Freed Press

Our correspondent teaches Libya’s budding reporters the ABC’s of ethics and objectivity—with mixed results.
Zohra Bensemra/Reuters Pictures

About a hundred independent newspapers and magazines are published in Benghazi, up from a total of zero before the city’s liberation one year ago. They are nearly all execrable, journalistically, and for that, I suppose I deserve my small portion of blame.

In October, at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development, I traveled to Benghazi to train Libyan journalists. As part of its effort to build up post-revolutionary civil society, USAID had offered to help nurture a network of journalists known as Independent Libyan Media (or ILM, Arabic for “knowledge”).

Amira Sallak and Dania Zada, two smartphone-addicted Libyan women in their 20s, worked with ILM to gather about 50 journalists for my seminar. Born and raised in Muammar Qaddafi’s hermit kingdom, where all real journalism was forbidden, these would-be Murrows, Hershes, and Riveras had learned about news-gathering through furtive glimpses of the outside world: brief trips overseas or, for those confined to Benghazi, cable-TV signals from Italy that carried news channels as well as dubbed reruns of The A-Team.

All of my students were under 30 and had entered the profession from other pursuits. Ex-nurses, ex–medical students, ex-architects, and ex-engineers showed up, and a few people seemed young enough to have practiced no occupation other than Facebook Revolutionary, straight out of high school. They knew nothing of standards, libel, or ethics—except that such concepts existed, and that eventually they needed to learn about them. And they were immensely eager to do so. In fact, rather than clamoring for per diems, some offered to pay for the training.

Sallak, who had spent years in England as a child, booked the upstairs floor of Pisa, a pizzeria near Al-Arab Medical University, and instructed the wait staff to maintain a flow of macchiatos while we remade Libyan journalism. All day, the restaurant’s ground-floor TVs reverberated with Italian soccer at full volume, while upstairs I shouted out terms like source, attribution, and plaintiff-friendly libel law, and the Libyans scribbled them down. Sallak, big-eyed and wrapped tightly in a blue veil, chirped out definitions in Arabic when things got technical.

I preached a gospel of objectivity, freedom from bias, and independence—the canonical American journalistic virtues—and explained why journalists aren’t supposed to shade stories to protect the powerful, or lie, or break the law, or pay their sources, or be paid by them, or pretend to be someone they’re not. The students appreciated the theory but challenged me in practice. Nearly all said, for example, that they would decline to publish a story that made the leaders of the rebel government look bad, at least until the war was finished. (“That makes you not journalists but propagandists,” fumed one dissenter, shaking his shaggy hair in disappointment.)

They demanded that I explain what they perceived as lapses in the American media’s objectivity. I braced myself for the word Palestine, but it never came. Instead, a young man in glasses complained: “We read in your newspapers that we are ‘rebels.’ We are not ‘rebels’! We are revolutionaries.” To Libyans, he said, rebel connoted defiance of legitimate authority, such as one’s father, and made the revolutionaries sound like criminals and unprincipled killers. Our use of rebels betrayed an anti-revolutionary bias. I replied that the term rebellion wasn’t stigmatized that way in English. The Libyans—all of them, um, revolutionaries—were unconvinced.

Toward the end of our training, I split them into small groups and gave them a reporting exercise: An anonymous tip had come in, stating that the U.S. ambassador had met yesterday with the fugitive Saif al-Islam Qaddafi. Investigate. Hunter Keith, an Arabic-speaking Iowan working as a contractor for USAID, stood in an adjacent room and played the ambassador. I furnished his phone number to the teams, who could also contact the ambassador’s driver and housekeeper, played by two Libyan associates whom I instructed to ask for money in exchange for their testimony. If the teams called around, seeking denials and confirmations, they could navigate a maze of varyingly dubious sources and uncover the true scoop, which was that the ambassador’s visitor was not Saif al-Islam, but a major politician whose imminent appointment in the new government would be a story in itself.

Within seconds, Keith’s phone vibrated across the table. “Mr. Ambassador,” the first caller said. “This is Saif al-Islam. Did we have a good meeting yesterday?” Keith, in character, told the journalist he had no idea what was going on. “Mr. Ambassador,” the next caller said. “This is the police. We have seen you drunk on the street, and we need you to come in for questioning.” In the thrill of the hunt, my lessons were forgotten and the ethics unheeded. With the flimsiest sourcing, every group led its story with an announcement that Saif al-Islam had met with the ambassador. One group dug deeply and diligently enough to reach the truth—but led with the Saif al-Islam lie anyway.

In fact, it’s fair to say that most of my trainees wanted to find and execute Saif al-Islam more than they wanted the story. Ah well, I thought—you can’t become a great journalist without first having some kind of a killer instinct.

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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