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The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library

Posted: June 3, 2010 01:01 PM

Rewarding the Journalism That Matters

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At a time when quality foreign reporting is becoming a foreign concept, journalist David Finkel spent eight months of his life in a perilous section of Baghdad, traveling with a battalion of infantry soldiers so he could a real glimpse of the war in Iraq.

What he found changed him forever. Not all of the men came home. Many of them were crestfallen and discouraged. There was vicious fighting and brutal warfare, sometimes in front of children.

But the Washington Post reporter wanted to be there so he could tell the story - because that's what is really important.

"I've lived long enough and done journalism long enough [to know] that this is a serious consequential war with long lasting effects," Finkel said. "I can do a particular type of journalism that hadn't been done in this war. Closely observed intimate journalism and that's the one thing I can do in journalism. And so I thought why not? Let's go see what it's like and try to write as I said, that ground level account. I'd read versions of it in other wars but not seen it in this war. So I thought I'd do it."

The result was Finkel's epic book The Good Soldiers, which last month received the New York Public Library's prestigious Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism.

The ceremony included a talk by Tina Brown, founder of The Daily Beast, who discussed her optimism about the future of journalism. While she admitted the struggling industry is in a period of change, she believes the craft will prevail, and new mediums and forms will be found to tell stories.


Finkel agrees that "there will be a need for journalism," and said, "There is a long standing, I think, never-ending need for people to be told stories. The form may change, but the need is the same. People are curious, they want to know what happened next, what was that about, what did it mean? So, no I don't worry about journalism."

But he does believe that TV or online news is not necessarily the best path for journalism to take.

"I don't want people to click to see war footage on my book, I just want write a book about the experiences of these men," he said. "But again, that certifies me as pretty old school."

THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH DAVID FINKEL
May 18, 2010

How do you feel about the state of journalism, with foreign bureaus closing, in light of what you have recently done?

That's a serious question. I guess I worry about it. I wish I understood the dynamics of these decisions better. The Post, the Washington Post, where I work, I've been there for 20 years. We used to have a pretty aggressive system of domestic bureaus; those have all been closed now. And we've lost a few of our foreign bureaus. We are consolidating in a way to concentrate on certain areas of the world and I guess in a news way I guess it makes sense. The whole thing is being recalibrated, the whole business, and I don't represent the leading edge. I'm more old school. I believe in a paper having a type of journalism that requires investment of time. You know the wonderful notion of sending a reporter somewhere with the instructions "figure out what's going on and write me a story about it." So when I started that was sometimes the instruction, and it's not so much that way anymore.

That's not answering your question that's confirming you question.

I guess the short thing is, I guess I know there are a lot of money pressures, this is a transitional time. There are some things in journalism that remain essential. Telling what happened next door, investigative and making readers care about important places that they know nothing about and foreign reporting does that better than any other reporting I'm aware of.

So I read it but that's a watery answer.

With foreign bureaus closing do you feel like the type of reporting that you did for the Good Soldiers is the future? Is that where foreign reporting is going?

You mean in book form maybe?

Well I don't know. The Post still, I mean I can only talk about what I read consistently, the Times and the Post. The Times continues to do amazing work overseas at length. With an investment of money and time for a reporter, the Post does too. But look, the year I got the Pulitzer it was for a series of stories about democracy promotion. What that means in George Bush's policy of democracy promotion is foreign policy and so I did a project that took a year. I lived in Yemen for 4 months, I wrote 3 stories that year. I don't know if the Post would do that anymore, or any newspaper. A year to produce three stories about Yemen? But the Post wanted to do it that year.

So do you think that awards like the Bernstein Award are important to honor the type of journalism that is...

Well these are all serious books. When I look at the books have won it over previous years...well just look down the list. I know Dana Priest's work I work closely with her at the Post, The Mission was an important book. Packer's work is important book, Jane Mayer's book last year, that was a huge book. Lawrence Wright's book, The Looming Tower, you can read that half a dozen times to learn so much about how to be a reporter, how to be honest, how to be a thinker, how to analyze, how to analyze critically and not use it for an agenda-driven book, but for a book that informs people so make their own decisions. Yeah, this is the essence of the type of journalism I admire and wish to do. Well it does exist in other forms.

What Tina Brown was talking about.... We have to move into other forms... the fact that so many years into it we are still searching for that other form suggests that we it's not going to be found very easily, it may not exist at all. You know we have movies we have TV shows but as she was talking I was thinking actually no, all the things you are talking about doing I don't want people to click to see war footage on my book, I just want write a book about the experiences of these men. But again, that certifies me as pretty old school.

One of the great things about a book is that you control how you want to receive the information. You can read at your own pace. You can stop it when you want to stop it. It's not on someone else's dime. It's not on their insistence that you follow along at their pace. You really are in control of the material.... I'm not sure how much this translates to new media...it will...it always seems to find a way to.

So we agree that it is changing art not a dying art?

Of course. I think it's just trying to figure out what it's going to become next.

Do you think that honoring this type of in-depth journalism, where you put your life on the line and be somewhere for a year, 8 months, 4 months as opposed to shorter, do you think it is important to really kind of put that sort of journalism on a pedestal with awards like the Bernstein Award?

Yes, I think that anything you can do at this point to sort of certify this kind of journalism that seems to be vanishing. Any recognition it can get from people who pay attention, people who have an audience, people who matter that does help. This is not a small thing, this is a good thing. And it...I'll reuse the word, I think it helps certifies its place.

When you came back after 8 months in Baghdad, how did you feel coming back? With all the luxuries we have here like public libraries, did it make you appreciate those things more? Did you feel differently about those things? How did you feel?

Well, the first time I covered a conflict was Kosovo, this was later when people were being expelled from Kosovo into Macedonia and Albania. It was 1999 I think. I spent two weeks writing stories on the refugee outflow. It was really urgent awful conditions. At the end of the two weeks, I went back home through Rome, that's just where the flight was, I had an overnight there and I'd never been to the city before but I was just so grateful to be in a place even if the monuments were crumbling to see that people are capable of actually beautiful things. It's not like I wanted to see landscapes you know. I was happy to be in a place where I could see man at his best in some ways. This was different. I mean nothing prepared me for what those 8 months turned out to be like. And Kosovo was a long time ago, Yemen was a long time ago. Baghdad was a couple of years ago now and yet its just as close to me now as it was at the time. It's not a precise answer but it's a true answer.

Why do you do it?

I don't know. I mean, it wasn't a... it seemed like an interesting story. It's the most consequential war of my lifetime. I mean I came up during Vietnam, I had a draft number but I wasn't called. But I was really young and I didn't know how things worked really. So now I've lived long enough and done journalism long enough that this is a serious consequential war with long last effects and I can do a particular type of journalism that hadn't been done in this war. Closely observed intimate journalism and that's the one thing I can do in journalism. And so I thought why not? Let's go see what it's like and try to write as I said, that ground level account. I'd read versions of it in other wars but not seen it in this war. So I thought I'd do it. I had a good character, I had full access, I had no idea if there would be a story there or not. But again this is the type of journalism I learned before the Post, but the Post really solidified. You just go somewhere and you stay long enough to cast aside your assumptions and figure out what the story is and then write the honest story. And this was just enlarged extreme version of the type of journalism I've been doing and reading for 30 years.

Is there anything you want to add about the state or the future of Journalism?

Where we are, here at the Library, basically provides the answer. There is a long standing I think never ending need for people to be told stories. The form may change, but the need is the same. People are curious, they want to know what happened next, what was that about, what did it mean? So, no I don't worry about journalism. There will be a need for journalism I just wonder what form the type I do is going to take down the line. I'm glad I got to do this at a time when people who want to read books read words have something come alive to them through written words without all the adornments. I'm glad I got to do the book in this time in this way. And I'm going to another book the same way.

I'm about start the next thing which is the next volume of this story. The war is over, it's moving into American communities now and so what does that mean? It's the same thing, I'm curious about it, I have a question, I have characters so it's just a matter of going and staying and seeing what happens.

 

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