Lately, even Brad DeLong has jumped on the trash Robert Fisk
bandwagon. Every time I go to read a Robert Fisk dispatch, I expect to
howl with outrage. Fisk, after all, has a reputation among many as
everything from an al-Qaeda sympathizer, to a hater of the United
States and the United Kingdom. To some people, he’s an antisemite, and
to others he’s the archetypical Westerner, seeing Arabs as noble
savages. And yet when I read a Robert Fisk article, I never find
outrage rising up my esophogus. I don’t always agree with everything I
read, in terms of analysis or sensibility, but I appreciate him for
what he is.
I’m not going to dissuade those people who find Robert Fisk utterly
revolting, that would be impossible, and boring as well. There’s no
question that Fisk is relentlessly negative, and that he never gives
America the benefit of the doubt or a shred of credit, even when we
deserve it. Fisk’s problems are well known, the issue is that his
merits are often ignored.
I’m always disarmed by what a good writer Robert Fisk is. I’d go so far as to say that the best writer of any journalist I’ve ever read, at least among those who operate under the deadlines that he does. His erudition, ability to weave
the fabric of history into his pieces, and descriptive powers
amaze. For that reason alone, Fisk is impossible to dismiss.
Equally impressive to me, though, is the fact that Robert Fisk has been working the Middle East beat since before Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq. If Fisk is cynical about the prospects for peace in
the Middle East and seems world weary, it’s because he’s earned
it. After all, he’s been showing up on the scenes of human tragedy for almost as
long as I’ve been alive, and telling the story as he sees it.
It shocks me to see people assume that Fisk is a liar when his reporting is limited almost exclusively to first hand accounts. If you read nothing but weblogs, you might be surprised to learn that Fisk is probably the UK’s best regarded foreign correspondent. Nearly all of the arguments against the facts he reports are based on the fact that the arguer is in disbelief, rather than materially disproving things he’s written. He often makes claims that fall apart when they are placed within a larger context, but that’s an outgrowth of simply reporting what he sees first hand. When he says the Americans aren’t at a particular place, it’s because he went there and they weren’t there, not because the Iraqi information minister told him so or because he heard it in a Centcom briefing.
One of the best things about the coverage of the Gulf War (Cont.) has
been the dispatches from embedded journalists. Even though they
operate under (reasonable) constraints, most of the important stories to emerge
during the conflict have been reported by people on the front lines
alongside US troops. That’s been a refreshing change considering that
most newspapers tend to report on things that were said at press
conferences or provided on a not for attribution basis by people looking to advance their agenda. Fisk is
operating on his own in Baghdad during this war (and doesn’t seem to
be sucking up to the Saddamites a la Peter Arnett), and that’s hardly
a surprise. The guy seems to have no fear in going wherever the story
is and telling what he sees.
I wouldn’t recommend reading Robert Fisk as your sole source of news of the Middle East — I wouldn’t recommend reading any one writer or publication for all your news on anything. However, I feel like he always has something to add. If nothing else, you’re getting a well written a first hand account of something that’s happening on the ground where the news is happening. Fisk also provides a counterweight to the triumphalism that all too often pervades some other media outlets. Maybe Fisk’s perspective is too much for some people to withstand, I can understand that, but that doesn’t make him a bad journalist, nor does it make him a liar. If the only thing you know about Fisk is what you read in certain weblogs, I urge you to read a few articles he’s written on your own. Chances are he’s not what you think he is.