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Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade

November 24, 2009

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning and welcome to the Carnegie Council. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs programs. It is my pleasure to introduce our speaker today, George Packer.

Whether you follow Mr. Packer's essays in The New Yorker or have read his widely acclaimed book, The Assassins' Gate, you know that in his publications he captures not only the moment, but the spirit of the time and the place he is writing about.

Although we missed hearing him speak about the Iraqi war, I am delighted that we will have the opportunity to listen to him discuss his latest book, Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade. This work is a collection of previously published articles chronicling the story period from the morning of September 11 to the rise of Obama and his election on the night of November 4, 2008. These essays are written with the same discerning pen that is Mr. Packer's trademark and draw on his experiences as one of The New Yorker's most perceptive reporters. As far as the Iraq War is concerned, he has included some grim late-war reporting as well.

All publishers want book titles that stand out. Sometimes the title is meant to convey excitement rather than content. This time this title brings with it not only expectations, but thoughts about a decade that includes the temptations and dangers of idealism, the moral complexities of war and politics, and the American capacity for self-blinding and self-renewal.

Interesting times? Turbulent decade? Clearly it depends on what your definition is. If "interesting" to you means unpredictable, difficulty, and threatening to the way we live, work, and interact with each other, then I think we can agree that when historians look back to the first decade of the 21st century and search for clues that will tell them what this time was like for Americans, they will be excited to discover these essays, which poignantly capture these troubled times.

Our speaker is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author most recently of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq. This book, which traced America's entry into the Iraq War and the subsequent troubled occupation, won the Overseas Press Club's 2005 Cornelius Ryan Award and the Helen Bernstein Book Award of the New York Public Library. Mr. Packer was also a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and his book was named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2005.

Our speaker has published two other works of nonfiction, The Village of Waiting, a memoir about his years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, and Blood of the Liberals, a three-generational political history which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is the editor of The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World and of a two-volume edition of George Orwell's essays. His play, Betrayed, based on a New Yorker article, won the 2008 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Off-Broadway Play.

Many of you who are readers of The New Yorker have been following Mr. Packer's writings for some time. But in addition to reading his articles, you now have the opportunity to not only hear him in person, but to purchase his book when this program concludes.

Please join me in welcoming our speaker, the very talented George Packer.

Remarks

GEORGE PACKER: Thank you so much for that lovely introduction, Joanne. Showing up at 8:00 a.m. for anything is my definition of commitment and, for a book, is beyond the call of duty. So I'm very grateful to all of you. It's a really great audience.

I'm mainly interested in hearing from you and having a conversation, so I'm going to keep my remarks pretty short.

As Joanne told you, this collection is framed around a seven-year period in our history that began the morning of September 11, 2001, and didn't end but certainly turned in a new direction on the night of November 4, 2008. It begins with a description of that terrible morning and the days that followed in this city and it ends with several pieces about last year's campaign, concluding with the election.

The title comes from an ancient Chinese curse that is apocryphal, unfortunately. It should exist, but apparently it doesn't. "May you live in interesting times."

In my mind, September 11 was a brutal awakening for Americans. We had been living in a prolonged daydream that we thought exempted us from the turbulence that visits other countries regularly. Since the end of the Cold War, some Americans at least had been focused on our prosperity, on our technology, on our diversions, on our own way of life, which was changing so rapidly. Even though the 1990s was an incredibly violent and tumultuous decade around the world, it was our luxury that we didn't really have to pay attention to it if we didn't want to. And most of us didn't.

Only in the sense that it's better to be awake than asleep, at least to me—although I do like to go to sleep as well—that day gave us an opportunity to rejoin the world, to reenter history, and to take some responsibility for our enormous power, which we had been wielding, I would say, without consciousness of it and responsibility for it.

So as tragic as it was, I actually felt a jolt of hope, strange to say—and it's the subject of the first essay in the book—in the days after 9/11. It might have had something to do with the fact that I spent most of September 12 in a line stretching around a city block in Brooklyn waiting to give blood and was maybe the 500th person in line and had all sorts of conversations with my fellow would-be donors about the event and about what it meant to them. People were speaking as if they themselves had been jolted awake, as if they realized they weren't living the way they wanted to. It was a collective existential crisis. Suddenly people had new ideas about how they wanted to live. They wanted to live more idealistically. They wanted to give something to their country. They wanted to be engaged in world affairs. It was quite striking.

Of course, the tragedy was that that line was an unnecessary line; there was no one to receive the blood. But the fact that everyone was lined up told me something about the mental atmosphere of those days.

I think the seven years that followed, which are years covered in the pieces in this book, were a trajectory of squandering of that opportunity. By the end of those years, you looked around and what was the state of things? America's reputation in the world was at an all-time low—far, far below anything that we saw during the Vietnam era, when we also had made ourselves unpopular because of an unpopular war. Much of the world seemed to associate us entirely with military power and with its destructive use. Part of the world had convinced itself that we were fighting a war against a religion, which was never the president's expressed intention, but which somehow, by actions, which are more persuasive than words, seemed to have become the definition of the war on terror, which was a tragic and terrible mistake in allowing that to happen.

Here at home we had, in the midst of this huge economic crisis that we are still living through, I would say, an exhaustion with the rest of the world that you now see reflected in the very thin patience that is left for our prolonged departure from Iraq and for our continued engagement and perhaps escalation in Afghanistan. You can just feel, as the president has retreated into a series of intense deliberations in the White House, the confidence and support seeping out of the public.

Even though it may be the way presidents should deliberate as opposed to acting on gut instinct and snap judgments, nonetheless, because of the exhaustion after seven or eight years of war, it's creating a vacuum in which skepticism and fatigue are rushing in.

So that's the arc of the book. But along the way, I want to say a little bit about the kind of journalism I do and the way in which this book tries to portray this era.

I have the privilege and really good fortune to write for The New Yorker magazine. Not all the pieces in this book are from The New Yorker. However devotedly you read The New Yorker, there will be many pieces in here that you have not read, I can promise you that. How many of you read Dissent magazine, for example? There are few pieces from Dissent, where I used to write a lot.

But The New Yorker continues to do a certain kind of journalism that should probably be on the endangered species list, which is what we call in the trade long-form narrative journalism. What is that? It means, I'm assigned to write a story about Lagos, Nigeria—and there is a long piece here about Lagos—in order to get at the larger problems of what's called the megacity, this phenomenon that we see, all over the world, of cities swelling with the inflow of people from the countryside and from other countries until they reach 15 million, 20 million, 25 million—far more than the infrastructure of the city can accommodate, far more than the regular jobs of the city can accommodate. In Lagos, most people make their living simply by hustling, by petty trading, by coming up with little jobs that will pay a little bit of money.

So The New Yorker assigned me to go to Lagos. I spent a few weeks there. I had no idea, really, what I was going to write. All I knew was the megacity. That was the extent of my brief. It's a pretty big risk for a magazine to send someone off for three weeks. It costs money. It takes time. The magazine has reserved 15,000 to 16,000 words for the result. No magazine publishes 16,000-word pieces anymore. Almost no magazine in this country is still publishing regularly at that length. But the editors have to have some faith in their writer and the writer has to have some faith in himself.

So plunge into the city, work inductively, meet as many people as I can, start hearing their stories, through them meet more people. Pull the thread and see where it takes me. Always, always, the thread takes me into interesting places.

But it really has that open-ended quality, which is quite terrifying. There's always a moment at the end of the reporting when I'm going home and the wheels of the plane lift off and I have this surge of panic that I didn't get it. I should have talked to that guy for longer. I should have made sure I went to that neighborhood and I didn't go.

Because there isn't any formula, because there isn't a headline that's easy for me to carry around in my head, it's easy to think that I have failed, that I have missed it.

But the flip side, the advantage of it, is discovery. It's revelation. Without a clear path, you wander into places that show you things that you didn't know, and you begin to pick up patterns and recurring themes in people's lives.

For example, there is an essay here about the civil war in Ivory Coast. I was there in 2003, right when the Iraq War broke out, in fact. It was a civil war, essentially, of young people. On both sides of it were 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, who were carrying Kalashnikovs and were drunk or high a good deal of the time and who had a bunch of slogans in their heads that articulated a crude idea of why they were fighting. But eventually you felt they were fighting because they have nothing else to do, because they have no future, because they have no sense of an identity in the world.

These are young men who had, as in Lagos, left the countryside for the city, had uprooted themselves, lost the connection to a village and to an ethnic identity, which I saw up close when I was a Peace Corps volunteer 25 years ago. That's gone, through much of Africa. So they had to borrow an identity. Where did it come from? It came from images of American inner-city culture. It came from the music, the movies, the DVDs that they got via satellite TV, via pirated DVDs, or via the Internet.

The theme I kept hearing from them was that their fathers had let them down. Their fathers had not taken care of them, had not made sure that they had the same opportunities their fathers had in Ivory Coast, which, 25 years ago, was considered a stable, prosperous African state. It has now become something like Liberia and Sierra Leone, and for this generation, it's a nightmare.

I would never have known to look for that if I hadn't given myself the time to talk to a lot of people, a lot of young people, and sit down for two or three hours at a time to hear their stories and to pick up these patterns and these recurring images and themes that began, for me, to define the war, the reasons for the war. The war was not to be found in a document. It was not to be found in the news releases of the leaders of the different factions. It was to be found in the stories of these ordinary young people.

That has also been, for me, the path that I choose when I go to these foreign countries. I do talk to leaders. It's important that I hear what they have to say and, better yet, to get a sense of their character, to feel what it's like to be around them. But more importantly, I try to talk to ordinary people, because the truths you get from them, in a way, are more interesting and more permanent and maybe more true.

So in each of these essays, whether it's Iraq—a story I wrote about interpreters who worked for the U.S. and had been hung out to dry by us when their lives came under threat—or whether it's about the opposition in Burma or whether it's about these young men in West Africa, the focus is almost always on these ordinary people.

To do that requires a lot of space. You need to create a scene. You need to create characters. You need dialogue. You need description. It needs to have the feel of a story, really of a piece of fiction, although the fact-checking department is more relentless than you can imagine, and so no fiction gets through.

The ambition of this kind of journalism is to give you the feel of a story. That's partly important, I think, because it makes it more possible that people will want to read about these places. Reading the umpteenth account of the civil war in Congo written from 25,000 feet in the air is hard to make people do. But if you can find the character who is both alien and yet sufficiently recognizable to us—because, in many ways, the differences are outweighed by the similarities—then there is that quality of empathy that you need in order to force yourself through a difficult subject like war and violence.

So that's the kind of piece that this book is based on. It's an American form of journalism. You will not find this kind of magazine writing in any other country. European countries have tried to launch magazines devoted to long-form narrative journalism. They always fail, because it's just not a continental European structure to think of 10,000 or 15,000 words, maybe because it costs so much money, but also, I think, because there is a different idea of journalism in Europe. Granta in the U.K. is the closest thing to this kind of work, and Granta has fallen off the radar recently.

I don't take it for granted. I don't know that there will always be a New Yorker that is willing to spend a lot of money to send reporters like me to countries that aren't in the headlines and to talk to people whom no one has heard of. So it is a luxury at this late hour in our journalistic world, where we see pillars of the best journalism in the world collapsing almost every day.

I heard Norman Pearlstine say a few weeks ago that in 20 years there will be no more newspapers. It was a shocking thing to hear from him. He then went on to say he was very hopeful about the future of journalism, but that part was less convincing to me.

Why is this form of journalism important in describing and in talking about this seven-year period? I think it's because another theme that kept coming up in my travels was the power of global media. This is the biggest change in the experience of ordinary people in the two or so decades in which I have been traveling to places like Southeast Asia and West Africa and the Middle East, the fact that everyone, even in the most remote village, now sees some of the same images that we see every day.

This even has an effect in our own country. I was traveling in Ohio last year for the election. I was in the Appalachian part of the state, southeastern Ohio, talking to a group of voters, or non-voters, in a diner in a little town called Glouster and asking them what they thought of the different candidates. Their answers seemed to have come straight out of cable news anchors' mouths. They were so sophisticated about "the post-convention bounce"—a phrase I kept hearing—or about Sarah Palin's executive experience. So the "talking points" and "talking heads" version of the election had gone straight into this diner in a very remote, forgotten, and poor part of Appalachian Ohio.

The same thing in a village in Ivory Coast. A young kid, with no context, no sense of where the music comes from or who Michael Jordan is or whether most Americans live this way at all—the images and surface of life, and really of pop culture life, are imported wholesale, so that it's then adapted to some young kid's life in Ivory Coast. But what it becomes is a kind of perverse effect of globalization, so that it always seems to be the most extreme, the most aggressive, maybe even the most violent bits of pop culture and of sports and music and global media that are adapted for the purposes of disenfranchised young people in countries like Ivory Coast.

So what I began to feel was that the global media, which was supposed to make us understand each other better and to bring us closer and to sort of knit the world together, had actually, for now at least, made us less tolerant, less understanding, and maybe more violent.

 If you have Americans seeing images of suicide bombers, car bombers in Iraq over and over, night after night, without much context—and that's the key thing—simply the images and a few words of description, it's not going to be long before Americans feel, "We shouldn't have anything to do with this place. This place is awful. These people are awful. They hate us. Why can't we accept that?" So that's the end of the story.

Similarly, from the Middle East, if the images they see on Al Jazeera over and over and over again are of American air strikes and their aftermath or of Americans rounding up Iraqis and throwing them on the ground and handcuffing them—over and over again—America is pretty quickly going to get the reputation of Nazi Germany in some countries, which it has among many young people.

So, in a way, this connectedness that the global media has given us, for now at least—and it could change—for now, because it's all at that level of fragmentary images without context, without a story, without a meaning, has, I think, contributed to some of the pathologies here at home and around the world.

If these essays serve any purpose, it's to try to do a different kind of journalism that isn't fragmentary and isn't sensational and isn't riveted to the image of violence but, instead, tries to bring in the voices and experiences of people that are always more interesting than that, are always more understandable than that. There is always some root to what seems like mindless anarchic violence. To begin to understand that root, I think, is the beginning of a more enlightened policy.

But at the end of this seven- or eight-year period, I think Americans have had their fill. We don't want to hear about it anymore. We are focused on our own problems now. There was a time at the beginning, right after 9/11, when Oprah devoted a show to Islam, which was an incredible thing. It showed that, as, in some ways, militaristic as our reaction to 9/11 ended up being, there was also among many Americans a desire to understand. Now Oprah is moving on. I have the feeling that this window when there was a real appetite for foreign news, both of the brilliant kind done on the front pages of The New York Times and the narrative form in the pages of The New Yorker and other magazines—that that may have passed. If so, that would be a shame, because, whether we like it or not, we are still part of the world and we will still pay a price for what we do.

So those are my thoughts. It may be a little bit much for 8:30 in the morning, but you all asked for it. So that's what I have to say. Thank you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: George, as a longtime New York Times person, I've obviously thought many of the thoughts that you have enunciated this morning. I'm always asked by people, what about The New York Times? What will happen to it? People are really concerned. I always come back with an answer not unlike what you quoted Norman Pearlstine as saying: Newspapers may indeed die in our lifetime, but the news business can go forward. Of course, what I'm thinking about is the website. The New York Times happens to have what I think is the best website of any newspaper certainly in this country. The New York Times has a vast readership of people who go to the web.

By the way, last night I got home from a dinner and opened up The New Yorker and saw that William Finnegan had just been to Honduras. I tried to read it at that point. I was too tired. It's sitting on top of my desk this morning. I will read it tonight when I get back there.

GEORGE PACKER: This book is dedicated to Bill Finnegan, who is a pioneer in this form and a great example.

QUESTIONER: I have read every word coming out of Honduras, and I can't wait to read his take, because I know it's that form of long-form journalism you have been talking about that gives you the proper perspective.

My question is, do you think there is a future for long-form journalism of the kind The New Yorker practices, the kind The New York Times practices, in a website version? I have a 27-year-old son who has read The New York Times all his adult life. He has never once bought The New York Times. That's my hope for the future, that that's how we go forward.

GEORGE PACKER: How are you going to send that son to college if he doesn't buy The New York Times?

If you have visited the Times bureau in Baghdad, as I have done many times, it looks like an American consulate in a war-torn country. It is that built up. It has that many armed guards, that many blast walls, that many checkpoints on the way in. How much does that bureau cost a year? Hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. Is there an economic model to sustain a New York Times bureau in Baghdad at that cost on the web? We haven't found it yet. The Times tried to get people to pay for some of its content on the Web. They gave up pretty quickly. It didn't work.

There is a story in yesterday's paper about a group of Chicago Tribune reporters who have left their sinking paper and joined a website, which is supported by foundations.

Here we are at the Carnegie Council. Is the future of journalism essentially philanthropy? Is the future of journalism public-interested, benevolent robber barons, in the mold of Andrew Carnegie, who won't tell the editors what to print, but do see the value of reporting?

You are right. There has never been more appetite for news. That's why people sit all day staring at a screen until they admit that they have an addiction. But it has not figured out how to pay for itself.

In the case of The New Yorker, a lot of the content is withheld from the web. I experienced this quite painfully a few months ago when a piece I had been working on for months on Richard Holbrooke was published. Nothing on the web. And no surprise, a lot of people who only live on the web didn't even know it existed. The New Yorker is trying to figure out how to get some money for this expensive work. They haven't figured it out either. Every week the strategy on the website changes.

The other question is whether people will really read 15,000 words on the web. I can't do that. I need to have the printed page in front of me. But it may well be that the Kindle will become so attractive and so easy on the eyes that people will download The New Yorker and read it in that form, in which case the print magazine may well cease to exist.

It may be sentimental of me. I would be sorry to see it go. There's something about the page, the layout, where the cartoon is, where the little squiggly drawing is, where the jump is that, to me, is part of the experience of reading. But I recognize that there is a generation like your children who don't read that way and who don't want to pay for it.

Someone has to pay for it. My colleague Steve Coll has been writing quite a bit about the idea of public funding or foundation funding for journalism. Right now there is no market model that anyone can make sense of. I'm glad that he is thinking it through, but I worry that, once you think along those lines, you have already admitted that it's going the way of the symphony orchestra, that it's going to be the taste of a very small group of people who are willing to pony up.

Having seen the future without newspapers, why is Norman Pearlstine nonetheless hopeful? There is no model yet for how that could continue to happen on the web, certainly not for The New Yorker. You're right, the Times website is fantastic, but no one pays for it. If the print Times disappears, what's the revenue source?

QUESTION: You are so thoughtful and revealing. I want to ask you, since you were in the Peace Corps in West Africa, presumably as an idealistic young person who wanted to help educate others and so forth—and journalists are sometimes cynical, so there has been some kind of transformation. You have gone back to West Africa. In the Ivory Coast, you are talking about alienated young people. In Lagos, you are talking about the megacity and all these people who come in and are disoriented. Here we are at the Carnegie Council, where we try to improve the world, going back to your Peace Corps approach.

I'm sure as you go back you reflect on these things. What would you recommend? How can governments or foundations or well-meaning people help these young people to have an identity, to have something positive, and not just violence?

GEORGE PACKER: That's a great question. I probably am not capable of giving you a real answer, because I'm not an expert in development. I'm an amateur. Journalists are basically amateurs in many subjects. It's not a bad thing. "Amateur" means "lover." It means you do it for the passion. But I'm not an expert.

Idealism is a theme of many of the essays in this book, and the problem of idealism. Idealism is a problem. As soon as you interfere in other people's lives, there will be unintended consequences. 

The Iraq War is a perfect example of that, war being an extremely crude instrument for interfering in people's lives. But development is also an example of that.

There is an essay in here about a Brooklyn-born prosthetics maker named Matthew Mirones, who opened the Times one day and saw a picture of children in Sierra Leone whose hands had been cut off by the brutal rebels in their civil war. This is another effect of global media. Instead of inspiring revulsion, it inspired idealism. When we see these things, we want to do something. We carry around in our heads too many horror stories, without the means to do anything about it, which is almost a form of psychosis, because there is too much information and the means have not kept up with it. But he had the means. He makes prosthetics. He arranged for a group of kids from Sierra Leone to come to Brooklyn and be fitted with new arms, and hopefully new lives.

Predictably, things then took a turn that he didn't expect. His idea was that they would go back to Sierra Leone and show their countrymen that it's not the end of the world if you lose your hand. They didn't want to go back. New York seemed like a better place than Freetown—surprise. And there ensued a battle for custody between a group of Rotarians on Staten Island who were sponsoring these kids and this prosthetics maker in Brooklyn. The kids are all still here. They are now immigrants.

But that was not his design, and it kind of defeated his idea, which was to improve things in Sierra Leone, not just for a few children who were lucky enough to make it into his program.

I guess that's a long way of saying that the first thing to be aware of is idealism is not enough and even has a dangerous side. But I'm still an idealist. If you read these essays, there's no doubt about it. I'm a chastened idealist. How could anyone not be, given the experiences of the last decade?

I think the most important thing is to be informed in your ideals, not to imagine that because you have good intentions, that automatically translates into good things. In fact, often the opposite is the case. But if you talk to the people on the receiving end of your good intentions enough that you really begin to get a sense of how they see themselves—not how we see them, but how they see themselves—what they want—that may not give you the answer because what they want may be impossible.

That's part of this theme of global media. It has opened up a huge gap in the minds of these young people between their aspirations and their possibilities. When I was in the Peace Corps, they knew they had no chance at a really different life from the one they were living, because they had no image of it. Now they are filled with images of a different life, but their possibilities are, if anything, worse than they were 25 years ago. There is this gap between aspiration and possibility which is a dangerous one. It breeds resentment. It breeds frustration. It breeds violence.

So I would say to be aware of what their aspirations are and aware of what their possibilities are. The only way to do that is to really inform yourself, to travel, to talk, to read. I sometimes think the U.S. government, in its programs, is all about the U.S. government. When I travel with government officials, 90 percent of the talk is about the bureaucracy, about reorganizing, about who reports to whom, about some competition for turf between this agency and that agency. It's the most inward-looking organization I have ever been around. That is obviously a hindrance to intelligent development overseas.

Talk to the people on the other end, I guess would be my really naïve, simple answer to your very good question.

QUESTION: Since November 4 of last year, much has happened, but, in many respects, all those people who were so enthusiastic on November 4 are, at very best, pessimistic today. Obama's approval ratings are down below 50 percent. Is that because, perhaps, we have spent too much time on health care? Is it because we have an economic recession that has proven more serious than we thought? Is it perhaps that Obama isn't quite up to what we thought he would be?

Or is perhaps even something more serious, something along the lines that you just talked about, a gap between aspiration and possibility, and we finally realize that all of our aspirations of November 4 are foundering on the rocks of the real possibilities?

GEORGE PACKER: I think that last thing is a big part of it. I think there were unreasonable hopes raised by his campaign—in some ways, deliberately raised by his campaign—which, given not just the problems of this moment, but, I would say, the long-term systemic decay of American institutions—this is a problem that is not a subject of this book, but it's a subject that I would like to write about in the future. People like to think—at least critics of the Iraq War—that it was the failure of individuals. We can all name them. It's true. I wrote a book about those people, and I'm convinced that they failed as individuals. But there were also systemic failures that go way beyond individuals or even administrations and political parties. They are not just in government. They are in the media. They are in business. They are in academia. This is a big, big topic that we don't have time to talk about.

But I think the thought that one man, even as impressive a man as Barack Obama, could make those institutions work again in the space of a year was unreasonable.

That was partly because his supporters, so many of them, were young and had really only thought in terms of the last eight years and thought if we just replaced Bush, we would cleanse the system. But the arteriosclerosis is much more advanced than that.

But the other half of it is, I think Obama has—we are seeing his true nature right now, and his true nature is to be a guy in a room with three or four or five really smart people working on a problem in great detail, asking all the right questions, getting as much information as he can, and coming up with the most rational solution. That was how the banking crisis was handled and it's the way the Afghanistan crisis is being handled.

What's left out of that is the American people. He has stopped, for some strange reason, communicating with his electorate, with his fellow citizens. He gave one speech on Afghanistan in March setting forth a new strategy, which lasted six months. After six months, he went back at it. My guess is, the next new strategy is not going to be all that different from the last one. But in the meantime, he gave no speeches at all.

Six months. We're at war. The war is becoming unpopular. The war is not going well. The election of Hamid Karzai is a disaster. Nothing from the president.

I don't quite understand it. He gives that big speech, when he is absolutely pushed to the wall, as he did on health care about six weeks ago. But he is not that messianic figure that many of his supporters want him to be. He's a law professor. If you read his books, that's who he is in his guts, and that's where he is most comfortable and where he does best, focusing on those problems. But he is also a leader. For some reason, he has been disconnected from the country. In the vacuum, many, many people who don't wish him well have rushed to fill it.

That's my two-cent answer.

QUESTION: I have two questions. The first question is, is it possible to have objective journalism in the Middle East? I don't know what objective journalism is. But if during the war in Gaza you see, on one hand, the horrific pictures of victims and destruction in the Gaza Strip, as you describe, being aired by Al Jazeera and yet, on the other side—I was sharing a panel with a journalist from Israel in July in Rio, Gideon Levy, who is very critical of Israeli media. He said, during that war, Maariv newspaper put a picture of a dog that was killed during the war, and on page 6, a small piece of information about an extended family that was wiped out during the war, about 47 of them. You see these two extreme methods of reporting.

With the one-sidedness of reporting, is it possible to have objective reporting when it comes to the Middle East? That's the first question.

The second one: I know very well the culture of New York, that what happens west of the Hudson may be something different than the way we think and feel in New York City. I'm going to ask you about your assessment with regard to the jolt during the period before September 11. Were Americans jolted by the incident in Waco or Oklahoma City, or are these things not of the same caliber as September 11?

Thank you.

GEORGE PACKER: Both are good questions.

What you are describing in the coverage of the war in Gaza is very much what I was describing earlier and what we see every night on cable news, which is both sensationalism and also extreme bias, almost without apology. It has become the norm. As reporting declines, opinion rises. Opinion is cheap.

Cable news networks can call me up and say, "Come on and talk about Iraq." They don't pay me anything. In addition to me, they have someone on my left and someone on my right, both literally and politically, who are talk-show hosts, who don't know a thing about Iraq. That is the bread-and-circus that cable news thrives on. It's just too expensive and maybe too unpopular to send a reporter to do a long piece, which on television is maybe five or seven minutes. Instead, you have people in the studio yammering at each other. It's a truly disgraceful turn in our journalism, that that's what well-informed, well-educated people who think that they are involved in public affairs have to watch on TV, because, of course, the networks don't have anything at all.

In the Middle East, there is a very similar version of it. Al Jazeera, which is an incredibly dynamic and pioneering network, and which we all watch ceaselessly in Iraq, and which Iraqis watch, nonetheless didn't even really pretend to be objective. During the early part of the war, for example, when the mass graves were being discovered in Hillah, Al Jazeera wasn't showing that, because that didn't fit their narrative of the war.

What does that mean? There is no objectivity, strictly speaking, but there is the aspiration to objectivity. What worries me is that so many journalists no longer even try to be independent-minded, fair-minded, and thorough in their presentation.

I have my biases, and I even own up to them when I write. I don't pretend not to be more sympathetic to the Burmese opposition than the Burmese government. It would be perverse, in my sense of what I do, to have to maintain a neutrality like that. But what I do feel I have to do is learn and keep my mind open to new facts.

That's something that our chattering TV journalism doesn't do. In fact, it encourages just the opposite. And it is a poisonous thing. It has had a truly poisonous effect, all the way down to that downer in southeastern Ohio, where everyone sounded like their favorite cable news anchor, which is not a pretty thing to hear. I would much rather hear them sounding like themselves.

That gets to your second question about west of the Hudson. I think you have probably hit on a weakness in The New Yorker, which is that they are more willing to send me to talk to ordinary Iraqis than to talk to ordinary Ohioans. I have written a couple of stories in the last year, one from Ohio, one from South Florida about the housing bust. I'm going to be a little critical of my own magazine here. How many stories about the recession have you read in The New Yorker that are not about Wall Street, the car business, or some higher level of society, whether it's banking, finance, or industry or government? How many have you read that really get into what it feels like, what mass unemployment is like? I haven't read that yet. Maybe I'll convince David Remnick to let me do that story.

But it's harder for me to get assigned to that than it is to do mass unemployment in Ivory Coast. It's weird. It's a strange quirk of the magazine. I think it may well be that Saul Steinberg drawing in which, once you cross the Hudson, everything starts to look the same.

QUESTION: I actually have also two questions. One is about Al Jazeera English and whether you have looked at whether the American media industry is deliberately keeping Al Jazeera English away from the New York market or other markets. Worldfocus carries some of Al Jazeera English on its program. Some of it is very, very good. It's not all about bodies and Gaza and these highly contentious and disputed issues. There are many, many other coverages.

I would be interested in your comments on Al Jazeera English—or even Al Jazeera Arabic—and whether you think there should be a market for it in the U.S.

Secondly, your comment was about the demise of the news industry in America, or the possible demise. What about Europe and Asia? I go to Europe and people seem to me to be reading newspapers. You go up the streets in Paris, and there are all these papers and magazines around—Italy, anywhere. Is this a global phenomenon or are you in the news media looking more at the cable phenomenon in the United States?

GEORGE PACKER: On your first question, I really don't know enough to give you a good answer. I think Al Jazeera English is well worth looking at, simply because it's very different from the Arabic Al Jazeera, which is, to my mind, more like the Fox News of the Middle East. Al Jazeera English brings stories from a part of the world that we need to know about and we think we know about, but we don't really know about. In that sense, it's very important.

But I can't speak to the business of it or the market dimensions of it.

In Europe—I was just in Berlin for two months—there must be ten daily newspapers in Berlin alone. Now, they are not all doing well. In fact, the crappiest of them is doing the best, Bild, which is a tabloid. But there still seems to be a habit of picking up the paper in the morning and reading it on the train or reading it over breakfast.

I recently spoke to a very good friend of mine who is a journalist, who said, "I don't have the Times delivered anymore. I read it online. There's just no time in the morning."

I was shocked. I wanted to say, "But you've got to be on the right side of this. You're contributing to this problem."

In Europe I saw people reading the newspaper all the time, everywhere. Financially, some of them are struggling, but it's almost a cultural habit that has not been lost there as quickly as it is being lost here, maybe because Europe, as we all know, is a place of old habits and the United States is a place of the romance of the new.

Our attachment to print newspapers may be much more tenuous than theirs.

But if anyone here knows about European newspapers, my guess is, they are in trouble, too, financially, although they still have a readership. In the Middle East, where there is not nearly as much free press, the newspaper is the center of life at the coffeehouse. It may well be that in countries where there is less of a free press, there is more of a value of the newspaper.

But another aspect of the party newspaper that seems to be taking a new form in this country—there's a guy named Cass Sunstein who was a law professor, now works for the Obama Administration. He described this phenomenon of "niche extremism," which means, as there are more and more websites out there, people congregate in the ones that are most sympathetic to their views and hear less and less from the other view and become more extreme in their views, because they get reinforced by the like-minded readers and writers or listeners or viewers of their website or their cable news network. Walter Cronkite, who did die recently, has been dead for a long time. The New York Times is the closest thing we still have to Walter Cronkite, in February of 1968, telling the viewers of the CBS Evening News that the war in Vietnam was a bloody stalemate. As LBJ said, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

There is no more Walter Cronkite to speak to and for Middle America. Instead, Middle America, as I found out in Ohio, is adapting the niche extremists of the different new media for its more extreme and less, I would say, objective worldview. This is another way in which—I sound like a Luddite, I realize, and I probably am a bit of one—but it's another way in which, perversely, the proliferation of media and the globalization of media have not improved the human species.

QUESTION: I loved your play Betrayed and sent lots of people to see it. I hope I'll have a chance to see it again in New York sometime, because it really is terrific.

I was curious about the process of translating something from an article to a play. I gather from your writing that maybe you start from a more dramatic point of view when you are writing your article. But I was also wondering if you have to go back and totally revisit it in order to make it into a play.

GEORGE PACKER: Which I've only done once. It may well have been just a one-shot deal.

What I did in that case—it was the article about the Iraqi interpreters that I mentioned earlier. I had written it, I had published it, and usually that's the end of the story.

You move on to the next story. In this case, those interpreters got so deep into my head, their stories, which I heard at length—again, it's what's allowed by the long-form method—hours and hours and hours, days in some cases, of just letting the tape recorder run while these guys told me their story, because I wanted to hear the whole trajectory of it from before the war until the moment we were together. It had become a larger story of what happened to this group of people as a result of the war, these young Iraqis who welcomed the invasion, who joined the American effort by becoming interpreters, and who, by 2006, were on the run, in fear for their lives, and getting no help.

I had, in a sense, the voices in my head, beyond the confines of even a 16,000-word article. So what I did was just literally opened up a bunch of windows on my laptop—I'm not a complete Luddite—and I knew the interviews well enough, knew the transcripts well enough to know where to find the quotes—and mapped out a plot that was mostly invention, but borrowed from people's stories, and began writing a script. Whenever I would come to a point where I knew someone had said something very close to what the character was about to say, I just lifted it up out of the transcript. It was comforting not to just be faced with the blank page, but to have that raw material from journalism as my source.

But in the end, that became a bit of a handicap. Journalism and theater are not the same thing. The way people talk into a tape recorder is not the same as the way people talk on stage. I had to, in the end, get rid of most of the original words from my interviews and, instead, fill it in with writing, because theater has its own stringent demands about compression and about pacing and about language.

But I couldn't have written it without the emotional push of those stories, which were powerful, very powerful. If the play had an emotional and a moral force to it, it was because of those real people.

Thank you very much.

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