Q&A: Wojciech Jagielski
The Polish long-form master and Kapuscinski heir talks about children in war and the fate of journalism
The massacre of Polish Jews after the war in Jedwabne was perpetrated by other Poles. But both the Polish Jews and other Poles who lived in that area were horribly victimized by the Nazis.
Heroes happen, but there are very few of them, and the same is true of evil people. Yes, everybody treats Korczak like as a hero, but you also have Poles who acted badly. We will find Polish Jews who behaved like heroes and patriots, and we will also find Jews who were selling Poles to the Soviet army, or selling their fellow Jews to the Germans. I’m very thankful that this experience, this war reporting, it helps me to understand thousands of things also from my own history. Because the easiest path is simply to have a direction, go right, go left, green light, red light—it is not up to you to make choices. But these simple instructions are not the real world. So, now if something is happening, I try to find out why.
But what I observe about journalism today is that we are in the state of very deep crisis. And if we are in crisis, it doesn’t mean that we will be cured. Maybe we will die.
The patient doesn’t always recover.
For me, the journalistic approach to war really changed after Sept. 11 when the media realized that the live report from New York and having millions of people in front of the TV screens is a better business than any live show. Then in Afghanistan, you had hundreds of freelancers, half of them without any knowledge of where Afghanistan was or what had been going on there. On the other hand, the old newspapers do not have enough money to cover all these things properly, so they were grateful that they could find someone who thinks that he can do the journalist’s job.
Sometimes I get the impression that journalism is not a profession anymore. It’s a hobby. I mean, you and I can play soccer or football, but it doesn’t mean we are professionals. They are not also professionals, but still, we call these people journalists.
The worst are the political opinion websites, and the people who comment on those websites. I read that crap and I wonder why I should bother to go anywhere and report anything, when everyone already knows exactly what Afghanistan is like, and what we should do there—which always magically comes down to a question of which American political party is right.
Yes, in Poland we have the exact same phenomenon. Something happened in Nigeria, you have the comments—the liberals say, “Yes, this is because of the bloody colonialism. Black Africa’s suffering!” The rightists say, “Look at these bloody Africans. They cannot do nothing. You need to send them another colonialist government and start to teach them.” So, with all this noise there’s no space for any explanation by a journalist who knows anything about Nigeria.
When I began my journalistic career in the early ’90s, there was no Internet, no mobile phones. My main role was to make the selection among all this rubbish, this mountain or river of information to say that this is important, and this is bullshit. Of course, it was my selection and it was hardly objective, but it was professional. And I think still that you need such an intermediary.
The last offer that I got from my newspaper was to go to Libya for one week. I refused because one week is a meaningless amount of time, and Libya was never my area of interest. In my newspaper, I was writing about Africa, former Soviet Union, and part of south Asia. I mean, you wouldn’t call it a specialization. It’s half the world. But now, they do not need such a specialist. You covered one war and it is enough to send you to all possible wars in the world as a war correspondent.
But on the other hand, I am a privileged one because I was there in the ’90s, which was the golden era of journalists in Poland. We had money for everything and interest in everything. My editors in chief were going for a visit to New York, they were coming back to the newsroom and they wanted everything. “Jagielski, you are here, why you are not there?” So, I traveled and traveled and traveled.
Now there’s no space for my kind of journalism. On one hand, I am happy because I am writing the books, but on this other hand, it also proves that we as journalists are failing these readers who want to read long feature stories. Maybe our editors were not right when they were telling us journalists that the readers want short stories, they cannot focus on the long stories, they want pictures and highlights, and that’s all.
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