Sadanand Mailliard: So this is the gang. They’ve got questions and you have the floor.
David Ignatius: Well, I’m really glad that you guys could all come. Tom and I have become friends – he runs my column in his newspaper, which certainly makes him somebody that I esteem and admire, but why he likes me, I’m not sure. But I’m really glad that you could come, I must say I am impressed by this. Reuben and I see lots of tours, I’m not sure we’ve seen one that’s come armed with all this equipment, and I never have met a tour where everybody was polite enough to introduce themselves individually. So thank you very much, and I apologize because I would never be able to recite all the names. You may want to introduce yourselves by name if you’re asking questions, since this is all being recorded.
My colleague Reuben Rodriguez is here, and if you guys would like and it fits your schedule – which is a little bit tight, as I look at it – before you head up to Capitol Hill, he can give you a quick look at the newsroom. I have to run to the State Department to interview a source who I shouldn’t name for a story; my column on Friday just got a call a few minutes ago, I was waiting for you guys. My afternoon is a little bit crazy, but that’s typical of my job.
Let me just tell you very briefly about what I do and about what we do here at The Washington Post, and then I’d love just to open it up to your questions. I think the more questions from you, the better.
But just a little bit about me. I am an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, which means I write a column twice a week. I had one in this morning that was about this whole story/scandal about NSA wire tapping – or not wire tapping exactly, but data mining. NSA use of the records of all the telephone calls that all of us make to see if we have been in touch with people on their watch lists who they think are terrorists. And then, if they decide that there’s a connection, then they’ll look more carefully at that connection; I wrote about that whole issue this morning.
I have worked for The Washington Post for twenty years. Before that, I worked for ten years for The Wall Street Journal, I was a reporter. Most of my time at The Washington Post was spent as an editor, and that culminated in my being the editor of The International Herald Tribune, based in Paris, which at that time was owned by The Washington Post and The New York Times. I was sent there by the Post as the executive editor to run the paper, and very sadly for us, The New York Times in that period exercised some rights it had in the partnership agreement, and essentially forced us out of the partnership.
So I left Paris and moved my family back to Washington, but not before my three teenage daughters had become thoroughly Parisian. So, you know, they dress differently and they… One of my daughters said to me not that long ago, “Daddy, I think when I grow up, I want to marry a count.” So you could tell that she got big ideas when she was living in Paris. That said, she does watch The O.C. every Thursday night, kind of wants to be a real American.
So, how did I get in to the news business? Well, when I was in high school when I was your age, I wrote for my high school newspaper; wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. In the summers, I worked for local community newspapers, and wrote and wrote and wrote. This is one profession where you don’t need a degree in it, you don’t need a license from anybody, you don’t need any credential. The only credential you need is talent and a file of clips that show that you can do this work. And if you show up on the door of a good newspaper with clips that show you’re good at the job, they’re going to take you pretty seriously.
I went off to Harvard as an undergraduate, where they don’t have a journalism major, thank goodness, so I learned something useful. I’m not a big fan of taking degrees in journalism, I think often that’s a waste of time, to be honest. If I could give you one piece of advice if you’re serious about being journalists, is to study a hard language and really master it. When people show up at The Washington Post looking for jobs and they can speak Arabic or Chinese or Russian, they have an advantage. We give them special priority, because we need people with those hard language skills. We like French and Spanish too, but there are more people who speak those languages. But a good Arabic speaker, that’s really valuable.
So I went to Graduate school at Cambridge in England, studied economics, and wanted to be an economist – and thank goodness I was terrible at it. So I had to give up on being an economist and I decided instead to become a journalist, and I went to work initially for The Wall Street Journal in Pittsburg. And so they did the obvious thing for somebody who had gone to Harvard and Cambridge and all that fancy-shmancy stuff; they sent me to Pittsburg to cover the steel worker’s union. So there I was, desperately going to bars next to all the steel mills in the Pittsburg area trying to meet sources in the union. And I met a bunch of them and I befriended one who was a professional wrestler on the weekends. He was the president of the Jones and Lochland Steel south side local – you probably haven’t heard of that company because it went out of business like a lot of the steel companies – and he was my best source and he would slip me the notes of negotiations with the companies, I really loved this guy. So he invited me to come watch him on the weekends when he was a professional wrestler – this story sounds too farfetched to be true; but he actually was a professional wrestler with the stage name “Jumpin’ Johnny DeFazio.”
And I met my wife – now my wife of 25, 26 years – at a party, and I said, “are you free Saturday night,” and she said, “yes,” and I said, “great, would you go out with me,” and she said, “yes.” And then I said, “this is going to be a sort of odd date, because we’re going to a professional wrestling match in Wheeling, West Virginia,” and she said, “uh, okay.” So that’s how crazy I was. I tell that story in part to illustrate that journalism – you’re just ingesting it whole, and everything becomes part of this effort to meet people, tell their stories, find out about them.
I went overseas in 1980 and began covering the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal, and did that for three years. I covered the Iraq-Iran war; I almost didn’t make it back to my wedding to this very nice person who put up with the professional wrestlers, because I was covering the war in Basra in Iraq – that’s when I first went to Iraq. I covered the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and had lots of adventures then. That began a real fascination with the Middle East which I still have. Three of them were explicitly about the Middle East.
The first novel is about how the CIA recruited Yassir Arafat, the PLO’s chief of intelligence, and recruited him as a CIA agent. I mean, think about that. That the CIA for ten years was running the PLO’s chief of intelligence as its man. Pretty amazing. True story, and I couldn’t figure out a way that I wrote it on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and I knew I’d found out everything about it, because the guy who ran it got killed when the embassy got blown up in 1983. So I became a novelist that way, I just am now finishing my sixth novel.
I’ve been covering the Iraq war; I was there for my twelfth visit a couple weeks ago, I’m going back again in June. This is the great drama, the great heartbreaking tragic story of my lifetime and yours. I mean, the consequences of what’s going on there. We’re heading toward a defeat. You may think it’s George Bush’s war, but my dear friends, the consequences of a defeat will be yours and mine. Just trying to get my arms around that intellectually and see it and understand it and report it has been a big job for me, and something I’d be happy to talk about.
Just say a couple words about The Washington Post, the fabulous newspaper that’s above you. The Washington Post, I think if it stands for anything, stands for the idea that we exist to hold people in power accountable for their actions. We don’t always do that as well as we should, but I think that when you read criticism in blogs about the mainstream media, people act as if we were out of touch – what they’re really asking for is more media that agree with them; more media that reinforce what they already think. We live in a talk radio world where people get used to hearing constant repetition of what they already think. Somebody who is a liberal is not going to listen to Rush Limbaugh, somebody who is a conservative is not going to listen to John Stewart.
So we listen to self-reinforcing, and we really stand against that. We’re think that we’re going to be a newspaper for everybody, that we’re a newspaper that is going to try to give you factual information, test what we hear against other sources, not take positions in our news coverage. If you ever look at a story in The Washington Post and it’s obvious who the heroes and the villains are, then it’s a bad story, because we don’t do that. We just don’t do that. Think about what you read in blogs and that’s all that it’s about, the good guys and the bad guys, and the bad guys are so terrible and the good guys… we don’t do that. And I hope that there will be a role for what we do forever, because if there isn’t, you’re in trouble. Big trouble.
We’re famous for Watergate. Reuben, if you have time, will probably show you Bob Woodward’s office, or at least point you in the direction. But the newspaper has gone on from the days of Bob Woodward to a new generation of reporters who are just doing an incredible job. Dana Priest just won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the network of secret CIA prisons abroad, where people are being held without charges. She wrote that story despite strong, strong pressure from the government. A person who it is alleged was a source for that article was just fired from the CIA, and she’s on the firing line.
We won four Pulitzer Prizes this year. One of them was won by our fashion reporter, Robin Givhan, who wrote just wonderful, hilarious stories; you’ll never look at Condi Rice – the secretary of state – again, without thinking of her in high boots, and the whole thing about the sort of dominatrix style that Condi has. She wrote about John Roberts’ wife and the Dowdy clothes she was wearing; she writes things that really upset people, which is cool. We’re not really in business to make you feel good. Sometimes we are, but we’re also in business to be provocative.
The final thing I’ll say before turning to your questions is people often say, “gee, why don’t newspapers write more good news?” And in some ways, their right; we do need to write about the life of our community in all of its fullness. We need to write about the good things that happen to people, the human stories that make life interesting and livable. We need to remind ourselves that that’s part of our job. But one headline that you’ll never see in a newspaper is “Plane Lands Safely.” You’ll see lots of headlines that say “Plane Crashes,” because that’s news. And sometimes people who run airlines, or by extension people who run governments, people who run corporations, will say, “every day we have 5,000 planes that land safely. Do I ever read about that? No! All I read about is when a plane crashes. All I read about is when something terrible happens.” And, you know, I’m sorry, but when you think about it, what’s news almost by definition is that thing, that event like a plane crash that is a disruption of the normal, happily efficient course of things that creates difficulty.
So I’m going to stop there and turn to your questions, and why don’t you identify yourselves when you have a question to ask?
Sadanand Mailliard: Since we’re going to… I have a sense that we’re going to have a little bit limited time, so let’s jump right down in to the grist of this, we don’t need to put any softball questions up here, so why don’t you go ahead and start?
David Ignatius: No softball questions, that’s a good rule.
Jonji Barber: Hi, I’m Jonji.
David Ignatius: Yes, John?
Jonji Barber: Poet Derek Walcott, he talks about the constrictions of the poem, the discipline of it, and how, when a poet’s writing, as he edges closer to the margin, he feels a sense of panic. I’ve seen from columns that I’ve read, it seems that it’s also structured, and there’s also constrictions a columnist has to face. How do you maintain your creativity and freedom as a writer…?
David Ignatius: In the act of writing?
Jonji Barber: Yeah. Writing a column.
David Ignatius: Well, I’m going to tell you a secret about writing, which is that at its best, it is preconscious. In other words, when it’s really going well, the words just fall into your head. It’s more like dreaming than it is like gritting your teeth. People sometimes think, “I’ve really got to write this,” and they sit on the edge of their chair, “oh, it’s so hard.” The more you do that, the more your conscious self is in the middle of that interposing itself, trying to organize this creative, preconscious process, the harder it is to write.
I told you I’ve written five novels. When that’s really going, I’m not aware of the passage of time. And what takes me up to the edge in terms of being real and visceral and powerful is that it’s coming from this unfiltered, raw, preconscious self. The part of you that dreams is also the part of you that does this very creative thinking.
And writing a column, I love to write under deadline pressure. One of my real addictions, you’d have to say, is to deadline pressure. One reason is that conscious self – I’m very self-conscious – just disappears. I sometimes, just to kind of get myself going, I’ll wait and procrastinate until I’ve only got one hour before a real hard deadline, and then I’ll just write it in a blur. And that’s really cool. That feeling of just being taken over by it is very unusual. So honestly, if there’s one secret about writing that I could confide, that’s so odd – I have people who would never tell you this – it’s get out of the way. Get out of the way. You keep saying, “I want to be a writer, I’m going to be a writer, I’ve got to write, I’ve got to think.” Bullshit – excuse me, excuse my French. Get out of the way, because the part that’s really going to write is preconscious.
Andrea Schmitt: Hi, I’m Andrea. I was wondering, in the news that I see on TV and the news and read in newspapers, events are often dramatized either visually or orally, even through the reporters are only reporting the news, or people opinions or experiences. I was wondering if that has become an accepted way to gain an audience, and how that’s affected the honesty of news reporting.
David Ignatius: You mean the fact that so much of our news we get visually through television or other visual media?
Andrea Schmitt: Yeah. Or on the radio, people will dramatize their voices in order to make it more interesting so people will listen.
David Ignatius: Well, that’s a good question. I have nothing wrong with doing what it takes to engage the reader, the viewer, the listener. I mean, the idea that it has to be boring to be good is wrong. I think something that’s lively, entertaining, while at the art of being a good writer, whether it’s news writing or in fiction is engaging, teasing, surprising the audience. I think often when I give talks to young journalists at The Washington Post, I will say, “You really need to stretch in your power to use language. You need to find words that will make what you saw come alive for the reader.” And if somebody on the radio uses a very dramatic voice, I have no problem with that.
If you want to see an example of the raw power of imagery, go to our website and look at the little video that Nelson Hernandez – who is one of our young reporters in Baghdad – shot as he was making a trip up this week from Umm Qasr, the port at the south, to Baghdad with a load of water trucks. Most of it is really boring, just shot out the window; here’s these Iraqi farmers at their work, here we’re passing through this… And then they get to Baghdad and they’re there, and they’re ambushed, and all hell breaks loose! People firing at them, and Nelson has to jump in the cab, its unbelievable footage. It’s so powerful, you just see this is what people live with every day to get all the supplies that have to get to Baghdad – and what could be duller than water trucks? But here they were risking their lives, and it’s so vivid. There was no hype in that; it’s just that Nelson had the guts to keep shooting through this whole thing as he was being fired at.
And our people, I have to say. We’re under fire, my trips, I’ve been rocketed twice, our people have been kidnapped briefly. To get the news to folks, we have to take a lot of risks. When you read those stories in the newspaper, you should really think, “Wow, those journalists from Baghdad really paid a lot to get these stories for us.”
Naomi Magid: I’m Naomi. I was wondering what are some of your experiences you had as a correspondent in the Middle East that have shaped your world view?
David Ignatius: Well, gosh, there’s so many. I think part of it is I just became fascinated with that culture; the strangeness of it, the sense of danger that’s inherent there, the rituals of Arab life, friendship, ways of sharing that just really were fascinating to me. I made friends with people twenty-five years ago, and just kept those friendships. Something I try to do as a journalist is really to stay in touch with people. One of the things I did when I was covering the Arab world in the early ‘80s and trying to convey the Palestinian story was I decided I’d go live in a Palestinian village in the West Bank for two weeks, just to write about what life was like under Israeli occupation. So I found a family, it was a simple stonecutter named… Kashkish was his name. And he took me in, and I just lived with his family and wrote about what it was like for them to tend their little grape vines and try to get to work and try to keep life going in these very difficult conditions.
I gave a speech in Beirut two years ago to Hezbollah, which is the really creepy Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group, but they invited me to give a speech, and I said, “I will come talk to your group, but I have to tell you, I’m going to say the same thing to you that I would say in Washington or in Tel-Aviv, just understand that.” So I said to them, “When I was a young journalist, I lived for two weeks in a Palestinian village, and I hope some day, Hezbollah will send its television station crew to Israel to live with an Israeli family and write about what Israeli life is like.” And people, it was like I dropped a bomb. People went “AHH” when I said “Israel,” and then some people got up and walked out, but some other people… It was this whole hew and cry the session after this, “Mister Ignatius is shocking,” and this typical blah, blah, blah. And I said that some people got up and said, “You know, we should be journalists. Of course, we should be,” blah blah, a lot of rhetoric, “but we should be journalists, we should cover the story like we’re journalists, like we’re professional.” And I felt really good about that.
What I learned about that part of the world I think is that there’s a deep yearning that people have to have a better life. They’re confused about how to get it. Sometimes, a lot of people are going backwards in time, seeking that better life, embracing a kind of Islam that I think doesn’t fit very well with the modern world, but that’s what they’re doing. There are other people who were trying to connect… I have many projects going with friends of mine to try to help them make those connections. We’re just starting up something new at the Post that will involve online connections. My oldest daughter’s going to spend the summer in Beirut; she’s as crazy as her dad, but she’s studying to be a doctor, and she’s going to spend the summer at the American University of Beirut Hospital. So I hope that answered your question.
Luke Sanders-Self: Hi, I’m Luke. I was just wondering, as a student, if I plagiarize a paper, I will be caught; there’s things that my teacher can do to find that out. But as a journalist, what would you have to be thinking to think that you could give out false information or plagiarize something and then give it to the public and not expect to be caught?
David Ignatius: Good question. …Good question. Plagiarism is theft, but it’s a kind of theft that is just so easy to detect. I think people who – in the digital age where everything that you write can be checked against everything else – and you do it. As we all know, in life, there are people who, in a weird way, are asking to be caught, who have a psychological compulsion that they almost want to be caught, and I sometimes wonder if plagiarists don’t fall in that category. If you look at some famous cases, there are hints of that kind of thing going on in people’s emotional lives, but I agree with you. In this day and age… It’s always wrong, but it’s also crazy, now, because you will get caught.
Emily Crubaugh: Hi, I’m Emily. We talked earlier in the week with Eileen O’Connor; she used to be a CNN correspondent and the head of the International Journalist’s Association. She left journalism and moved to a law firm, and she talked a lot about what she felt was the loss of integrity in reporting, and as the stations moved to corporate, it’s more about the money than it is about the people they’re reporting on. And I was just wondering if you also see this as a trend, and how you worry about it or what you think about it.
David Ignatius: Well, at The Washington Post, we’re really lucky in that this newspaper is controlled by – used to be owned entirely by – but is controlled by the Graham family. Katherine Graham, you may have heard of, who passed away several years ago, was the head of the company for many years. Now her son Don is head of the company. The Graham family cares very deeply about good journalism, and they will spend what it takes to keep this a great newspaper, even if that hurts our profits quarter to quarter. They want us to make money and they really insist that we make money, but they won’t let the quality of the newspaper suffer. So in that way, we’re protected from some of the market pressures that you’re friend at CNN was talking about.
I do see, when I look at TV news, I can see how the financial pressures of competition are really chipping away at the quality of that product. And I see that unfortunately when I look at a lot of newspapers, and I think this is a business where a good newspaper is going to make plenty of money. It may not make as much as it used to because there are other kinds of advertising now that complete, but it’ll still make plenty of money. And people are just really dumb. I don’t understand why somebody would publish a bad newspaper to make two percentage points more on the bottom line, when they could publish a good newspaper, be loved by their community, make a difference in the world, I don’t get that. But then, maybe that’s why I’m not a business man.
Our situation here is different, thanks to the Graham family. There are a few other great families – the Sulzberger family controls The New York Times. Once upon a time, the Knight and Ridder families controlled Knight-Ridder, which publishes the San Jose Mercury news that you probably know, because it’s from your part of the world. But you’ve just seen that Knight-Ridder got caught in the pressures of the stock market and Tony Ridder was forced to – the market essentially had a gun to his head – and he ended up selling the company and those newspapers are now under new ownership, and a great newspaper family has been really broken by those pressures. It’s too bad.
Nina Castañon: Hi, I’m Nina.
David Ignatius: Yes Nina?
Nina Castañon: In writing your columns, you have to do an in-depth analysis of subjects ranging from the environment to inner workings of the Bush administration. How do you immerse yourself in these subjects like that, and be able to still write knowledgeably?
David Ignatius: Well, you know, sometimes I’m faking it. I’m not as knowledgeable as I may appear, but I do try to do a lot of research. I really try to immerse myself in information. I don’t have a research assistant, I don’t have a secretary, and it’s just me. And that has an advantage in that I really have to do all the reading. So, like for my column this morning, which is about the NSA surveillance program, I downloaded a number of law review articles by the leading scholars in the field, I interviewed people at length on the phone who were experts in the subject, I interviewed members of Congress, I interviewed confidential sources I can’t identify who had access to special information; an awful lot of research went in to 750 words. And if you read my column this morning, I don’t beat a drum and say, “Look, I talked to all these people, I read all these articles!” I just tried to digest all of that and then just tell the story, so that the reader wouldn’t really see all that lay behind that, but it would read authoritative – which I think it is pretty authoritative – but the research is essential, I think, to a good column.
I’m not – I have to tell you – I’m an opinion columnist, but I’m not so interested in opinions. If you said to me, “David, I think that this NSA surveillance program is really terrible. I’m really against it, I feel it’s outrageous.” You know, I’m sorry, but I don’t really care. I don’t really care if I think it’s outrageous. That just doesn’t interest me, doesn’t carry it very far. There’s so many people out there in the world who are going to tell you their opinions about stuff, and what interests me is telling you something you don’t know. So I really try to do a lot of reporting; as I said, when I leave here, I’m going to go over to the state department and try to find out whether we’re going to answer the Iranian President Ahmedinejad’s letter. You probably read about this weird letter that he sent, and it’s a big question whether we’re going to answer. So I finally found out who is going to make that decision, or who is going to offer the advice about what the president should do. So I’m going to go have a talk about it. And “What would you say if you answered the letter, and what are the different theories that you put in to this,” and then you’ll be able to read that on Friday, and it probably won’t be so obvious that I had that conversation – I certainly wouldn’t identify the person that I’m talking to – but to do what I do, you have to do reporting.
Seychelle deVries: Hi, I’m Seychelle. As such a well-respected reporter, people are naturally inclined to assume that you are a reliable source, and I was wondering, do you think that this influence that you have is a sacred and sometimes dangerous thing, and do you believe that people should still question the sources that they’ve learned to trust?
David Ignatius: I think it is dangerous, it can be abused without question, I think people can become so certain they’re right. The issue really is being open to the information that would demonstrate that what you think going in is wrong. It’s like science; people say what makes something scientific is that it’s falsifiable. I don’t know if you guys have done history of science, but that’s what makes this a scientific theory. But Journalism is a little bit like that – if you’re not open to the evidence that would show that it’s wrong, then I think it stops having power. But we could think of many examples of people who’ve abused their positions. In a sense, being an opinion column is different, because you’re being paid for your take on things; you’re not supposed to be objective, you’re supposed to be yourself. I mean, I have a slightly different view of what I want to do as I just explained, but my situation is a little different.
But you know, the ultimate sin for a newspaper is to allow something false to appear in the newspaper and not correct it if you’re told it’s false. There is nothing worse than that. And you know, we make mistakes; every day, we run a corrections column that’s got five or six things we screwed up. It’s not like it’s an error free profession, but so long as we’re there… What I hate is when reporters or newspapers reflexively say, “We stand by our story,” and “I’m not really open to the possibility that they got it wrong. We’ll insist that they got it right even when…” That’s where big libel suits come in is when somebody calls up the paper and says, “You got it wrong. You did me wrong this morning.” And the reporter’s real defensive and the editor says, “Did you make a mistake?” And the reporter says, “No.” And then eventually, the person has no other recourse but to sue.
When I was an editor running parts of the paper when I ran my own newspaper, I would say to people, “We will never do that. We just won’t. There is no shame in making a mistake, even a big one.” I’ve made big mistakes in my career – I’m happy to talk about them if you want – but that taught me that you have to be really careful that if you do make a mistake, you have to own up to it.
Daniel Nanas: Hi, I’m Daniel. It seems that there’s a strong desire in the American mainstream to spread democracy around the world, but that it’s also sometimes backfiring with the parties coming in to power that aren’t necessarily friendly to U.S. interests; the recent elections in Palestine being one example. Do you think that sometimes we are too interesting in spreading democracy, democratic capitalism abroad, and not interested enough in perfecting democracy at home?
David Ignatius: Well that’s a very good question. I think that I’ve written that Americans tend to live in a Ptolemaic universe. That is to say we think everything revolves around us; we are at the center of the universe as we imagine it. And we need to be Copernican; we need to see that we’re part of an intricate system, and we’re not at the center. And we need to be open to other people, their cultures, their views that why they’re so angry at us, why they feel so aggrieved more than we are. I think that Americans, we have so many advantages in this country that there is a kind of sense of American exceptionalism; we’re special, we’re different, we live on… “The shining city on the hill” is a phrase that Ronald Reagan used to use to express this sense of what’s special and different about America, and it’s a little bit dangerous as you say, because we sometimes can go running off around the world.
I think, that said, we do have to understand that this is a dangerous world, and the people who plotted September 11th, 2001, did so at a time when the United States was more active in pushing for peace in the Middle East – peace between Israel and Palestine – than ever in it’s history. It was at the time when President Clinton was holding meetings at Camp David; that’s when they planned 9/11, it wasn’t now. A lot of people are angry at us, and you can understand a little bit of why; it was when we were “the good guys.” There, that’s a deadly enemy. When I go to Iraq, I see good people being killed and frightened and intimidated by people who really are cruel, they were killers. And it’s really important to understand that not all the problems in the world are our fault, and that we’re going to have to do something. I mean, people do look to us for help and sometimes protection against these people.
I’ll tell you, to be honest, history will have to judge whether it was a terrible mistake to go into Iraq, but what’s really painful for me is to see us go into Iraq and fail. Fail to protect people, fail to help people have security. The people in Iraq don’t want anything different than what you would want or what your parents want for you, which is to be able to go to sleep at night and know that your kids won’t get killed before morning. Literally, when I go in to Iraqi towns and villages, that’s what people want. They want to feel safe. And that’s the one thing we haven’t been able to do, and that’s painful. So what do you do about that? What’s the right answer to that? Should we pull out? Are we the reason that things are so crazy? Should we put in more troops so we can make things stable? We all have to think about that, but I think you shouldn’t – as you look at this terribly painful mess in Iraq – you shouldn’t instantly assume that it’s just President Bush’s fault. There’s some really deadly dangerous people, and they were there before we came, and we’re not doing a very good job of taking care of them, unfortunately.
Kristen van’tRood: Hi, my name is Kristen. Bill Moyers said that there’s two things going on in an interview: what the interviewee wants to say, and what the interviewer wants to know. Going back to Andie’s question where reporters will report on things even if they don’t have all the facts or they get some of the facts wrong, how do you conduct an interview to get the facts you want to know out of a person, and how can we apply this to communication in every day life?
David Ignatius: Well that’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? I’ll give you a couple of my secret rules – which won’t be secret once you put them up on your website.
One is that people really want to tell their stories to an interested listener. So if I read… Take the story that I was describing to you, about how the CIA recruited Arafat’s chief of intelligence; this was a big secret, this was a big deal when this came out. People flipped out, and they thought, “How could Ignatius possibly have gotten this?” And the answer is first, it took a long time. It took two years from when I first knew that piece of information to being able to report it. And a lot of it was just finding people who knew about it, who knew that this was one of the most important things in their lives they’d ever done, who were proud of it and wanted to talk about it. Most of them were Arabs – almost no Americans talked to me, but the Arabs who were involved in it thought that it was the right thing, that this was a secret connection that mattered that was making the world better, that could make a difference. And if you spent time with them, eventually they would tell you a little bit.
Then what a journalist does, you take the little thing you know and then you guess what the other thing you don’t know is, and then you ask a question that implies you know the other thing that you don’t know, and then the person thinks you know it, so they go ahead and tell you the third thing that you really want to know. So that’s rule number two: sometimes talking to the person who inherently wants to tell you the story, there are little ways that you can encourage people to tell you more maybe than they should.
I think the final thing that’s important is that most things that matter in life are about trust. And people who tell reporters things that matter need to trust you as a listener, and trust that you’re going to use the information fairly and wisely. And I’m embarrassed when, in my profession, people don’t do that. I’m embarrassed when people don’t… when journalists write things and people get hurt as a consequence, and the journalists act like they don’t care about that. I mean, you may have to go ahead and write something that causes harm for other people, but you should care about it. It’s really… I think a moral person cares about the consequences.
Janet Malcolm, who is a famous writer, once wrote that essentially, journalism is always about the trail; that the journalist always ends up betraying the person that he talks to, because when that information is published, the consequences are something that the person telling the story could never imagine, and the journalist knows that the person telling the story doesn’t. And I think that there’s a little bit of truth in that. I think again that understanding that, understanding the consequences for people that are talking to you is a useful guide, and thinking “what if it was me?” I’ve had people write terrible things about me that had really bad consequences for me, and that was a good experience because it just made me – I can put myself in the mind of the person who is going to written about, because it happened to me.
John-Nuri Vissell: Hi, I’m John.
David Ignatius: Yes?
John-Nuri Vissell: As a columnist, you have your name and ideas out in the public view. How does the criticism you receive affect you, and does it influence what you say or write about?
David Ignatius: Well my wife tells me I should stop reading my email, because I get attacked. People say the meanest things. People hiding the anonymity of their email address can just rip you up. And I find it depressing, and I should just forget about it. And probably, my wife is right; I should stop reading my email. But I don’t think I should, because I’ve made many friends through email – people who just write in. There’s an Iranian guy who sent me an email out of nowhere, he was a collector of absolutely hilarious jokes and other screwball material on the internet, and he’s always sending me stuff and it’s hilarious. He is the funniest guy. And I finally met him, he came to the United States and he’s one of my favorite people. So I would never have had the chance to meet Ali if I hadn’t answered my email.
But criticism – we’re all thin skinned. Journalists shouldn’t be, because they’re always pounding other people, but journalists are famously thin skinned; they’re really awful at accepting criticism. The worst thing is I think, as a novelist, you work so hard on a book and there is something very revelatory, self-revelatory about writing fiction, and when somebody says, “This is really terrible,” you really are hurt. It’s very painful to read that. I could name for you all the people – this is so sick, but it’s true – I could name for you all the people who ever wrote bad reviews about my novels. And there’s a part of me inside that is sort of longing for revenge. One of my kids one year gave me one of those little toy guns that shoots out a little flag that says, “Bang!” And she gave this to me and said, “Daddy, this is if you ever meet Mr. So-and-so – she knew the name of this critic.”
I should take one more question and let you guys head off either to your next appointment or to tour with Reuben.
Sadanand Mailliard: Let’s go to the closer then, if we’re at that stage. We have a traditional closer.
Naomi Magid: Alright… I’m Naomi, again. So, keeping all this in mind, what is the most important advice you have for all of us?
David Ignatius: If you’re interested in journalism, my advice would be to do it. As I said, this is something that you don’t need permission to do, you don’t need a degree to do, you just need to do it. It’s a profession that rewards hard work and creativity and risk taking, and so it’s well-suited for somebody who has those qualities.
I think in general, the piece of advice that I try to give myself the most often and would give to others is not to do the other things that other people want you to do, just because they want you to do them. I think it’s so easy in anything to do, whether it’s journalism or anything, to try to please other people. We’re just trained, we’re like rats in a little skinner box; we want to get the cookie, we want people to say, “Good job,” we want that kind of approval. And in my career, almost without exception, the things that I’m really proud of are the things that I did that other people didn’t think were a good idea, but that I wanted to do. And where I took that personal and emotional risk, and stepped out of the conventional boundaries and was really on my own, and then made the work original and different. And so as I say, I think it’s really hard to do that, because we are trained. Everything in us makes us want to do conventional, but the things that are rewarding are almost always unconventional.
Sadanand Mailliard: I’d like to ask you a question, because just from listening to you talk, there’s something. Bill Moyers is a mentor of our program – we actually built our curriculum on World of Ideas, and so a lot of this conversation that we’re having is generated from things that we’ve thought about because of his work. And he asked Derek Walcott in the beginning of an interview he did with him in World of Ideas, he said, “What happens when a culture loses the distinctions of language?” And Derek Walcott said very directly, he said, “It withers; it dies, because the way we use language no longer identifies the thing that is, the culture corrupts it so.”
I’m concerned about language these days, and I’m concerned about the use of language and the way it’s used to obscure rather than reveal. You’re in the language business like nobody’s business, and I love your columns because I think you’re doing something different. So I’m wondering if you could say a little something about how you see the importance of language?
David Ignatius: Well, I do try hard to find the right word, and as I was saying earlier about creative work in general, the right word falls in your head. It’s preconscious. I used the word “ziggurat,” which is a very obscure word; I was referring to the “intelligence ziggurat.” And William Sapphire – who writes a column about language – called me up, because he wanted to use that in his column, and he said, “How on earth did you come up with that? It’s perfect!” And I said, “Well Bill, it just fell into my head.” But I’ve seen a ziggurat in Iraq, and so I knew what it looked like, and it seemed to me that was like it was a pyramid but it had all of these little outcroppings.
So what I’ll do is wait for this creative process that generates the language, and then I’ll go look at the words in a dictionary and decide whether they really are right. And I think the most important thing for writers about writing isn’t simply the writing – because as I said, there’s something passive about that – it’s the act of editing yourself and being really hard on yourself, and saying, “Have I been as clear as I could? Did I really get to the heart of what I want to say?”
There’s this wonderful statement by Vitkenstien, the philosopher of language, where he is said to have remarked, “If you can’t say it, you can’t whistle it either,” which is a wonderful way of saying, “If you can’t express it in words, the idea doesn’t have substance and clarity.” There’s no emotional language other than the verbal language that we use. So I think it’s important when you edit yourself to push yourself, have you really hit precisely the thing that you wanted to say?
Sadanand Mailliard: Thank you very much.
All: Thank you