Fake Pirates, War Journalists and Old White Men

A couple guys on break or a dynamic security force? Depends on who you ask.  Afghanistan, Sutika-Sipus 2012.
I typically prefer to keep this blog limited to subjects of post-war reconstruction, but over the last few days I've been thinking a great deal about all the weirdos I've encountered along the way.  

Since 2003 I've been travelling or working in some fringe locations in the world, some of which are fairly dangerous, so its only natural that I've crossed paths with a lot of unusual personalities.  For example, Southeast Asia is full of old British men who all tout stories about their days at Oxford University, their years as a music producer touring the world, and their decision to return to the outskirts of Cambodia 15 years ago... but outside of potentially being wanted in 48 countries for arms and human trafficking, these guys seem relatively harmless over a beer.  Just don't make any future plans with them. But people that I encounter more often are the pseudo-journalists who have managed to change my perception of journalism, war, and Earnest Hemingway - and not for the better.

Today I stumbled across the article "The Somali Pirate Who Never Was," which exposes an ongoing
ruse of Kenyan-Somalis posing as Somali pirates for journalists.  The article cites Time Magazine and BBC documentaries as victims of this scam, and I find it completely believable.  Not because I have faith that the pirates to be such amazing actors, but rather because I have such little faith in war journalists.

To be fair, there are some exceptional war journalists out there.  I have massive admiration for people like Sebastian Junger who not only embed with combat units, but develop personal relationships with the subject matter and the people around them to tell the story.  But such individuals are rare.  So often when I read an article, I find it has more to do with presenting the writer as a badass than actually giving context or content.  How many articles start open with a sequence like the following:

"Driving down a dark, unpaved road in (insert conflict city here),  my driver pointed at a mud brick house and said 'we must be careful, because of the warlord (insert multi-syllabic Islamic name here) lives in that house.'  We barreled around the corner and stopped at a nondescript door when the driver nervously whispered 'we are here.  I stepped out of the car to discover an AK-47 only inches from my face."

Just one week ago a friend shared a German publication with me about the Gandamak Lodge, a bar and restaurant in central Kabul.  The article read nearly identical to what I just wrote.  Of course Gandamak, like most businesses in Kabul, has security guards, but its location is not a secret and travelling there is not an adventure.  I've also read articles exactly like this about countless African nations, refugee camps, border areas and innercity slums.  So what kind of journalist writes such over-sensationalized copy?

Every war zone or fringe location usually has one or two coffeeshops or hotels with wifi connections and decent espresso.  Inside are men and women with nice haircuts and stylish jeans, obsessing over twitter and talking about how awesome their lives are.  Most the time these individuals grew up in privileged conditions, attended reputable schools for international relations or political science, and without the burdens of student loans and lots of family support, set off to be tourists of the underdeveloped world, and occasionally publishing something between expat parties.

Thanks to the benefits of their upbringing they have a social network that facilitates access to top-tier publications and in the end, all they need to do is be somewhere to become journalists.  As for the coverage, it often doesn't stray to far from the coffeeshop, and that is the part that kills me.   Again, not all war journalists are like this, but there are plenty of the kind I describe to make your head spin.

Then there are of course the kind of journalists who "parachute" into town to swoop up a story.  I'd say this sort of coverage is often even worse because every small thing takes on exaggerated significance.  The child asking for money on the street becomes a symbol for the regional economy, the woman wearing a burka is suddenly representative of national women's rights, and the sleeping security guard at the corner store becomes a metaphor for lackluster national defense.  An entertaining story so often becomes more important than an accurate story.

I'll never forget when a friend in Juba Sudan told me that on the official day of constitutional independence, a large crowd of old white photojournalists trailed behind the central parade, documenting only the costumed dancers, but likewise looking like a parade feature themselves.  Of course they weren't there for very long, as they arrived in the morning and were on another plane that night.  I've witnessed similar reporters, often looking like he or she walked straight out of Williamsburg Brooklyn and into an IDP camp to photograph some kids pumping water from the ground and then leaving again, having contributed nothing to improve conditions but simply having been a voyeur.  Is raising awareness truly enough?  Could that person presence have contributed more to lessening the problems?

As for Earnest Hemingway, I always loved his writing and he was a childhood hero.  I also wanted to move around the globe, go on adventures, and be a good writer.  But today, I suspect I wouldn't have cared for his company.  When I read his work I sense that it is about him, its about looking like a badass and doing things specifically to have the story to tell others, not because the moment happened by chance.  What a shame.