Monday, October 19, 2009

"Held By The Taliban" series


The New York Times is currently running a series that is a cross between a journal entry and narrative reporting by David Rohde, a journalist who was captured by the Taliban in November 2008 and was released over 7 months later. There are five parts to it, and (right at this moment that I'm looking at it now) there are only three parts up.

What's interesting to me is that his account is being showcased on page A1, just right before the fold (at least for the installment in Monday's paper.) The formatting of his article is distinctively different from the other stories, with the words spaced more apart and each line is half a double space. I mention this only because this immediately drew my attention, and it was like the editors were announcing that this is not an ordinary article, certainly not one that follows the vein of objectivity. From the very first sentence, I felt like I was reading this on a computer, on a blog of some sort – and not on the front page of the paper.

You can see the difference between Rohde's piece and the other articles below.

This is not a criticism – more like an observation. I really enjoyed the article, and I am really glad that I managed to read it in the paper instead of online. For some reason, even though online news can easily reach new readers, I like the finality behind having something printed on a page. It makes it seem more official and much more important.

And this is important. The column/article (I'm really not sure what word to use for it) allows us an insight to the Taliban and the terrain of Afghanistan. I don't consider myself an expert at all in war news (or any news for that matter... hence, this blog) but I know that reading Rohde's account is going to stay with me more than reading a run-of-a-mill article about the current situation in Afghanistan. That's because instead of making use of numbers and statistics to convey how horrible and desperate the situation is in this "forgotten war," Rohde's personal account is able to transfer that statistical horror into images and voices and people.

In the first installment of this series, titled "7 Months, 10 Days in Captivity," Rohde seems to issue a disclaimer by saying that everything he has written is from his memory, and therefore from his point of view.

What follows is the story of our captivity. I took no notes while I was a prisoner. All descriptions stem from my memory and, where possible, records kept by my family and colleagues. Direct quotations from our captors are based on Tahir’s translations. Undoubtedly, my recollections are incomplete and the passage of time may have affected them. For safety reasons, certain details and names have been withheld.

I thought that Rohde's was brave to admit this, and also in turn, to cover his ass. There are some insane readers of the Times (Have you read any of the letters sent in by readers? There are some close, close readers who really seem to have a vendetta against reporters) and if Rohde's haven't admitted that all that is written is in a first-person view, he would have gotten some pretty scathing emails about how flawed his "reporting" is.

However, his admission did not allay some readers' criticism. Rohde's answered some readers' questions over at the At War blog and the first (like, eight) questions addressed how Rohde was naive about the Taliban, how his depictions show how ignorant he was of them, and how he was stupid and selfish to have gotten captured, along with the Afghan journalist and driver who accompanied him.

Actually, the blog has been updated since I checked it earlier today, and the first questions now seem to actually be from readers who are concerned that Rohde's account does not belong in the hard news section of the paper and website since it does not really broadcast larger issues in terms of policy/decision making in Afghanistan. It is really interesting to see that put in words since I touched upon it earlier except did not really go into the significance of it beyond "Wow, it looks really different." But I do stand by what I said earlier, which is that I like it. Reading Bill Keller's answer to the readers, I think he summed it up pretty well why I do not think it is a "travesty on journalism" that Rohde's account is front page and in installments:

As I hope the series makes clear, this is not a story about David Rohde, it is a story about the character, strength and organization of the people the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It provides detailed insights into the minds and motives of the Taliban’s footsoldiers. It also reveals the extent to which the Taliban has, with impunity, colonized a swath of Pakistan. Yes, it is a hell of a story, but it also adds rich detail to our understanding of the Taliban.

Why, thank you, Mr. Keller, for explaining it so succinctly. Whenever something like this happens, there is always a fear of the reporter becoming the story, and thus hindering the actual importance of the story. However, in this particular instance, I really think that Rohde's first-hand experience has enhanced the image we have of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Anyway, I really recommend reading this series, and following through to Part 5. This reminded me a little of Kate Webb, a journalist who was captured by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War for 23 days, and how the short time with her captors made her later reportingof the Vietnam War much more nuanced.