Mideast Views to Make US Squirm

Media: A British reporter finds much to fault in U.S. leadership, news accounts.

By ALLAN M. JALON, Special To The Times
April 22, 2002

In December, British reporter Robert Fisk's car broke down at the village of Kila Abdullah, near the Pakistani-Afghan border. A crowd of Afghan refugees kicked and hit him, and soon started to smash stones into his face. "I couldn't see for the blood pouring down my forehead and swamping my eyes," he would write after his narrow escape.

He was sure his assailants' rage sprang from seeing their nearby village destroyed by American B-52s, he recently told a riveted audience at Chapman University in Orange County. And two days after the incident, he filed a passionately sympathetic view of the "humiliation and misery" of the Muslim world. "If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did," he wrote for the Dec. 10 edition of his paper, London's Independent. "I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."

To fans in Britain and on the Internet, where a growing worldwide readership stalks his work daily, the piece was an extreme case of Fisk being Fisk: A highly personal response to conflict, conveyed with a cinematic intimacy that makes it hard to put down. A Wall Street Journal pundit, Fisk asserts, demonstrated just what kind of response his approach provokes. The Journal article was headlined: "A Self-Loathing Multiculturalist Gets His Due."

"Had I merely reported an attack by a mob," he told the Chapman crowd, "the story would have fitted neatly into the general American media presentation of the Afghan war, no reference to civilian deaths from American B-52 bombers and the widespread casualties of the Afghan raids.

"I hate the 'what' and 'where' stories that leave out the 'why.'"

Like Fisk or not, the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon turned events on his beat as the Independent's Middle East correspondent into the biggest story on the globe. He became increasingly familiar in print and on radio as one of the few Western reporters to have interviewed Osama bin Laden.

He's put in 26 years covering the Middle East, as well as conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, winning the British international journalist of the year award seven times. He's covered the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the current U.S. action in Afghanistan. "He's a legend in Britain," says Anne Nelson, who uses his work to teach international reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Between April 12 and 14, as the region's wounds seemed to grow wider by the hour, he gave a hectic series of talks around Los Angeles, drawing packed crowds and strongly divided reactions.

In his five local appearances, he performed a geopolitical shtick that included throwing out the phrase "peace process" with such sarcasm it sounded like punch line. He's a restless, compact, 56-year-old man with a ruddy face that gets redder when he's worked up, flaring with Swiftian scorn for one form of organized or state power after another.

He savages "cynical, old" Arafat, "cynical" Colin Powell, "murderous" Ariel Sharon, America's "blindly unquestioning" support of Israel and "corrupt, dreadful" Arab dictators (whom he says America supports, even installs). Fisk, who speaks Arabic, derides the duplicity of the British for making conflicting promises to Arabs and Jews that he says started much of the area's modern trouble.

He is driven by a preoccupation with history. "I am fascinated by European history," he says in an interview, "and the history of the Middle East is European history."

Having studied classics and Irish political history, Fisk holds a doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin. His interest in European history started when his father, a British veteran of World War I (he joined up early, was in his late 40s when Fisk was born), took him on tours of European battlefields when he was no older than 5. "I'd visited Auschwitz by the time I was 16," he says."

Journalists, he says, "are usually the first witnesses to history, and we're usually the first independent witnesses to history, so there is a kind of duty in that. You are saying, 'Here is what I saw, here is what happened: Don't ever say no one told you.'"

Fisk's talks sound like his pieces--a blend of reportage, political analysis, history and media criticism, combined in the essayistic approach of the British press. One of his regular themes is his charge that the American media outlets "dishonestly skew and soften" their coverage of the Middle East. (The Arab press, he says, is "just awful.")

He lobbed verbal hand grenades at TV and print outlets alike. The tours, he says, are fun, and he also views them as Middle Eastern coverage, since "America is part of the story of the Middle East." After he flew home to Beirut on April 14, he whipped off a piece about his seven-day excursion from Chicago to Iowa City, Iowa, to Los Angeles during a terrible week when suicide bombers and Israel's incursion on the West Bank led every night's news.

His 4,000-word report for the Independent went up on the publication's Web site (www.independent.co.uk) Wednesday. Called "Fear and Learning in America," it gives a map for what draws Fisk's admirers and provokes his detractors.

"The theme of my lectures," he writes with typical pungency, was "the idle, spineless way in which American journalists are lobotomizing their stories from the Middle East, how the 'occupied territories' have become 'disputed territories' in their reports, how Jewish 'settlements' have been transformed into Jewish 'neighborhoods,' how Arab militants are 'terrorists' but Israeli militants only 'fanatics' or 'extremists.'"

Fisk sardonically diagnoses words as if they were germs of dishonesty and violence. A speech at USC stressed this kind of examination; a talk at Beyond Baroque in Venice more directly expressed his outrage at current events.

"Why doesn't Colin Powell go to Jenin?" he asked, noting that Powell had made a flyover of the West Bank site where a Palestinian suicide bomber had destroyed herself and six others, wounding 65 more. "What has happened to the world's moral compass, indeed to the United States, when America's most famous ex-general, the secretary of state of the most powerful country on earth, on a supposedly desperate mission to stop the bloodshed in the Middle East, fails to grasp what is taking place in front of his nose?"

The answer was that "this is the very final proof that the United States is not morally worthy of being a Middle East peacemaker."

Among those at Beyond Baroque was Gene Lichtenstein, former editor of the Jewish Journal, a weekly that is influential in the Jewish community. After listening to Fisk's April 13 lecture, he wrote a column for the Journal that asked why more local Jewish leaders had not come. Fisk, Lichtenstein said in an interview, "is someone who has followed the Mideast and is British and therefore has a very different take on things. He does not make the assumptions about Israel that we do, or about Arabs. A lot of what he had to say was worthwhile."

Other supporters of Israel are not so sure.

At two of Fisk's Los Angeles presentations, he showed part of a TV documentary he made called "Beirut to Bosnia," which was shown on the Discovery Channel in 1994. Audiences at Chapman and USC watched images of massive buildings overlooking a lone farm owned by a Palestinian family forced, Fisk reports in the voice-over, "to cling onto [its] own land in the face of Israel's expanding settlements."

At the time it first aired, the documentary drew fire from Andrea Levin, who wrote on a Web site that monitors Middle East coverage that the film amounted to "ruthless promotion of his personal hostility toward Israel."

To Samir Twair, a Syrian-born American who listened to Fisk at USC, the message resonated differently. "I don't believe he is pro-Palestinian," says Twair, a freelance reporter and past president of the Arab-American Press Guild. "When I hear him," he says, "he is just an honest reporter."

Fisk's fearless, if sometimes polarizing, iconoclasm is inseparable from his knack for charting his own course through a story. He wins high marks among critics of contemporary journalism.

"A lot of reporters and editors don't like competition," explains John R. MacArthur, author the book "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War" and publisher of Harper's magazine. "They would rather have everybody get the same story. That is the bureaucratic approach to journalism that tends to rule today, and he is extraordinary because he insists on doing it his way."

Chris Hedges, a reporter for the New York Times who has covered stories with Fisk on and off for 10 years and is a friend, says Fisk "always knows what the next day's story will be."

Hedges recalled that Fisk predicted immediately after the 1993 Oslo peace agreement between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin that it would fail. "Even I thought he was wacky, that it might work," Hedges said, in an interview from New York. "But he was right."

During a drive between L.A. venues, Fisk said that he's made more than 40 speaking tours of the U.S. Compared to audiences in Canada or Ireland, those here generally seemed ill-informed and marginally interested. That's changed.

"Americans were always the worst," he says. "I've never before, until this trip, come across audiences so potentially angry with events and so unanimous that they're not being told the truth by the American media."

There was an obvious hunger for hope in many who asked Fisk questions. At Beyond Baroque, a questioner asked why the Palestinians didn't try Gandhi-style, nonviolent resistance to Israel. Fisk stared into the audience and bluntly stated that, in the face of Israel's military power, "it just would not work."

At the Westside home of Stanley Sheinbaum, a businessman and longtime activist for peace in the Middle East, Fisk faced a smaller, largely Jewish audience. Vigorous applause followed, but several questioners turned sharply critical.

Hearing Fisk proclaim that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington inhibits American policy, Judith Hirshberg raised her hand. Lobbying by oil-producing Arab states, she said, had more influence, especially under the Bush administration. She said afterward that she felt Fisk "gave a lot of answers, but never really answered the question." Roberta Seid said after the talk that she thought he "demonizes Israel."

Sheinbaum, however, bade farewell to his guests saying that Fisk's insights "should be heard around the world."

The foreign correspondent returned from the American front and filed his reflections. The unusually engaged crowds that turned out to hear all his bad news yielded a rare dispatch of good news. "Osama bin Laden told me he thought Americans didn't understand the Middle East," Fisk wrote. "Maybe he was right then. But not anymore."

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