We recently published Part 1 and Part 2 of our PolicyMic interview with award-winning investigative war reporter, Jeremy Scahill, about his new film, Dirty Wars. From Afghanistan to Somalia, the film follows Scahill through the shadows of America’s counterterrorism strategy and puts him face to face with the repercussions of American foreign policy on the ground. In addition to Scahill, the production team of Dirty Wars includes an all-star team of journalists, filmmakers, and activists, from Richard Rowley of Big Noise Films to Anthony Arnove of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal.
In this three-part PolicyMic series, we speak with Jeremy Scahill about Dirty Wars, the American counterterrorism program, as well as his advice for young people interested in these fields. In Part 3, we discuss Scahill’s career and advice he has for our community at PolicyMic. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 for background!
Anna Therese Day: Your work as a print journalist has not only received a great deal of attention and acclaim but has also been effective in yielding investigations and legal actions towards accountability in some cases. What’s your advice to young journalists, like our community at PolicyMic, for breaking into the field of effective investigative journalism?
Jeremy Scahill: I would never tell anyone to drop out of college [Scahill dropped out of college] ... I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life, and some of the best journalists I know don’t have degrees in journalism, many don’t have college degrees or they studied something very different. People will tell you, oh you should get an internship, and if you do that, you can kind of end up on the internship circuit. There are some really great internships, like the one at The Nation — their internship program is fantastic. I got rejected by The Nation internship when I applied in the 90s, which I always like to joke about with them now that I’m working for them.
I would, however, propose an alternative way of looking at this kind of journalism. If I had to do it over again based on the knowledge that I now have, I would try to get a job that didn’t drain my brain, whether it’s picking apples over the course of the summer or working in a bar or restaurant, and saving up enough money to make a run at doing real reporting for three months or six months in a country where I’m interested in reporting from. Even if I can’t find someone to actually employ me, I’m going to take myself seriously and act as if I am on assignment. I am going to go into the field and view myself as a real reporter even if other people don’t view me that way. I believe that the best experience is hands-on experience, and you can bounce from internship to internship and not learn more than you would by giving it a shot and going into the field.
I view journalism as a trade, like being a plumber or a carpenter. It should be acceptable to people that you don’t have to go the conventional route to do this kind of journalism, especially with social media and the internet, you can create your own distribution and take yourself seriously enough as a person and as a reporter to say you know what? Even if no one’s going to pay me to do this, I’m going to save up my money and make a run at it for three months or six months — that would be my advice.
ATD: Whether it’s abuses by private military contractors or civilian casualties in night raids, a number of your investigations have led you to Congress with demands for accountability. In Dirty Wars, you promised to take the cases of civilian casualties before Congress — do you see this as step into the world of activism or do you see these steps as integral or inextricable parts of your journalism? How do you balance activism and journalism, an issue often raised in our world?
JS: I don’t have any pretenses about this topic: this whole idea that journalists are supposed to be objective is just straight bullshit. I mean, there are no real objective journalists: you’ve got your own set of passionate advocates and activists for the state who resolve to never question authority, and you know, they’re some of the most radical activists out there!
I think the most important thing is transparency, that you let people know where you’re coming from, that you get your facts right, that you’re honest with your readers or your viewers or your listeners. I think the role of journalists, particularly in a democratic society, is based on pretty simple principles: we should question those in power, hold them accountable and not assume that they’re telling us the truth, we should give voice to the voiceless, and we should provide people with information, reliable information that they can use to make informed decisions about what policies they want enacted in their name and what policies they want to oppose.
But we’re not robots as journalists, we have our own feelings, perspectives, and beliefs, and I feel so strongly about standing up for civilians who are on the other side of the barrel of the gun, that I really don’t give a fuck about people saying “you’re an activist and not a journalist.” The only thing I’m concerned about is, is what I’m saying true or not? I don’t believe there’s such a thing as objective journalism, we’re all people. You referenced before me saying in the film that I wasn’t sure why I was going back to Sanaa after Abdulraham was killed, was it to write another story or was it to apologize, the reason I wrote that line in the film was because I realized that over all these years of doing this reporting, when I sat at home, whether in Basra, Iraq or Belgrade, Serbia, or Sanaa, Yemen, I always apologize to people. Whether it’s for a US night raid or bombing, I realize I might be the only American they ever talk to in their life besides the people that kick their door down. Whether I like it or not, they see me as an ambassador of my country, and I want someone from our society to say we’re sorry that we did this. I’m not sure if I’m going to get a pass for saying this, but I really don’t care because I think that it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our humanity hiding behind this false notion of objectivity, it takes us and our stake out of the game, and I think that, on a moral level, we have an obligation to remain human even while we’re reporting and while we’re reporters.
ATD: Millennials are coming of age in an era of phenomenons such as Wikileaks and social media that grants unprecedented access to their peers around the world, but also structural limitations like Citizens United and the criminalization of journalists and whistleblowers. As a journalist and American, where do you see the greatest points of opportunity as well as the most poignant challenges for young people passionate about a more constructive, transparent, and humane American foreign policy?
JS: You know I’ve been watching some old movies recently, Three Days Of the Condor, a Robert Redford film, The Conversation with Hackman, All the President’s Men about [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein, and thinking about it in the context of Wikileaks and whistleblowers, and back in the day, they would have to break into a journalist’s office to steal his files from the rusty file cabinet. Today a lot of that stuff is happening online. Phone records are being seized, emails are being intercepted, and it’s this sort of insane landscape now where you’ve got on the one hand hackers and Wikileaks trying to publish the secrets of the state or powerful corporations, and on the other hand, you’ve got the national security state which is targeting journalists, going after whistleblowers, arresting hackers, and threatening them with humongous prison sentences. So journalists who want to do this kind of reporting are coming of age at a time when there’s this new battleground for a very old battle, which is the fight of journalists against the state, and it’s insane.
I think it’s a very exhilarating time to be a young journalist, not that I’m young anymore, I’m talking about you, to be getting into journalism because the old elite have been knocked off their thrones because of the internet, it’s been a great democratizing force in a lot of ways. I look at how Twitter has changed reporting, for example; we can follow reporters directly on the ground in Syria, Libya, Iran, or Egypt, and with no filter, get information from them on the ground, and that used to be the sovereign realm of powerful media outlets with global reach. Now a kid in the slums of Cairo can have access to the world by posting something from his phone, so I think it’s a very exciting time.
My warning to younger journalists would be don’t ever let the tried and true methods of the trade die: we have to have old school muckrakers, we have to have fact-checkers, peer review, and we have to have editors. I think if we can find a way to combine the energy of young social media journalists with the proven tactics of muckraking journalism then we’re looking at a very exciting development in the history of media. I have great faith in what’s to come in journalism, and I think we’ll see some really creative journalism coming over these years of tumult.