Lessons in real journalism from Jeremy Scahill

The author of the New York Times best-seller Dirty Wars explains to PBS’s Tavis Smiley on what important journalism means and why it’s far too rare:

Tavis:… Let me start before I get into the text, just as we’re talking about this, where it is that this commitment to being a truth-teller comes from. What in your background, what in your upbringing, what in your family, what in your training – I know you started out with my good friend Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. But tell me how this became your vocation, your calling in life.

Scahill:… Both of my parents are nurses, and I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They were social justice-minded people. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family and my dad was very big on liberation theology, so we sort of learned a different part of the faith when we were growing up, and I think that was really influential, this idea that all of us in some way should have a preferential option for the poor, and that we have some obligation in our life to stand with people who are victims.

I wanted to be a schoolteacher, actually, when I was growing up, and then a funny thing happened where I found out I’m not a good student myself at university. (Laughter)

So I had left school in, I guess it was like ’95, ’96. I had dropped out of college and I hitchhiked to D.C., and I was living and working in this homeless shelter called the Community for Creative Nonviolence, and I was listening to a lot of talk radio at the time.

I heard this voice on the radio talking about the rebels who were trying to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko, the U.S.-backed dictator in Congo, and it was Amy Goodman. I had never heard anything like that, so I started writing her letters.

I said I don’t have any journalism experience, but if you have a dog, I’ll walk your dog or I’ll wash your windows. Like, I wanted to be a part of that world. I think Amy had to decide whether to, like, get a restraining order against me or, like, let me volunteer. (Laughter)

So I started off as a coffee runner for Amy, and I learned journalism as a trade rather than – I didn’t view it as a career. I still don’t view it as a career; it’s a way of life. I got to go to all the – I started off, I went to Nigeria, and then I went to Iraq.

At the beginning, I was just sort of making my way, like, just by luck, kind of, and figuring out how to do this stuff, and I remember the first time when I went to Iraq in 1998 and I was doing a story in Basra in the south of Iraq.

I said, “This is what I want to do. I want to tell stories of people who live on the other side of the barrel of the gun that is U.S. foreign policy. I want to tell their story. That’s how I started in journalism.

Tavis:… Speaking of journalism, all of this starts with asking questions and asking the right questions. I’m not naïve in asking this question, but why, then, are there so few Jeremys, so few Amy Goodmans? Why are there so few people in a medium called journalism that are afraid to ask the tough questions?

Scahill:… I think we live in a sort of infotainment society right now. It’s more important what JWoww and Snookie and the real housewives of whatever city are doing than what’s happening in a place like Somalia, with the real widows of Mogadishu.

I think part of it is that you see corporate advertising driving the priorities of news organizations. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent reporters, and some of them work for big corporate media outlets.

But many of my journalists don’t even report in English. They’re working for Arabic-language publications and they’re covering the war in Syria right now, or they’re on the ground in Libya.

We hear about it when a famous American correspondent goes missing somewhere, but there are scores of journalists who get killed or go missing every year and we hear nothing about it because they’re not famous on our airwaves.

So I think there is heroic journalism that’s being done around the world, and real journalism, but I think part of it has to do with our culture. We’re a sort of Ritalin society right now where everything is expressed in 140 characters on Twitter, and that passes as journalism or media coverage.

So just to be able to sit with you and have a conversation longer than three minutes is unusual in our society right now.