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"Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats"

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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.

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  1. All the news that discomfits we print.

    1. What will an autocrat repeat but his usual self justification? It is garbage journalism, as is almost all journalism. If you read a paper from 10 or from 20 years ago, the content is likely to be the same as today. They are just bringing eyes to the advertisers. There is no higher social purpose.

      1. Putin has his mistress and his 4 children in Switzerland. Ukraine should send a team and live stream a visit. To deter.

        1. We are sick fo the protection of the lawyer of these ultra-toxic war criminals.

          1. Bring Putin's family to Kiev or another bombarded city. Let him wonder if he will ever see them again after they are bombed by the Russian military.

            1. Then review this rule which led to the Supreme Court decision.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_lenity

  2. "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."

    Third, charm and intelligence help make an autocrat more dangerous. A dictator who is stupid with no social graces will be much more likely to fall, or at least give fewer problems.

  3. Ahh, now if we could only get snowflakes to understand this. Affirmative racism began with the 1964?5? Civil Rights Act, I believe, and its destruction of freedom of association was one of the worst constitutional abuses.

    Just as it is better to get dictators' views out in the open where the public can know them and steer away from them, so is it better when racists and sexists and bigots of all stripes to flaunt their bigotry, to advertise it with door signs, so everybody else can know who to avoid, and to make the bigots aware of how what price they are paying to restrict their customer and employee base, and how much extra they will have to pay when UPS or FedEx or other businesses boycott them just as they boycott their disfavored classes.

    1. The reason why the actual, not hypothetical/abstract, people who were the target of such bigots pushed for the law you criticize is because their status quo was what you offer for a solution and they didn't think it worked at all.

      "We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities." MLK, I Have a Dream Speech (who knew there was more in there than his decrying affirmative action!).

      1. "people who were the target of such bigots pushed for the law you criticize is because their status quo was what you offer for a solution and they didn't think it worked at all."

        No it wasn't. Segregated services were often required by Jim Crow laws. That's why the called them Jim Crow laws, not Jim Crow freedoms.

        1. Segregated services were often required by Jim Crow laws.

          True. Often, but not always. And where they were imposed by law those laws were overwhelmingly popular among the white population. The main thrust of many political campaigns was proving you were a bigger racist than the other guy.

          Anyone who imagines that a restaurant or hotel that chose to integrate would suddenly be overrun with customers and make a fortune doesn't know a damn thing about the Jim Crow South.

          And of course there were plenty of racist practices not mandated by law, that persisted despite libertarian fantasies. Establishments in the north were often segregated and even in the South there were hardly any Jim Crow laws about employment, yet somehow, magically, racial discrimination prevailed.

      2. Queenie. Very moving commentary. What is your race? For the letter.

    2. so is it better when racists and sexists and bigots of all stripes to flaunt their bigotry, to advertise it with door signs, so everybody else can know who to avoid, and to make the bigots aware of how what price they are paying to restrict their customer and employee base,

      They had no trouble flaunting their bigotry, which by the way didn't cost them anything, whereas serving Black customers would have cost them the vast majority of their white business.

      In short, as I've said repeatedly, the market reinforced racism, it did not diminish it.

    3. You do realize how ridiculous the patriots and truckers look in their grievance claims of 'destruction of freedom' for masks or whatnot when compared to Ukraine? As petty as it was in 1965.

  4. The ego to think it matters at all what The Atlantic prints.

    He did the interview because he knows he weathered the storm and likes to rub it in.

    1. Most probably. Good point.

  5. Hot damn, give this guy an award. He understands.

  6. There's a difference between covering someone, giving them a platform to improve their PR, and then actively flattering them. You don't need the latter two to do the first well, but interviews do not necessarily do the latter either.

    1. Agreed. Little of the commentary I've seen on the original piece objects to the mere fact of covering MBS. Rather, it's focused on the fact that the piece somewhat credulously helps MBS move past the Khashoggi murder and prop up his international credibility. See, e.g.:

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/06/mbs-the-atlantic-saudi-arabia-lies-disdain/

      1. Karen Attiah (at the Washington Post) has a better perspective on this than does Graeme Wood, who seems rather sycophantic toward the Saudi dictator.

        Perhaps Graeme Wood is still in Saudi Arabia and doesn't want the bonesaw to come for him?

  7. I am waiting for the interviews with pedophiles, rapists, and every person who does horrible things in the name of "bring[ing] readers things they do not know." Anything readers do not know needs to be told. Forget whether you are focusing on the people who do terrible things instead of the people who are victimized. The thing people need to know is about the perpetrators of horrible acts and not the consequences of those acts. I am very glad to see Wood using his journalistic integrity to bring readers this captivating information about a despot. Forget about interviewing the people MSB is torturing and killing. They don't matter. The only story, in the name of free speech, is MSB.

    1. The existence of "Son of Sam laws" testifies to the market for the words of a notorious killer. And MBS is both notorious and important.

      Your average pedophile, rapist, and doer of horrible deeds isn't newsworthy unless Fox News or the New York Post needs to stir up some outrage. ("Transgender illegal alien molests girl while progressive DA does nothing!")

      1. There definitely is a market for it, I agree. It seems like journalists focus on what people want to know, which is sensationalized stories often at the expense of victims, instead of what they need to know. What they need to know is obviously subjective, but focusing so heavily on perpetrators at the expense of victims and, when they do focus on victims taking advantage of them, is not what they need to know.

        1. People decide for themselves what they need to know. Journalists who take it upon themselves to make that decision are propagandists.

          1. Need is different than want. One can't decide that they need something and have that necessarily make it be true. Needs can be subjective, yes, but if those needs are to voyeuristically look at the suffering of other people, those needs should not be honored.

      2. Here is to hoping you live through something as traumatic and are confronted with the collective shrug of your fellow travellers.

    2. starlord1988: Haven't reporters interviewed many criminals, from Charles Manson on down? My sense is that such interviews are seen as offering potentially valuable insights into why criminals do what they do, how they mentally rationalize it, and so on.

      But of course interviews with bad people in positions of great power are even more valuable, because it's especially important to know what's going through their minds, precisely given their power. And I expect that with them one doesn't have the "you're giving people an incentive to commit crimes so they can become famous" objection; the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be moved to murder by that particular rationale, right?

      1. I don't have that objection, as I doubt many people would commit crimes simply by seeing an interview. If the goal of the interviews is simply to gain valuable information on the people and their thinking, any money made from the broadcasting of that interview, from ads or anything else, should go to victims. I don't know for sure, but I doubt that is the case.

        If news organizations are making any profit from the interviews, those organizations and reporters are profiting off of peoples' suffering. They of course have the free speech for it, but I find it unethical on their part to profit off suffering.

        1. They are not making profit by making other people suffer. Your standard seems to be that if people are suffering, it is immoral to make a profit reporting that. Should reports on floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars, or FBI crime stats be forbidden because the reporters make money?

          1. Profits should not be forbidden but if media organizations are making a profit off of publicizing suffering, I see that as immoral on their part.

            1. So that whole "If it bleeds, it leads" is not for you then, huh.

        2. starlord1988, your comment points to a dilemma—one which journalists assigned to report crises feel keenly. Whenever the subject covered involves tragedy, a journalist finds himself cast in the role of an essentially over-curious bystander, often while others nearby do their utmost to alleviate suffering or save lives. It can be a shockingly emotional situation, and one which many decent folks shrink from instinctively. I will give you an example, and then explain how I resolved a personal dilemma.

          I was a journalist in a small town, populated by fewer than 10,000 people, at a ski resort in the northern Rockies. One of my assignments was to follow up on police reports, so it fell to me late one night to drop my duties helping to assemble the newspaper, and go instead to check out a commotion of emergency vehicles, then arriving only a short distance from the newspaper office. As it happened, I entered an apartment on the heels of the first EMT to arrive, someone I knew well. Others came quickly. They had no objection to my presence.

          The problem was a drug overdose. A young man lay supine on a couch, in a white T-shirt and jockey briefs, unconscious, with a tourniquet on his bicep, a syringe still in place, needle in the lower arm, and his jaw gaping.

          His distraught girl friend had tried to revive him, but soon called for help. The scene was stark and dirty looking, illuminated by a single bare bulb hanging from a ceiling connection.

          The first EMT to arrive felt for a neck pulse, checked for throat obstruction, tossed a rickety coffee table aside, and dragged the man almost violently off the couch to the floor. That took only a few seconds. He then began furiously pounding the victim's sternum, while intermittently applying mouth-to-mouth. The EMT later told me that with the first attempt to get air into the victim's lungs he could tell the victim was dead. But he kept pounding and blowing air. At the first blow to the sternum, the girlfriend let reality overwhelm hope, and began screaming and wailing.

          I stood by with a camera in my hands, almost in shock, taking no pictures. Just standing there like a tourist.

          I am not unfamiliar with death and serious injury. At the time of the overdose incident, I had already seen car crash victims, horribly injured and dead, a murder victim shot to death in the head, drowning victims, and people killed in the crash and fuel explosion of a light airplane, where I chanced to be almost at the scene when it happened. By pure coincidence, the only crash survivor was someone I knew well, a banker I did business with. But as I looked at him receiving emergency medical attention on the grass, beside the still-flaming single-engine plane, I had no notion. His face was too horribly burned for me to recognize who he was.

          Many years later I was walking the beach in the early morning, and found the drowned body of a suicide victim. I reported it to police—a dead man at low tide, with rocks in his pockets, and beach sand filling his mouth.

          For some reason, however, that overdose scene disconcerted me more than any of the others. I felt so intensely that I was invading a scene of private tragedy, and that anything I did would be an attempt to profit privately off that awful circumstance. Nobody there was giving me any social pressure. I couldn't understand why they didn't. I felt almost criminal.

          Back at the newspaper office, I had to write it up. I used one paragraph, omitting the name of the dead guy. I put the story on an inside page. Of course there was no photo.

          I came to regret that decision. That heroin death was a precursor. It was shortly followed by two others, maybe both killed by the same batch of bad drugs. Nothing like that had ever occurred in that little town.

          When that first death happened, I was not emotionally ready to do my job. I felt then and feel still that I missed a chance to avert more tragedy. I should have taken a dramatic photo of that tawdry-looking resuscitation attempt, victim in his underwear, needle in his arm, and the upraised fist of the medic trying to revive him. That should have gone at the top of the front page. That could not have happened then, though. I feared the charge of sensationalism. And anyway, I had been emotionally frozen, and thrown away the opportunity.

          Thereafter, I was ready. And I trained others. If you have a camera, no matter what you feel, it is your job to take pictures—the best, most explanatory pictures you can make. Do your thinking about how appropriate it may be later. You only get the choice to do that if you do not fail to act at the moment of crisis.

          Later, if it seems inappropriate to use pictures you have already made, you will always be free to make that decision after you see the pictures, and consider the circumstances. Given a repeat experience, I would thereafter have considered the possibility of more drug deaths.

          I was carrying a camera when I found the dead guy on the beach. I was no longer a journalist, but I took the pictures I would have taken formerly—of the victim, of the arrival of the emergency vehicles, of the police exploring the scene. Of the place itself, which was an almost ironic scene of seaside beauty. One of the cops tried to stop me, but I just backed off and kept shooting. No one but me has ever seen those pictures, and no one will. To show them would only have caused pain to the dead guy's family. After a few days passed, it became evident that those photos served no useful purpose.

      2. Right. A powerful politician like the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, or Vladimir Putin, I want to understand. The street thug who kills someone, not so much.

      3. Eugene is a child. There is zero value in the self justification of evil people. The sole value is to bring eyes to advertisers.

        There are two people with lower morals than the lawyer. One is the serial rapist and murderer of children. The other is the journalist.

      4. I have a friend who interviewed Timothy McVeigh in prison. I don't think it helped McVeigh's cause.

  8. Without having read anything about this controversy other than this blog post, it seems like a pretty good response by the journalist to his critics. One potential quibble: wouldn’t someone with MBS’s purported charm, and clear success, be a psychopath rather than a sociopath (if we had to pick one or the other)? Maybe I misunderstand the distinction, but I think of Patrick Bateman and Hannibal Lector as psychopaths, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family as sociopaths.

    1. There is no difference between sociopathy and psychopathy. Both are handicapped people who lack the internal ability for morality. This handicap is as real as paralysis and the inability to walk. They are recognized in pre-school by their peers. They act the same from age 3 to 93. Only the lawyer fails to recognize them, protects them, privileges them, empowers them. Why? To generate lawyer fees and jobs for worthless make work. All should be dead after age 14. A CRISPR-cas 9 remedy may be found, because the disorder is really solid and familial. Research into this condition is censored by the woke lawyer as racist, and no funding will be given to remedy aggression. Lower aggression, lower lawyer employment.

      They even have a physiologic difference, an abnormal result of the Cold Pressor Test.

    2. You have that backwards. Bateman and Lector are the sociopaths and the Chainsaws are the psychopaths.

  9. Saying "journalists should not interview autocrats" is like saying "scientists should not study pathogenic organisms".

  10. "an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors"

    If that's the case, why would a powerful wrongdoer consent to be interviewed? Unless he figured he might somehow outwit the reporter, which frankly might not be as difficult as reporters like to think.

    1. Cal Cetín, I am not familiar with the work of Graeme Wood. But I can tell from what he wrote in that excerpt that he would not be an interviewer many subjects would be likely to outwit.

      Do you think Wood is merely preening, when he says:

      "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.

      He knows exactly what he is about. Keep them talking, Wood.

      1. OK, I'll exempt Graeme Wood from my remarks, I'm thinking of the other reporters whose belligerence makes even the bad guys look sympathetic.

    2. But see Frost/Nixon...

      1. But on the other hand, see Duranty/Stalin.

  11. Just for the benefit of folks whose impressions of journalists come mostly from watching and listening to broadcasters administer scripted interviews, pay attention to Wood. See where he says, ". . . keep him talking, . . . ?" Broadcasters almost never let that happen. They have a script ready before the interview starts, with time-segments structured in.

    When people who practice written journalism do that, you don't see them doing it. But it is the number one, best possible way to get honest, forthright reporting down on paper. Ask open-ended questions. Let your subject structure the interview. But keep them talking. People who are good at that are pure gold as reporters.

    1. "whose impressions of journalists come mostly from watching and listening to broadcasters administer scripted interviews"

      ...of whom I have heard a lot of...

      I'm sure real journalists continue to survive, if maybe not thrive, and can be located. Maybe I could read up on some classics of the form.

  12. This brings to mind a Playboy interview reproduced at https://nextbillionseconds.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/shockley_playboy_1980.pdf

    Did we all forego avalanche diodes afterwards? Or Playboy?

  13. What Prof. Volokh doesn't know about journalism could fill a blog.

    That may be somewhat understandable; he has never been a journalist, so far as I am aware, and doesn't seem to like or respect them much. He's more a John Eastman-Ted Cruz kind of guy.

  14. The reason Graeme Wood has to remind his readers that “‘Giving a platform’ is not a favor bestowed on important people” is that the vast majority of the press operates as if it is.

    1. circle glider, with the press, as with lawyers, as with historians, as with medical researchers, as with economists, and so on regarding people who practice professional arts, most of the social benefit gets delivered by a single-digit percentage comprising the best performers. Not infrequently, it can be a struggle to get even minimal competence from the others. Not much you can do about that, except polish your own skills to make do with what you find. Luckily, in all those fields, and others, what the best performers deliver fully justifies keeping the whole lot of them around.

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