George Packer in Madison

T. and I just returned from catching an interesting talk by New Yorker staff writer George Packer, author of the widely acclaimed 2005 book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. The evening was set up by UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities, the fine folks who brought Stephen Greenblatt here for a lecture last October. Packer’s talk was on “Iraq and the Art of Journalism,” and he said, among other things:

  • The war and journalism are both in disrepute right now.
  • It’s odd, and frustrating, that the terrific correspondents for this war (Dexter Filkins, Borzou Daragah, and others) still aren’t known by the public, while “the jerks, like Judy Miller,” are.
  • The Bush administration has a serious aversion to daylight.
  • The more unforthcoming the administration is, the more reporters are willing to go overboard to get that one tiny little nugget.
  • The WMD mess was one of the great journalistic failures of our time.
  • The Green Zone is “an epistemological nightmare”; when you’re inside, you know how much you don’t know.
  • The New York Times’s bureau in Iraq is basically “an armed camp,” with a security staff of 30 or so, four or five checkpoints for everyone going in and out (even the correspondents and translators). But of course it is, since it’s unbelievably risky. Once you arrive in the country, there’s basically a $50,000 bounty on your head. And it only goes up the longer you stay.
  • Under Saddam, the country was in darkness. When he fell, the country was flooded with light. That light has shrunk, and shrunk, and shrunk. It is now the size of a pin prick.
  • Because of this, and because of the extraordinary security risks of setting up an interview with a single citizen, Iraq has receded so much that reporters are not only unable to describe it, they’re unable to really reach it.
  • More journalists have been killed in Iraq than were killed throughout Vietnam.
  • Many pundits have gone to Iraq only to affirm that their original ideas were right.
  • I used to hate blogs, mainly because I was addicted to them. They’re both good and bad. They offer information you just won’t find other places, but they contribute to the problem of people only digesting information that will confirm the views they already have.
  • The country is in the early stages of a civil war.
  • In writing his recent book, he chose a narrative approach – “in the spirit of the non-fiction novel” – telling the stories of individuals there.
  • Worth checking out are blogs from Iraqis and projects like Swarthmore’s “War News Radio.”
  • Do reporters ever talk with insurgents? Most offers have “proven fatal.”

Lastly, there was a memorable story of NYT correspondent Dexter Filkins. In the midst of a weeklong battle, in which he and US military were being fired at all day, he was uploading fresh stories to his editor and downloading emails from readers. These readers were responding to stories Filkins had just uploaded 30 hours ago, and several were telling him – as he was literally dodging bullets – that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, and that he’s only covering the bad news, etc. etc. Packer allowed a smile at the idea of someone writing in from Arizona with a criticism of DF, suited up in full gear, sweating above his laptop.