The Volokh Conspiracy

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"Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats"


An article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, about his profile of Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman; here are the closing paragraphs:

Various journalists complained that I described MBS as personally "charming" and "intelligent." To this my reply is twofold. First, MBS was indeed charming and intelligent, and if you want me to say otherwise, then you want to be lied to. Second, if you think charm and intelligence are incompatible with being a sociopath, then your years in Washington, D.C., have taught you less than nothing.

Any publication bragging that it is too sanctimonious to accept an invitation to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is admitting it cannot cover Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic is not in the business of sanctimony, and it expects its readers to understand, without being told, that someone who dwells on his own indignities as the result of a murder, rather than on the suffering of the victim, might not be the perfect steward of absolute power.

All journalism is an attempt to bring readers things they do not know, and all interviews with heads of state involve getting them to say things they wish they had not said. To elicit these utterances, one must approach the subject sideways—and, most of all, keep him talking, and reveal more than he intends to say.

"Giving a platform"—to use the cliché that imprisons the minds of those who don't know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is—is not a favor bestowed on important people. It is an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors. And that is exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose past two days have been spent desperately fluffing pillows for a soft landing below, seem to think their ruler did.