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March 1, 2005

The Abyss of Observation Alone

"You should have answered," the sniper says to the correspondent. "You could have saved one."

There is a story I heard once about the press in Bosnia. I tried to verify it numerous times with people who might know, but I never succeeded. (Possibly I will with this post.) My informants always told me they knew of things like it that had happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Let’s say then that it is not a true story, but a fiction about a journalist set in Sarajevo sometime between April 2, 1992, when the Siege of Sarajevo began, and February 29, 1996, when it was declared over.

During the siege a correspondent from a Western news agency is contacted by an intermediary, someone he knows, who has an offer: to go out one night with Bosnian Serb snipers and see for yourself what they do.

A deal is struck, and he accompanies the men to one of their perches in the hills above the city, where they train their rifles on civilians, who might be trying to cross the street. This is where the siege “happens,” in a sense. This is the action itself.

“Come here,” says one of the men, after he has located a target. The sniper motions to take a look. The reporter, who in his own mind had come to see, leans over and peers for a second or two through the lens of the rifle.

He sees two people who think they are out of range standing in an alley, completely vulnerable. That is when the sniper, retaking the lens, says: which one, left or right?

This alarms the reporter. “I have no answer to that,” he says. “I didn’t come to be involved in what you do.” The sniper throws back his head to laugh, and returns to his rifle. There is a pause. In two quick bursts he kills both people just seen through the lens.

“You should have answered,” the sniper says to the Western correspondent. “You could have saved one.”

That’s the story I heard. As I said, I don’t know if it ever happened, or if it did, whether it happened that way. Maybe it’s a story told about journalists in every war, and only the details change. What I do know is that, treated as parable (not a truthful account of what went on in the hills above Sarajevo one night, but a fiction invented from shards of fact) this story, which I have not been able to verify or forget, is about something very real and alive today.

It is the problem of publicizing evil, and of when you become a part of things by observing them.

The reporter went “only” to observe. But the sniper changed the observer into a culpable person, a participant in the criminal siege of the city from above. This was done against the journalist’s will, and so a kind of mind rape goes on within the prism of the story.

Back home, in a moral zone he can recognize, the reporter can always say: “the sniper intended to kill both of them anyway, so I had no role…” but in fact a truthful correspondent will always know that the man may well have been speaking truthfully when he said, “you could have saved one.” Those who have the power to kill, arbitrarily, can also let live on a whim, an act which equally enhances their power.

Show me what you do is the clearly implied contract for the climb into the mountains with the snipers. (And they delivered on their end.) That explains what the reporter thought he was doing: witnessing a terrible reality that nonetheless should be told to the civilized world. Sniping against civilians is a war crime, and he will be a witness to how it happens.

And of course criminal gangs and killing squads everywhere have their ways of making newcomers and by-standers into instant accomplices, because when everyone around is spread with guilt that lessens the guilt of each one. This too may explain why the reporter was brought there.

Finally, there is the moment where he peers into the lens. The abyss of observation. But the fatal step into moral involvement has the appearance of a further form of inquiry: come see what I see.

Should we turn our eyes from what bad men with guns do? Refuse to see as they see? In one of the great works of Sixties Journalism, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which is about a reporter trying to think clearly in Vietnam, there is a passage specifically about this:

Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.

“You had to be able to look at anything.” This is the kind of reasoning on trial in my fable.

“Don’t look into the face of evil, you may be changed by it.” As far as I know, correspondents don’t have any kind of rule like that.

When I have told the story to people a first reaction is usuallly, “That was a crazy thing to do. He should never have agreed to go.” But what grounds would a professional news person have for dismissing the opportunity to see how the criminal snipers above Sarajevo operate? It’s part of the siege, often called the longest in the twentieth century, and the siege is responsible for the reporter’s presence in Bosnia to begin with. How can the snipers not be a part of the story?

To me it is plausible to imagine a Western journalist “going out,” because there are no clear grounds for not going. There are clear grounds for not taking bribes, for not making up quotes. But not for this.

Nor would the fruits of “snipers at work”—video footage, for example—be shunned by the global marketplace for news and documentary. On the contrary, a value would instantly be placed on it and once the uplink is made the video would start moving (and publicizing evil.)

Which might be exactly what a faction among the Bosnian Serb forces wanted.

There would be many reasons to go, if journalism alone, or let’s say professionalism in news, is permitted to supply the values. And if the marketplace does it, no problem. One goes, gets video of the snipers, gets a story, gets paid.

I believe there are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional “role” that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don’t trust journalists. They don’t trust that abyss.

These are themes playing through a disturbing and penetrating article I missed the first time, and recently came across by Robert D. Kaplan, who writes for the Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of Balkan Ghosts, a book with its own controversies. The article was first published in the Atlantic (Nov. 2004), but here appears in the Hoover Institute’s Policy Review Online: The Media and Medievalism.

Among the many ideas he develops is that CNN’s identity is “cosmopolitan,” and this explains its clash with Fox— more fully than categories like liberal and conservative.

Still, CNN—-and in particular, CNN International-—cannot be defined simply as a left-wing network. Look at the latter’s exotic female anchors, so chic and exquisitely made-up. Rosa Luxemburg never looked like that. CNN International is a global cosmopolitan network, just as Fox News is an old-fashioned nation-state network gaudied up by the latest technology (and because the meatloaf world of the old nation-state will remain feisty for a few decades yet, Fox has hit a gold mine2).

By a “global cosmopolitan network” Kaplan means an inchoate ideology at CNN giving a trans-national identity to the news workers the network employs, who come from 50 different countries. Sort of like a clerisy, which is a parallel he develops. Their global professionalism can correct for all the biases of the individual nation states, or so it is felt among believers in the ideology.

We find something like this in the words of Eason Jordan, who recently resigned as CNN’s Chief News Executive and Senior Statesman. In a 2002 interview he described the kind of cosmopolitan ideal that Kaplan treats as a darker force: the ideology of the stateless media professional.

Jordan is asked: “How does CNN see itself or ‘brand’ itself—- are you an American network, or do you see yourselves as regionalized or international?”

We certainly tailor our programming for the marketplace; most of CNN’s consumers live outside the United States. A great deal of our programming originates from outside the United States. Many of our journalists come from outside the United States. The reality is that we are a US-based news channel, but that doesn’t mean we’re American in perspective with our international service. In fact the person who oversees all our international outlets is not an American at all, he’s British, and we hired him from the BBC several years ago.

When Jordan says with confidence “we’re not American in our perspective,” he means that CNN has transcended its roots in the system of nation states, and now stands in a sense “above” that system. Having said what the network’s perspective isn’t (it isn’t American), he has no intention of describing what it is. Kaplan calls this “a new realm of authority akin to the emergence of a superpower.”

In a way it’s the view from the sky box. I have also called it the view from nowhere. But instead of floating above the two political parties in the United States, above “left” and “right,” CNN International floats above the nations themselves. Kaplan thinks this is dangerous. He might have examined what Eason Jordan said in ‘02:

There are more than fifty nationalities of journalists who work at CNN International producing that service. If we were to move CNN’s base to Egypt maybe they’d say we’re Egyptian—you have to be based somewhere. It’s the people who produce the channel and the people who provide the reporting who are really responsible for it, and those are people from all over the world, the very best journalists and program makers we can find. No matter what CNN International does, as long as CNN’s headquarters is in the United States people are going to say, well, it’s an American service. But the reality is that it’s an international service based in the United States, and we don’t make any apologies about that.

“It’s an international service” is what worries Kaplan. He argues that the “new realm of authority,” which is media authority, works through the device of exposure, an idea he revives from Samuel Huntington’s work in the 1980s. “As secrecy became synonymous with evil in the late 1960s, exposure was elevated from a mere technique to a principle,” he writes.

Exposure is the particular terrain of the investigative journalist. It is the investigative journalist who has inherited the mantle of the old left, whatever the ideological proclivities of individual practitioners of the trade. The investigative journalist is never interested in the 90 per cent of activities that are going right, nor especially in the 10 per cent that are going wrong, but only in the 1 per cent that are morally reprehensible. Because he always seems to define even the most heroic institutions by their worst iniquities, his target is authority itself.

Kaplan thinks “politicians are weaker than ever; journalists, stronger,” one generalization of his that does not apppy at all to Washington under George W. Bush. He makes a lot of the fact that “journalists are not bureaucratically accountable for their views.”

He adds a key observation about unearned virtue when he says of journalists: “transcending politics is easier done than engaging in them, with the unsatisfactory moral compromises that are entailed.” He thinks the news tribe has become less moral but more moralistic. He says it is anti-heroic because, like the old Communist movement, it is less invested in the nation state:

During World War II American soldiers and journalists belonged to the same crowd-pack, so news coverage was more empathetic. It made heroes of American troops when the facts so demanded, which was often. American troops have changed less than American journalists have.

If that’s true it could help explain (along with other narratives Kaplan does not mention) why trust in the news media seems to have eroded so much lately, and why “their credibility is under assault as never before,” as Howard Kurtz put it recently.

Kaplan’s essay veers at times into an anti-Sixities rant, and seems to have been written about an era of centralized media power that is in many ways ending. It has other defects and I am not endorsing it all when I say: read what Kaplan wrote and argue with it. It sounds nothing like most press commentary of the day. But it sounds a lot like my fable.

Michael Herr, who like the late Hunter Thompson is a Sixties figure, said something in the part I quoted from him that crashes the ethical system of mainstream journalism, turning it upside down: You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. It was a lesson he learned from covering Vietnam.

That’s not the way most journalists think; they say pretty much the opposite. For example: We’re not responsible for what we saw in campaign 2004, only for what we did in reporting it. That’s common sense in the profession. Herr contradicts it. So, in a way, does my fable.

To wrap up, I give you Michael Getler in his current column for the Washington Post:

The ombudsman’s perch is an interesting spot from which to watch all this angst unfold. The attacks on the mainstream media, and the attempts to undermine them, are indeed escalating. More and more e-mails have a nasty, threatening, ideological tone.

From their perch, the ombudsmen of America all report this escalation, but they do not report much progress in the hunt for ideas that would explain it. I suggest that, when there is a moment, they look into the abyss of observation alone.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Robert D. Kaplan, The Media and Medievalism. Kaplan bio.

For an in-depth and detailed review of events see The Siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1995, by U.S. Army Major Curtis S. King, part of a casebook on urban warfare.

The urban area contained virtually all of the types of terrain and structures that are found in most modern cities. However, the truly dominant characteristic of the city was the ring of mountains surrounding it, placing the city in a bowl visible and vulnerable to anyone who occupied the rim of high ground on the outside edges.

Matt Welch at Reason’s Hit & Run: Kaplan’s Phantom Menace. (Dec. 8, 2004)

I’ve always admired the dour, big-sweeping, heavily book-literate international correspondetry from The Atlantic’s Robert “don’t forget my middle initial” Kaplan, author of such influential bummers as Balkan Ghosts. Lately, he’s been turning his unhappy attentions to the media, writing at least one interesting column that pointed out the great class divide separating American journalists and soldiers.

But this Policy Review media-bash, linked favorably by Andrew Sullivan and others, is a festival of absolutist hyperbole, historical overstretch, and flat-wrong analysis.

Welch notes that Kaplan makes many dumb overstatements. I agree with that.

Laura Rozen in Salon interviews and profiles Robert D. Kaplan.

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica: “A question occurred to me yesterday while reading a book called Taking Journalism Seriously—a brief, recent history of interdisciplinary academic research in journalism. I found myself wondering if journalism has become absurd.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 1, 2005 12:24 AM