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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