In this interview, Chris Toensing discusses the evolving state of reporting on the Middle East, including moving beyond mainstream media problematics, covering the uprisings, and the increasing influence of social media.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project. He holds an M.A. in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University and completed coursework for a doctorate in Middle East history at Georgetown University. He has written for The Nation, The Progressive, Jacobin, and several other newspapers and magazines.
The interview below includes four parts that you can click on separately. Please find the transcript of the interview below the player.
Bassam Haddad (BH): Sabah al-khayr [Good Morning], this is Bassam with Status, al-Wada’, here to have a conversation with a dear friend and one of the luminaries in the media field. We are very lucky to have Chris Toensing, the editor of MERIP with us here to discuss broadly the state of reporting on the Middle East. Chris, it’s really great to have you here with us and we would love to speak to you about a number of topics, but if you do not mind starting with a little bit of background about yourself and the journey that you’ve gone through within the field of reporting on the Middle East.
Chris Toensing (CT): Well, I am an academic refugee essentially. I was doing a doctoral program in Middle East history at Georgetown [University], which is where I met you, and I made it all the way through the program except that I didn’t write that little paper at the end. I did the rest of the program and so I have a historian’s training and I am conversant with the academic debates of twenty years ago now, and have stayed somewhat abreast of them through my contact with folks like you and others on our editorial committee and in our circle of authors, almost all of whom are academics of one stripe of another in one discipline or another.
For fifteen years now I have been the editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research Information Project, or MERIP as it is more commonly known, which has been around since 1971, and was founded consciously as a progressive project for reporting and analysis on contemporary Middle East affairs and also on the role of the United States and international powers in the region. MERIP has for most of its existence had one foot in the US Left (whatever that is), and one foot in the North American University system because most of the people we draw upon as authors and analysis have academic training and are academics. But what we try to do is take cutting edge scholarly knowledge and make it accessible to a broader audience. Not a mass audience, but what we call the “educated non-specialists.” So, the NPR listener or the reader of the New York Review of Books or The Nation literary section, or the London Review of Books, that is the kind of audience that we are trying to reach, that we have tried to reach historically. We publish a quarterly print magazine Middle East Report, of which I am editor and then periodic articles online and we launched a blog a few years ago as well. About ten years after everyone else did. That is basically what we do. We are a publisher, a public education organization.
BH: Before we go on, may I ask you a bit about the publication itself and given that it is a model for many not only people that you mentioned, the broader audience, but I do not know anyone in academia for instance who, let us say, does not have material from MERIP assigned–MERIP historically and now. What is it about MERIP that constitutes this kind of reference point and what is the formula, if there is a formula for producing something that lives for a long time, that provides a resource for experts/academics as well as lay people as well as the journalists or media community, and even the policy community at some level?
CT: I do not know if there is a formula and I am gratified by your kind words. I hope that this topic is useful to all those different kinds of people. It is hard to put into words. I know a good MERIP piece when I see it at this stage. It has certain qualities. It is well written; it is written consciously for one’s academic peers but for a broader group; it is timely; it is pegged to something that is happening in the news, if not today then at least in the last month. It is something that is in the mix. It is historically informed. It is also not afraid to take a position. It has an editorial edge, which could be angry even. And often that is a good register to write in, especially the subject matter that we deal with. It clearly evinces deep knowledge of the subject. It is based on field work, so you are getting some rich, fine-grained texture about a place or about a particular historical situation or a social group or a movement that you are not able to get from mainstream media reporting usually, except the stuff that is really good. I do not know if that is a formula. So how does that happen? That happens because, as I said, most of the people who we draw upon as authors are either people who have done serious scholarly fieldwork on this question, or really good journalists who have a lot of experience in the place and really know it well. And language skills are key, obviously. There is a big difference obviously, in the quality of reporting done for example, on the Arab world by native speakers of Arabic, or non-native speakers who speak Arabic very well. They can just get a much more textured view of a situation and even understand, because they understand what their interviewees are saying to them, they understand idioms, they understand figures of speech, and it just makes the reporting a lot better, a lot more nuanced.
BH: That is precisely the kind of thing I was asking because these elements can be used to construct the template for decent reporting, and this is our next topic. What is the state of reporting on the Middle East today? What kind of evaluation can we offer regarding the state of reporting on the Middle East, four years after the uprisings, but also in general in the past fifteen years or so given that we can find various markers, whether it is the rise of social media, or September 11, 2001, or even post-September 11. There is something about those fifteen years. How would you evaluate the state of reporting on the region?
CT: I think September 11, 2001, is a good starting point because for obvious reasons after that date there was an explosion of reporting about the Middle East. Much of it was not very good, but more and more of it became better as time went by. I do think that there has been an across the board improvement. If we are talking about the United States, obviously there is a big difference still between print and broadcast media. Broadcast media is usually shallower than print, just as a general rule. And that is often for reasons that the journalist has no control over: space constraints, time constraints, the constraints that are imposed by the broadcast genre, the whole way that broadcast media in our country in general has become more and more like entertainment and less and less like information or news. Print journalists in general have more latitude, although they also have many constraints of space and time that they have to contend with. But, they are able to, in general, get into much more depth.
One of the positive changes I think that has occurred in the last ten to fifteen years is that more and more of the people who are doing the on-the-ground reporting are native speakers or Arab Americans, people who know the language, know the culture, know the region fairly well already, and then learn it in much more depth when they are posted there as journalists. You know Anthony Shadid is frequently cited as a pioneer in this regard, and he was, but there are many other people we could point to now who are doing excellent work in both print and broadcast mediums. That is one change that you can point to that has been positive. Because of 9/11, because of the Intifada, because of the Iraq War and all that has happened subsequently, the Middle East has been very much in the news for the past fifteen years, very prominent in the news, to the degree that there is a fair amount of Middle East fatigue out there in the “heartland” as it were. But in general, I would say, that there has been an improvement. There are still a lot of problems. And here again, 9/11 is a good place to start if we posit that before 9/11 the previous trauma that is remotely comparable to Americans would be the Iranian Revolution and then the hostage crises. The hostage crisis was the origin, in contemporary times at least, of a lot of the mythology, stereotyping and so on that is associated with representations of the Middle East in the West generally, and particularly in the Western mainstream media. All of those stereotypes had faded a little bit over time, and we thought, those of us who had read Orientalism and really taken that critique to heart and had based our scholarly writing and research and teaching on those precepts, that some progress had been made in tearing down those stereotypes. And then 9/11 came along and it was very quickly revealed in the reporting after 9/11 that we had made very little progress at all in tearing down stereotypes. They were very much still there, and in particular the classic one is that the Middle East has continued to be seen as an area that is uniquely determined by religion, and is best understood through the prism of religion in particular, Islam. That Islam is the explanatory factor. And so that if you understand Islam you understand what you need to know about the region.
I would say since 9/11 what has happened is that within about five years, opinion in the West generally and in the United States, polarized between basically those who believed what I just said, that if you understand Islam you understand the Middle East, and those who thought that maybe you should look at some other factors: political and economic factors, cultural factors that do not have to do with religion, the role of the United States and other powers in the region for instance. And that polarization broke down roughly along political lines so that conservatives, generally speaking, were enamoured of the first view that Islam is the explanatory factor that is relevant and liberals generally speaking although there are many liberals who fell for the orientalist stuff too, but liberals were generally speaking were more willing to look at things in a more nuanced way. And that polarization I think has just become very entrenched. So this is bigger than the Middle East, it is bigger than 9/11. It is a part of what is happening to the American media landscape in general, that it is becoming more polarized along these political lines that the big cable networks barely pretend to be non-partisan anymore. MSNBC carries water for the Obama administration, Fox carries water for its own wing of the conservatives, etc. And this is just the way it is. There is more and more opinion in journalism – you seek out your information from the outlet that happens to correspond to your political leanings.
That polarization has become very entrenched, and there is a related issue which also has to do with this question of whether Islam is the best prism for understanding the region. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor at Reed did a very interesting research project a while back in which he interviewed a whole range of Americans from various walks of life about their knowledge of Islam and their opinions of Islam and he found something very interesting, which was that people who know nothing have more favorable opinions than people who knew a little bit. People who knew a lot had more favorable opinions than people who knew a little bit. So the most dangerous people in that regard are not the people who know nothing. It is the people who know a little bit. So you know, they know that Muslims that the Quran is the revealed word of God, and therefore infallible. That is a factoid that we know. So therefore, all Muslims everywhere in the world must take their marching orders from brushing their teeth to everything from the Quran, right? That is the type of knowledge that isn’t really knowledge, but sounds impressive to people who know nothing, right? So that is another kind of polarization that has occurred, that has become very entrenched and is made further entrenched by conservative ideologues like Pam Geller and Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer who play upon and perpetuate this idea that Islam is uniquely the prism through which to understand the Middle East and Muslims for that matter. That Muslims are themselves are uniquely determined by their religious faith in a way that Christians are not and Jews or not and Hindus are not. So that way of seeing things has become very entrenched at the same time that you have these positive changes as well.
BH: Thank you very much. This is very interesting, especially this discussion about how much you know says a lot, and that knowing nothing is a plus sometimes, compared to knowing a little from what is conventional.
CT: If you know nothing, you are willing to learn. If you know a little bit, you think that the person is lying to you.
BT: It is so true. Regarding the question of the uprisings, how did things change or did they change after the uprisings and do you see a difference between the first year, during that euphoria of reporting and then later when things went sour in many places? How do such developments – positive and negative – affect the quality of reporting and the extent to which people fall back on the familiar and the problematic when things go badly and rejoice when things go well and feel that their stereotypes are wrongheaded? How does this back-and-forth affect the quality of reporting in the context of the uprisings?
CT: I think what has happened with the uprisings has been a disaster for the status of reporting, simply because fewer and fewer places are accessible to journalists. It is physically dangerous to go to many places in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen now, Libya. We are not getting very much fine-grained, on the ground reporting from the areas controlled by ISIS in Syria because it is just not possible to get that. You can nibble around the edges of that story, but you cannot for the most part really get at it. Is this going to have a ripple effect for years and years down the road – which I am going to come back to in a minute–but just your question about the uprising, I think what has happened with the uprisings has been a disaster in another sense which in that is another hoary old chestnut about the Middle East, is that it does not change, and that the enmities and animosities that define the region’s politics are timeless.
And now, speaking of knowing a little bit, there is a little bit of knowledge that a lot of people have about the Middle East, and that is that everything is defined by sectarian conflict between, it used to be between Muslims and Christians and now it is between Sunnis and Shi’as. So that has become a prism through which everything is seen regardless of whether it has any relation at all to what is really going on on the ground at all. And the best example currently of that is in Yemen, the civil conflict in Yemen is being framed from the get go as yet another Sunni on Shi’a conflict, even though the Zaidi branch of Islam has nothing to do really with mainstream Twelver Shi’ism as practiced in Iran and Lebanon, and in some ways is closer to Sunnism. Even the conflict itself is political. It is about power. It is not about sectarian conflict. But, and unfortunately we have also seen with the case of Yemen is that there are powerful regional actors, chiefly the Saudi royal family, who have a real interest in perpetuating this narrative of sectarian conflict. And they have succeeded to a large degree in persuading not just the Western media, but a lot of the pan-Arab media that sectarian conflict is what is going on. I think that one of the saddest things is that I hear from people who follow what is going on in Yemen and that that narrative has to some degree taken root among Yemenis themselves! They now see things, a little bit at least, in that same way. In that sectarian way. So this I think one of the big disasters vis-a-vis public opinion, vis-a-vis information or the dissemination of information about the Middle East, is that so much of it now is framed that way – not just sectarian conflict, but other kinds of timeless immutable conflict: “They have always been fighting. They have always been fighting for thousands of years.” This was always the big problem talking about the question of Palestine too. People say: “Oh they’ve always been fighting”; “It is a religious conflict”; “It is about Jerusalem.” So now, that one conflict which was seen as intractable because it was timeless and religious has been expanded to the whole region and now the whole region is seen that way.
BH: What about the fact that early on the images that people saw on television of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people on the streets demanding what many assumed was not part of the demands of people in the region: democracy, freedom, and so on and so forth? What about the impact early on of these images which we saw resonate with some people and kind of debunked some of the perceptions, but then of course things went sour for various reasons in various places? Do you think this has any lasting effect–the power of the image on people witnessing this phenomenon? Or have we now gone way past that and the current problematics and the reversals have eclipsed that moment?
CT: I would say it is complicated of course. I think there was a generation or a fragment of a generation of Americans who, American youth basically, who were being introduced to the Middle East for the first time by the uprisings, Egypt being the big one and was so exciting and was a 24/7 story on CNN. And these people were propelled to learn more about the Middle East because the uprisings were so exciting. I think those people who took the trouble to really learn something have not fallen into stereotyping and the old ways of seeing things. They have really done serious study. Of course those people are always going to be a minority because most people just do not do that. But it is not all negative in that sense, right. I think there are some young reporters who cut their teeth on the uprisings who are doing just excellent work and they are going to go on to have really good careers and have learned a lot about the region through the uprisings and what has happened to them in the unfortunate durability of a lot of the authoritarian systems.
More broadly however I think, yes. I think that we have to say that the euphoria of that first year or so, first year and a half, has been eclipsed and I think it is actually worse than before. I do. For a couple of reasons. What were the uprisings about, as we understood? If we had to reduce the uprisings to one word as it was portrayed in our media: democracy. What was chosen when, in Egypt for example, through democracy? The Muslim Brothers. I am telling the narrative as it appears in our mainstream media, and not necessarily as you and I know it. What do the Muslim Brothers do when they were governing? They repressed the cops, the wanted to veil women, mandatorily. They did this and that. They were in league with Salafis. Essentially they saw democracy taking power through democratic means as a way to force Egyptian society into the mold that they wanted to see it in. And then, they were removed. And now Egypt has gone back to authoritarian rule in some ways more repressive and severe than under Mubarak. So the way that this is understood and framed in our media more generally reinforces the idea–another bold stereotype also perpetuated by authoritarian rulers in the region by the way – that democracy is simply not the best means of governance for the Arab world, or for the Middle East because the Middle East is not politically mature so to speak, ready for it, or because it is incompatible with Islam, or because now maybe the more pernicious idea of all, because the region is so diverse, so pluralistic, because there are so many ethnic and religious communities and they cannot live together unless ruled with an iron hand. So I think that that set of stereotypes has become, if anything, worse, in some ways because of the hopes engendered by the uprisings were so wonderful and that the letdown from that has been so emotionally devastating.
BH: Can we say that this is definitely one way to see it but the idea and the image and the fact that people for the first time in decades saw an alternative–even if it was repressed and taken elsewhere, and even if the “wrong people” won the day at least temporarily–do you think that could be a teaching moment for journalists and beyond: that there is at least a set of preferences among the people of the region that is not among our repertoire of what the preferences of the people in the region are; that there is some hope, some light as to how these uprisings can be portrayed, even as they are souring today? Or do you think that eclipsing is going to marginalize it?
CT: Yes, it is a teachable moment. And like I said, I do think that there are many people – again it is not a huge number of people – but people who were inspired by the uprisings to really study the region seriously. For those people, yes, and they will try to teach others. So it is not all dark in that sense, yes. But I do think that and we can also say about the region itself–just to take ourselves out of the realm of our presentation for a moment–the experience that Egyptians had for example of forcing a dictator of a tenure of thirty years to step down, was a rare taste of real power and of victory. A historical, epical victory. Even with all that is happened since, and even though a lot of those activists leaders are languishing in jail, more have chosen exile because it is too depressing to be in Egypt now, or too dangerous to be in Egypt now–I do not think that that experience simply vanishes. You keep something from that experience. If nothing else you learn from your own missteps, your own mistakes what you could have done to consolidate the victory and did not do. And at least those lessons are passed on. Even if the opportunity to put them into action may not come along for a long time, at least the memory and the lessons are being preserved.
BH: Thank you. You mentioned earlier the ripple effects that you are going to come back to.
CT: It is very difficult to do fine–grained reporting on many places in the region right now. That also applies more so to scholarly knowledge because you know scholars are not going to go around into combat zones with lots of security details. That is not how you do scholarly research. And you are not going to get funding to go to a place that is dangerous. So what is going to happen–and we are already seeing it happen and it is not new actually, it is probably three or four years old now–there is going to be a real dearth of quality scholarly research on a vast swath of the region: Syria, Iraq, even Egypt, Yemen. All of these places are basically not going to be accessible for the foreseeable future. So there is going to be a real gap in fine-grained knowledge of the politics and social trends in these places. I am already seeing just from my perch as an editor that a lot of people now are working on Syrian refugees. So we are going to have a lot of really great work on Syrian refugees in Jordan or in Lebanon. But we are not going to have much about what is going on in Syria. So this is going to have ripple effects down the road for a long time to come. Maybe a parallel to make is with Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s. It was very difficult for many reasons to do scholarly research in Iraq in that period under Saddam. So after the 2003 invasion, after Saddam fell, scholars discovered that a lot of the things they thought about Iraq, that were true of Iraq in the 1970s were not true of Iraq in 2003. So there was a lot of catch up that had to be played there. And that may happen with these other places as well.
BH: So before we close, moving away from the critique of people who are theologocentric in their approach where they put religion as an explanatory factor that explains everything, and going beyond the sectarian prism, and going beyond all of these problematic stereotypes, “orientalist” tropes. Let us look at us. The people who are not Islamophobic, the people who are not reductionists so to speak. The people who we feel are trying hard to look for answers and reject the dominant narratives. Are we doing a good job? Are we doing what we need to do, given that the mainstream is not always, or usually is not doing a good job? What is the responsibility of people who think like us, that we need to avoid those problematics? Is it enough to say that? We could look good simply by not sounding idiotic. But is this lowering all of our standards in terms of reporting? Are we satisfied if we convert someone from being Islamophobic to being neutral as opposed to actually being knowledgable? Wehave to remind ourselves that excellence in reporting and journalism and even scholarly production should not be measured against these very low thresholds. What are we doing and what else can we do to go to the next level, given that we are still in the minority?
CT: Well, again, I do think that has been some progress. I do think that – to generalize grossly here – the knowledge base and that the reporting abilities of print journalists who are doing reporting from the region has risen. It is just better. And that has an effect. I do think that perhaps we can be, those of us who are trying to do these things seriously and without recourse to stereotyping, we can be more creative perhaps about what we study, how we go about studying it. We can figure out ways of figuring out what is going on in the areas controlled by ISIS without having to go there and without spending months and months on end living there. I do not know what that is, but there are ways. I mean, people are doing this already and I think that some of the finest grain stuff that is going to come out is done based on interviews with people who have fled those regions, and so they did experience life there under ISIS and know what is going on at least to some degree. So it is happening. I do think that people are trying, but there are obstacles that are pretty hard to overcome and I guess I would have to say, and I do not mean to end on a down note, I would have to say that in the course of my experience doing this stuff I have become humbler about our ability to communicate the ideas we want to communicate and have them really sink in to the audience that we want to reach.
We have to remember that we are only one source of information. I have had this experience personally a few times where I was really taken aback. For instance I got into a little bit of an argument with a friend of the family about this Jihadwatch website, this guy Robert Spencer. This guy asked me, “So what do you think of this website?” So I said, “It is trash. This guy is a jerk.” And I had to argue with him about it. Your authority is not unquestioned. It is not just going to be taken up because you study the Middle East, therefore I am going to learn from you. That is not the attitude of people anymore. Because they know a little bit, right? I am getting back to that problem. And there going to make up their own minds what they think based on the information that they are getting from a whole panoply of sources. Here we can talk about the erosion of intellectual authority in Western society in general, which is not necessarily something to mourn, by the way. But we have to face that reality that our “expertise” is not given the automatic deference or the automatic value that it maybe used to have. And people have lots of ways of forming their opinions and getting their information. With most people, personal direct experience is always going to be the most important thing. Which is why I always think that, for instance, regarding opinions about the Palestinian situation, it is very difficult to actually travel to the West Bank and then come back here and not understand what the balance of power is there and who is oppressed and who is not. But without going there and seeing it with your own eyes it is not that hard to keep various myths in your head. But most people are not going to do that, right? So yes, there is a tremendous ongoing responsibility for all of us to keep trying to communicate our ideas and more complicated nuanced ways of interpreting the region, but it is an uphill battle in a lot of ways.
BH: Thanks Chris, one last question. It is going to be very simple. It is about Israel and Palestine. [Laughs] In the past, you and I met maybe twenty years ago or something like that, it was a different time in terms of Israel-Palestine reporting. I think at some level we actually have better reporting, at least for those who are willing to seek alternatives in terms of reporting. The fact that you could read certain kinds of articles in some mainstream press that one could not find in the 1990s, there is some sort of change and you could see that during the last war on Gaza. Is this a mirage? Can you tell us a little bit about how things have changed and why and whether the direction is unilinear?
CT: I do not know if the direction is linear at all. But there has been a change. I hesitate to use the word “sea change.” I know that some people do think that that is appropriate, but I am not willing to go quite that far yet. But yes, what I would call a fact-based view of the conflict which many people would call pro-Palestinian, but I would just call it fact-based or sympathy for the Palestinian narrative is more widespread in media and in public opinion. Israel was not given the automatic deference that it once was. That is partly started with the first Intifada, continued with the second. The Mavi Marmara incident was key. The Lebanon war in 2006 was key, and the last assault on Gaza last summer was really important in that regard.
BH: More than previous one in 2009?
CT: Yes, more than the previous rounds of attack on Gaza for sure.
BH: Why is that? At least in terms of the reporting?
CT: I do think that the quality of reporting had some effect. I mean, there is a story to tell there right? Ayman Mohyeldin. He was there. He saw the boys get blown up on the beach. And then he was relieved of his reporting duties under these transparently ridiculous reasons. It was very clear, very clear that his bosses did not think that he could report objectively because he is of Arab heritage. And there was an outcry about that in social media where people called that out for the racism that it is, and he was restored to his position and continued to do his work. So I think that has an effect. That incident in particular but many others just made it so stark what was really happening. This really was a slaughter. This was not a war. This was a very one-sided slaughter where the more powerful party was reducing entire cities to rubble for no discernable strategic purpose. And I think that really rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They said, “Why? What is this about?” The broader change that is occurring in American politics is that the question of Palestine is becoming partisan, which is a new development for sure. It used to be that you would find a lot of deference to the Zionist narrative in both parties. More and more it is possible within the Democratic Party to not pay any heed to those narratives really, and to adopt a fact-based view of the conflict. And in particular the more right-wing Zionist ideas are becoming the province of conservatives and the Republican Party. I do not know what the long-term effects of this change are going to be, but that does seem at this stage to be something that is moving ahead, that is linear.
BH: You said something about social media, and we’ll stop after this question. Is there a discernable effect on social media, electronic media, the blog world? In this case you said there was uproar and it actually had an impact. Did this development compel mainstream media to, not necessarily do their job better, but to recognize that there is an alternative that is appealing and that if they do not actually provide more context, more historicization, more background to stories, they are going to be outdone? Or is it simply the fact that people are getting frustrated with the belligerence of Israel and the carte blanche that we used to give? Or is it a combination of things?
CT: I think it behooves us to keep social media in proper perspective too. It is not the be-all, end-all that people that people thought it was ten years ago or five years ago. I think what social media is best at still, starting with blogs and moving on to Facebook and Twitter, what it is still best at is fact-checking and accountability for media reporting. It has a real impact in those areas that is demonstrable time and time again. It is a way of keeping the media honest, which is a very important role. And that sort of work was done beforehand by media watchdog organizations like FAIR and others. It is done on the Right too, by Accuracy in Media. It is not just the province of progressives. But social media has democratized that work and therefore made its impact greater. And yes, there is some accountability there, an accountability effect that is created. I think we have to temper that with the knowledge that the domain of social media is vast, the vast majority of it has nothing to do with politics or the news. It has to do with nail polish and cat pictures and… the Kardashians of course. That is the world in which we live. What can I say? And the other thing that we have to temper our enthusiasm with is the knowledge that social media is being used in the same ways by political opponents. And there is also a certain effect in social media, an echo chamber effect, which is not different from old style media outlets. That polarization that I referred to earlier happens in social media as well. Are the bubbles more permeable than they are in big media? Maybe. But I do not know, I think we should just temper our enthusiasm a little bit.
BH: Absolutely. Especially when you see that, as you said, the same outlets or the same outfits or the same organizations that are producing abridged reporting are now getting into social media and they have their own tools and their own websites and they are also competing in that realm. So there is no substitute to discerning good from bad reporting, wherever.
CT: Yes, and that is a key point. It is becoming harder and harder for the average person to discern good from bad, just from the sheer volume of stuff that is out there on the internet and elsewhere. This creates a real challenge for those of us who do understand and who do have real knowledge and are trying to communicate it in an accessible way - how to make sure that we stand out from the crowd, not just in terms of the quality of the product, but in terms of how it is packaged. And that is a real challenge, and that is a place where we have not been so good in the past.
BH: Chris, is there anything that you would like to leave us with, especially addressing people who are thinking about joining the workforce of media reporters and journalists? Any advice for people who want to get into this field, in terms of the importance of learning the language, of visiting, of being diverse and looking at alternatives?
CT: Read widely, read things that are not just written for academics. Read the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, publications like that, the “mesosphere” as some people call it, and I think is a great term for it. And learn the language. Whether it is Turkey that you are interested in or the Arab world or Iran, wherever it is. Learn the language and learn it well. At least get yourself functional so that you do not have to rely on third parties to translate everything for you. Those are the keys.
BH: And what about this annoying question, this idea that you want to become a journalist but you also want to survive and have a salary and the best route sometimes is not the best media outlet out there. Is there a way around that or can people do their training some place and then move on? There is a lot of skepticism and people are allergic to working in certain places, but is there a way around this or it all can be a learning experience?
CT: I do not think there is a way around it unfortunately. And that is a real problem. People who have the resources, who have some family money and can afford to freelance for peanuts for a while until they latch onto a full-time job have a real advantage over those who are of a more modest means, no question about it. There are lots of stories of people who through sheer persistence have landed jobs, full-time jobs that pay decently and so on. But we do not hear the stories of people who have had to drop out, who are undoubtedly more numerous.
So no, I do not think there is a way around it. You have to pay your dues and luck, as in everything in life, is a factor.
BH: This has been a learning experience, and talking about things that you thought you knew is actually extremely beneficial because lots of insights emerged that I am appreciating. I want to thank you Chris for coming to the studio, for coming all the way out here.
CT: You are very welcome. Thank you for having me.