The press junket that brought Western journalists to meet Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Damascus has paid off handsomely for the regime. The two-day affair, sponsored by Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz al-Akhras, has already thrown off a number of largely uncritical and even sympathetic stories in major American media outlets, like The New York Times, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.
The astonishing ease with which a genocidal regime can use willing Western journalists as props should be alarming to anyone who is not already alarmed by the collapse of basic standards of reporting—and common sense—by people who once prided themselves on being “gatekeepers” but now look more like men’s room attendants at a gross country club. You’d think that with all these overachievers working for some of America’s top media organizations there’d be at least one stubborn son of a bitch who would have said, “Forget it”: Screw these guys—I’ll sit and listen to their crap for two days and I’ll eat their hummus, but if they think I’m taking marching orders from a vicious third world dictatorship that mutilates teenagers before they send the corpses back to their families, they can go to hell.
Nope, they all filed on time, like A+ students.
“Why is the government allowing journalists in now,” NPR asked its correspondent Peter Kenyon, one of the regime’s invited guests. “I think the government wants to get its side of the story out and realizes it has been not doing a great job of that,” said Kenyon. “And when it was pointed out that maybe if more reporters from the West got in to see what was going on, a fuller picture might come out, some of the officials said ‘yeah, that could be right.’”
Satisfied with their new self-appointed mission of helping a genocidal dictator get his side of the story out, social media is now trying to decide which of the dispatches from Damascus is the winner. I studied literary theory in graduate school at Cornell, which was then the home for that kind of thing, but I must have missed the section on the aesthetics of stenography, because I can’t discern whose version of this pathetic, servile art is better than the others.
The twitter consensus seems to hold that The New York Times’ Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard is the clear winner. Maybe it’s the color. For example, Barnard notes a painting hanging in the grand entryway of the presidential palace, and writes that it “was a reminder of quieter days, when Mr. Assad and his wife, Asma, had more time to spend as patrons of the arts.”
The 21st century’s most murderous couple—patrons of the arts. Of course it could be a clever “hint” of irony, as some speculated—though such “hints” are no doubt lost on the men, women, and children who are being bombed daily by Assad and his art-loving wife, who will no doubt be profiled again soon in Vogue.
Regardless, it seems that some editor at The New York Times eventually thought better of this kind of fawning, because the paper then published a later version of Barnard’s piece without her tribute to the Medicis of the Levant. Someone, perhaps the same editor, or Barnard herself, also added a layer of editorial voice that put some human distance between the reporter and the monster dictating to her and her colleagues. “It was a surreal meeting for me,” Barnard now writes in the new version of her story, “after years of writing about a devastating and intractable war that has reduced several of Syria’s grand city centers to rubble and prompted accusations of war crimes.”
The reality is that the Assad regime did a number on our brain-dead press corps and the dummies who edit them. For instance, Suzan Haidamous, a Washington Post correspondent who attended the conference and festooned her photographs of her and her colleagues with celebratory hash-tags like #goodtimes—I’m not making this up —tweeted, in response to the ensuing criticism, that the regime did not “use us”—“we covered our expenses.”
@cerenomri i respect your opinion, but was never meant this way. We covered our expenses. They can not use us believe me.
— suzan Haidamous (@suzanHaidamous) November 2, 2016
That’s one way to see it, which may soothe the concerns of the Post’s ombudsman. See? We paid our own way! Of course the other way to see that is that she’s proud that American press organizations actually paid with their own credit cards for the privilege of taking group dictation from an Arab despot. You can be sure that’s how the ruling clique in Damascus sees it. #journalism.
There is nothing in the Barnard story, or the nearly identical New Yorker story filed by Dexter Filkins—who, to his credit, actually looked uncomfortable in the group photographs that showed him and his colleagues enjoying #goodtimes and #journalism in fancy Damascus restaurants—that couldn’t have been emailed, faxed, or phoned in by Assad’s spokesman. Filkins, for instance, asked a man responsible for nearly half a million murders, using chemical weapons, bombing children, and ordering the rape and torture of detainees, what it felt like to be branded a war criminal. Believe it or not, Assad had prepared an answer.
“There’s nothing personal about it—I am just a headline,” he said. “The headline is ‘The bad President, the bad guy, is killing the good guys. They are the freedom fighters.’ And so on. You know this. It’s black and white.”
Or, as Barnard recorded Assad’s deeply revealing answer, clearly intended only for her, and the readers of the Times:
“I’m just a headline—the bad president, the bad guy, who is killing the good guys,” Mr. Assad said. “You know this narrative. The real reason is toppling the government. This government doesn’t fit the criteria of the United States.”
There’s an art to interviewing people, even monsters, and getting them to say things they wish they hadn’t—but this certainly isn’t it, folks. This is stenography. That’s just an added benefit for the Assad regime, which never cared in the first place what its chosen journalists reported from the conference. All it wanted was to have the press there in order to send the message that it is “normal” to talk to Assad. So what if he’s up to his long neck in blood, if the New York Times is sending its correspondent—then what’s wrong, for instance, with a congressional delegation? How about the secretary of state?
Thus the most bizarre part of this sad episode was watching the Assad press junket held up on Twitter by an assortment of creeps and ingenues as an example of what’s right with journalism. Unbelievably, many of these people are journalists.
In response to my story last week about this group of journalist who took up the invite to the Assad regime, the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald tweeted:
Too bad @ABarnardNYT & other journalists had to get smeared as Assad-stooges in order to do this reporting https://t.co/qaqxMlMONQ https://t.co/WWa7AXq5OW
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 2, 2016
Why is Greenwald defending a junket paid for by a dictator’s father-in-law? Maybe his appreciation for Assad is an extension of his appreciation for Assad’s protector, Vladimir Putin. Edward Snowden’s continuing presence in Moscow—and the continuing silence of Snowden and Greenwald about the exploits of the world’s most famous law-breaking, war-starting, carpet-bombing, opponent-murdering dictator—are certainly suggestive. What’s not hard to demonstrate is that Assad is Putin’s client, which is why Russian airplanes continue bombing Aleppo to rubble, when not bombing UN food convoys. And Glenn Greenwald defends “reporters” whose presence is intended to demonstrate that Putin’s mass-murdering buddy is a legitimate world leader and a true friend of Western values.
Other journalists weighed in, too.
“Argument that US journalists shouldn’t interview Assad is the stupidest idea of the day,” tweeted Foreign Policy editor David Kenner. “We should only talk to nice people?”
It’s certainly useful to know that a publication devoted to reporting on international affairs thinks that a group appointment arranged by the father-in-law of a mass murderer is real journalism. Readers of Foreign Policy, be forewarned: David Kenner thinks junkets are hard-hitting reporting, and that distributing someone else’s talking points is a good day’s work for his reporters. I’ve been on plenty of press junkets, which can have their good points—free food, air-conditioned bus tours, making new friends in exotic places—but this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard anyone portray a reporter’s presence on a junket as an exercise in journalistic courage.
“New York Times writers have died covering Syria,” Politico editor Blake Hounshell pompously tweeted at me, as if he’s putting his ass in danger while spending his days editing stories about things people said on Twitter, and retailing “leaks” and “scoops” and “talking points” provided by political operatives in the US. Hounshell was likely referring to Anthony Shadid, who died crossing the border out of Syria in 2012 from what was reported to have been an asthma attack. Now, Shadid was a terrific journalist, but he wasn’t killed by the regime, unlike the Lebanese journalists that Assad and Hezbollah murdered after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, like Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni, both killed in car bombs—as were many Lebanese anti-Syrian regime activists, along with Lebanese security officials and politicians, including the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri. That’s what the American journalists on the junket were serving to legitimize: a regime that kills Arab journalists and Arab pro-democracy activists.
The issue here is not simply about the health of the American media, but our engagement with the world more generally. The Assad regime has now used our press in a campaign to legitimize its “side of the story.” The presence of the journalists at the Damascus conference as well as the response on social media suggests that many of us find it perfectly normal to politely engage and “discourse” with the most murderous regime of the 21st century. We believe we are doing something difficult and brave by ordering room service. Well, terrific. That’s exactly what the ruling clique in Damascus had in mind. What’s even more worrying is that our policymakers and statesmen can’t be far behind.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).