what my mother is still a stand for.

I would like to know what she is committed to. I am not sure how you can make a stand for something under a self imposed house arrest.

I choose Freedom.

Posted by: Aimee at October 21, 2004 5:37 PM | Permalink

Letter from my Mother in response to reading the letter from the Wall Street Journal Reporter

because he CAN'T GO TO A RESTAURANT? He is not comfortable going shopping? He doesn't feel safe? What the hell does he expect.
How about the Iraqis? He can leave, they cannot. You are too young to remember the situation in Iran. How I taught you to speak enough
Farsi and seek out anyone in a uniform in case you were separated from us. How to play Hide and Seek. How to say God is Great and I love
you in the same sentence. How I made sure that you and your brother were well known and well liked among the Iranians we regularly dealt
with, including the shop keepers and the paratroopers around Khane Isfahan so that you would be protected.

The letter you have sent me sounds so very familiar to me. In Iran, the shops would close and I would have to negotiate with mullahs to get
baby food for you. I offered to wear a chador (full body veil) when I went into town as a sign of respect. As it was, I followed all to the
conventions for modesty, including speaking the formal Farsi reserved for speaking to people above you in social standing when I had to
speak to very conservative men through an intermediary (usually young boys). I saw the bank I had an account at blown up before my very
eyes. I saw the riots and the retribution. If you can get your Daddy to talk about it, ask him about what he and Warren went through during
the last days. I remember when the men of the Friday congregation at St. Luke's ran the nursery during prayer services to protect the children.
And the time the men came into the church compound on motorcycles and entered the church. There were only about four of us at services.
Guli had you, James, and Rosemary in the basement of the Lying-in Hospital next door because someone had thrown firebombs at the wall
surrounding the church compound the previous night and we did not know this before we left for church. Your Daddy was at work that day.
The bus driver dropped us off and and was supposed to come back in about an hour. He drove up in the company bus and ran into the
church and was frantic to get us out of town. We were the only people in a 44-seat bus and he was driving like a madman. He had been
warned to get us out of town. Warren and his boss Bob had also been warned that you, James and I were to be kidnapped. That is why we left

so quickly and had to leave your Daddy behind.

Things were bad, and then they got worse. Much worse.

Many Iranians wanted to change their government, to depose the Shah. Not all of theim followed the fundamentalists. A secular government
was set up after the fall of the Shah. A bloody fight followed and the fundamentalist Republican Guards prevailed and installed a
fundamentalist theocracy. More moderate groups suffered terrible repression. The Iraqis watched this and have a choice to make. Rather than

reading the whining of a guy in Bagdad who is complaining that war is not clean or easy or bloodless, why not ask Iraqis what they think. I do,

every day. Here are some sites I go to regularly. If you want more, I have them.

Don't let your heart be troubled, Aimee. There are a lot of brave people who understand what is going on. And also understand that we don't
want the conditions in Bagdad to come to the U.S. without a fight. Try reading here especially the side bar
marked "Mass graves". And the posts from Iraqis here: And here:,,, And here:, , and also look about 2/3 the way down the page to where it

says "Hey Kids, it's Mike the Seal."

Remember what Grandma said about the early days of WWII. She said that is was hard to know what to do, that you couldn't make any plans
because you didn't know what was going to happen, and that the news was terrible. Things are sort of like this today. We have gotten used
to being safe, and to expect to be taken care of. Sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes you have to fight to stop bad things from
happening. When that happens, things get ugly. But if you don't do anything to stop the bad guys, things get uglier.

Right now, we are probably facing one of the biggest decisions of our lives. Do we continue to fight, or do we stop fighting and hope things
don't get uglier. Remember, we were attacked before 9/11. The World Trade Center was attacked in the 1990's. By Islamic extremists. Troops
were killed at Khobar Towers and on the U.S.S. Cole. Remember Mogadishu. And the Embassy Bombings. We did nothing meaningful to
retaliate for these attacks, and the attacks came to New York and Washington and 3,000 people died. The bad guys don't have a government.
They aren't concentrated in one city, or one county, or one province, or one country, or even one region. The are spread like a cancer
throughout the world. And they want us dead. Not hiding behind our borders, promising not to challenge their view of God or the world.
They want us, and people like us, dead. They killed children in their school in Beslan because they wanted to. They kidnap people in the
Philippines and blow up resorts in Bali and Egypt because they can. They want anyone who is not like them dead. I don't think so. I want you,

and your brothers, and sister, and cousins, and aunts and uncles and friends and acquaintences and total strangers free to choose how
you wish to live your lives. And to stay alive. And ultimately to live in peace. Sometimes, you have to fight to preserve your freedom and
stay alive.

Remember what I taught you guys about insolvable problems? Problems become unsolvable because no one chose to solve the problem when

it was still small and could be solved reasonably, although it might take a lot of work or might involve offending someone. We are in a situation

like that right now. Before 9/11, the problem of terrorism was getting harder to solve. We didn't even recognize its importance, much less want
to make the sacrifice necessary to stop it or risk offending the sensibilities of somebody. Now, the sacrifices being demanded of us are
increasing. And the number of people who are being asked to sacrifice their lives and their livelihood, possessions, and their futures is
increasing. The problem is still solvable, although it will get more difficult before it gets easy. But if we give up now, things will get much
worse. And the probem won't be that you can't go out to a restaurant. Or you feel uncomfortable to go shopping. Or meet people. And it
won't be in Bagdad. It will be in New York, and Washington, and London, and Sydney, and Los Angeles, and Tucson, and anywhere else you
can imagine.

Posted by: Aimee at October 21, 2004 5:39 PM | Permalink

From the Intro