Journalism and the National Narrative

The New Republic‘s Amy Sullivan is upset over Joan Juliet Buck’s new essay for Newsweek, titled “Mrs. Assad Duped Me,” which details the circumstances surrounding Buck’s glowing and ill-timed interview of Bashar al-Assad’s glamorous British-born and -educated wife, Asma, for Vogue in December 2010.

Sullivan’s takeaway:

But to read Buck’s account that way, to assume that anyone could have found themselves in her shoes, would be an insult to most journalists. Unless Buck omitted a boatload of admirable details about Mrs. Assad in this current piece or only recognized the creepiness of her visit to Syria in hindsight, she most certainly was not duped. She knowingly wrote a glowing profile—“the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”—about the wife of a murderous tyrant…

Again, call me crazy, but Vogue had an opportunity here to run a killer story and to avoid becoming morally bankrupt. A report from inside Syria, inside the dictator’s home, on the eve of the Arab Spring? What editor wouldn’t run that blockbuster in a heartbeat over a strained puff piece about a pretty dictator’s wife? That view of power isn’t glamorous. But it’s honest.

Buck’s account, to which Sullivan is referring, is remarkably self-serving. Here’s one representative passage:

I should have said no right then.

I said yes.

It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.

I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.

But I think there are two things going on here simultaneously. One is fairly obvious, and the other less so. Firstly, Buck’s account is fairly transparently attempting to contain the (likely permanent) damage done to her journalistic reputation by her stenographic paean to the complicit wife of a brutal dictator. And no, I don’t mean “brutal dictator” in the even more obvious sense that it’s taken on since the onset of the Arab Spring, but even from long before. Describing him, rather generously, as an ophthalmologist and publishing pictures of him playing with his children doesn’t change the fact that Bashar al-Assad engaged in brutal, heavyhanded, oppressive tactics long before Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia.

And Buck really does try to have it both ways. She simultaneously feigns utter naïveté — describing how Bashar al-Assad showed her his many cameras (“he didn’t strike me as much of a monster”) and later anguishing over Asma’s role in the brutal suppression of Syrian protesters (“Through 2011, I wondered about Asma al-Assad, the woman who cared so much about the youth of Syria. How could she not know what was happening?”) — even while casually analyzing the country’s political intricacies (“Damascus was home base for Hizbullah and Hamas; Syria was close to Iran. But these alliances also made Syria a viable interlocutor for the West, even a potential conduit to peace in the Middle East.”).

But the second element of this scenario, and the dynamic I find far more interesting, is Sullivan’s harsh critique of Buck’s self-described ignorance. If Buck’s self-justifying explanation represents an ill-conceived, long-shot effort to shield herself from the onslaught of public criticism, Sullivan’s comments are the mirror image: just another few extremely convenient and risk-free paragraphs to add to the mountain of condemnation for Buck.

I’m interested in the “risk-free” aspect. There is a curious dynamic at play, one that has been percolating in fits and starts ever since the Arab Spring began. Like it or not, those of us living in Western nations have had to wrestle with the uncomfortable fact that the dictators whose newly emboldened populations are now intent on eliminating their rule were, for all intents and purposes, strong allies of ours. This is true across North America and Western Europe, and the guilty parties are not few.

All it takes is a routine Google search to reveal a small library of photos of a smiling Colonel Muammar Qaddafi shaking hands, or otherwise interacting, with various European and American heads of government. The same can be said of Hosni Mubarak and others. This has made Middle Eastern leaders’ rapid transitions from ally — “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” Hillary Clinton famously said in 2009 — to brutal, repressive tyrant an especially awkward journey for their Western interlocutors.

But fortunately for our heads of state, the vacuum of reliable allies left by the forced departure of Arab dictators has been ably filled by an even more pliable replacement: the American news media. Nothing comes as easily as adherence to the National Narrative.

And this is what really irks me about Amy Sullivan’s high-minded putdown of Joan Juliet Buck. It is perhaps true that the Vogue columnist should have thought twice about running such an unqualified puff piece. It is also true, however, that this bears repeating for the entirety of the American press corps, whose largely mute acquiescence to decades of American alliances with cruel and brutal dictators was bizarrely abrogated the very moment those same leaders became personae non gratae to the Obama administration.

This is not to say that these alliances have not served their purposes at times. We live in a messy world; messy alliances are practically inevitable. But Buck’s case of bad timing is still, in some ways, a more honest journalistic effort than the 180-degree turn perfectly executed by the bulk of the American press without so much as a blink of the eye.

As George Orwell famously wrote, “We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

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