Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats

Anyone who tells you otherwise does not understand the purpose of journalism.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Bernd von Jutrczenka / Picture Alliance / Getty

Thursday morning, after the publication of my profile of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the April issue of The Atlantic, Saudi Arabia’s propaganda machine cranked into operation. For the rest of the day, I watched it work: attempting to hide the uncomfortable parts (in my article I made numerous observations that would get a Saudi journalist imprisoned or worse), amplifying the parts the government liked, and straight-up lying about others.

Two Saudi insiders have told me that my access to Saudi Arabia is finished after the story’s publication, and that the crown prince will “never” see me again.

The government also leaked to the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya an edited—and scrubbed—transcript of the interview with MBS that I’d conducted alongside The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. The official Saudi edits were helpful, because close comparisons between their versions and what was actually said will direct you to what the crown prince’s media team wishes to suppress—a guide, curated by the government, to the interview’s juicy bits (or at least the ones they thought they could get away with deleting from the record).

Here are some differences:

  • We pressed MBS on the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and MBS made a number of galling and bizarre claims—including the notion that, no, he did not order Khashoggi’s death but that if he were to send a hit squad, he’d send a top-notch group, not the bumblers in Istanbul. “If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.” The Saudis detected the O.J.-like “If I Did It” notes in this response and changed it to “If we assume for argument’s sake that we’re going to go for an operation like that, it would have been professional and someone on the top of the list.” The Arabic version adds “God forbid!” (la samah Allah), a nice passing-the-smelling-salts touch.

  • During the interview, MBS claimed to us that he’d “never read a Khashoggi article.” Khashoggi was a very prominent dissident, and they had met personally. The Saudi transcript backs off that implausible claim, and says he never read a “full” article by Khashoggi.

  • We asked how MBS could justify imprisoning those who’d dissented from his near-blockade of Qatar after he himself had reversed his Qatar policy, with hardly an explanation, months before our conversation. He said Qatar and his country are now “very, very close” but told us that Saudis who supported Qatar during the boycott were like Americans who may have supported Nazis during the Second World War. “What do you think [would have happened] if someone was praising and trying to push for Hitler in World War II?” he asked. The Saudi transcript erases the comparison of his Qatari counterpart, a recent guest at MBS’s palace on the Red Sea, to Adolf Hitler.

  • MBS dilated on the question of Islamic law, and he told us that even crimes whose punishments are divinely mandated would not be prosecuted vigorously. “Even if there is a divine punishment for fornication, the way that we should prosecute it is as the Prophet did. We should not try to seek out people and prove charges against them. You have to do it the way that the Prophet taught us how to do it.” The official transcript erases this comment, which would be incendiary to Islamists, because it calls into question the point of criminalizing antique crimes like fornication at all.

  • I asked whether alcohol would ever be sold legally in Saudi Arabia, and I received no reply. In this case my words are stricken from the transcript, presumably because his refusal to answer this question suggests such a change is possible. (Islamists noticed his non-answer and bemoaned the arrival of Heineken “in the land of the two Holy Mosques.”)

As every chef knows, the ingredients make the meal, but the art is in what you do with them. From the interview the Saudis prepared a propaganda feast, snipping out the crown prince’s less controversial comments and adorning them with his smiling face and, on social media, the hashtag #meetingthecrownprince. Propaganda is tedious, and within minutes of the story’s debut, my social feeds were chloroformed by Saudi sources sharing the “BREAKING” news that the crown prince had spoken and said he intended to continue the kingdom’s economic development.

Then it became more interesting. The Saudi Post tweeted an account of the interview that purported to be in my voice:

“When [The Atlantic’s] team went to meet the Crown Prince in his palace in Riyadh, we had heard bad things about him abroad, especially from the son of [the exiled Interior ministry official] Saad al-Jabri, who fed us false information about him. When we met him face to face, we were amazed: We saw only a humble, outspoken, strong, and very smart leader.”

This tweet and many like it are fictitious—and although I observed in our meeting that MBS is personally smart and cordial, my article notes that it was not his intelligence but his self-pitying megalomania that stupefied us.

By the time you assess what has happened in one skirmish of the media war, another has begun. Saudi English speakers could read the article for themselves—and would immediately know, upon its opening paragraphs’ description of forbidden subjects like the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, the climate of fear and oppression, torture and imprisonment of dissidents, and the crown prince’s facial tic, that they could not disseminate the substance of the article without personal risk.

Various Saudis of prominence tweeted positively about the article—and thereby showed that they had not read it. One Twitter user reported, “I just finished reading [it], and I swear to God, without exaggeration, the most beautiful article I’ve read about an important Arab figure! The article makes you feel the strong personality of Prince Muhammad bin Salman 💚.” That is the general approach to bad news. Pretend it is good news. Lie. Flood the zone with what you like, and ignore what you do not. A writer cannot stop an autocrat from running his work through the propaganda machine. But that doesn’t mean autocrats should never be written about or asked questions. The fact that they try to claw back quotes and invent stories that do not exist shows they fear the story that does exist, and that exhibits their leader’s delusions and self-regard in his own words.

Many Saudis do read English, or know how to use Google Translate. Some, mostly overseas, have written kind and polite notes, expressing disagreement with some parts and agreement with others. Exiles who cannot return have done the same. Fans of MBS also send me little valentines. “Fuck you, dog,” one wrote this morning. “Shut fuck up you little boy. This [is] the GREAT KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA.” The Saudi flag icon after a username greatly increases the probability of incoming verbal abuse.

And of course obtuseness is not an exclusively Saudi vice. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor, wrote that my profile “couldn’t be more sympathetic if [MBS’s] own press team had written it.” “Access journalism”! cried Elizabeth Spiers, a journalism professor at New York University, perhaps unaware that “access journalism” is meant to increase access to one’s subject rather than end it.

Various journalists complained that I described MBS as personally “charming” and “intelligent.” To this my reply is twofold. First, MBS was indeed charming and intelligent, and if you want me to say otherwise, then you want to be lied to. Second, if you think charm and intelligence are incompatible with being a sociopath, then your years in Washington, D.C., have taught you less than nothing.

Any publication bragging that it is too sanctimonious to accept an invitation to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is admitting it cannot cover Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic is not in the business of sanctimony, and it expects its readers to understand, without being told, that someone who dwells on his own indignities as the result of a murder, rather than on the suffering of the victim, might not be the perfect steward of absolute power.

All journalism is an attempt to bring readers things they do not know, and all interviews with heads of state involve getting them to say things they wish they had not said. To elicit these utterances, one must approach the subject sideways—and, most of all, keep him talking, and reveal more than he intends to say. “Giving a platform”—to use the cliché that imprisons the minds of those who don’t know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is—is not a favor bestowed on important people. It is an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors. And that is exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose past two days have been spent desperately fluffing pillows for a soft landing below, seem to think their ruler did.