London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and then an investigative reporter for the New Yorker, veteran journalist Jane Mayer has many stories to tell. And it is stories she cares most about: Whether covering events such the Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war on terror, or exposing the harsh realities of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Mayer still believes that, in the age of Twitter and quick-fix journalism, the enduring human need for stories has a role to play in her profession—an approach requiring delving deep into your subjects and examining the opposing point-of-view, even if it is far from your own.
During Mayer’s career, she has served as the Washington Post‘s first female White House correspondent, picking up numerous awards and accolades including the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mayer is also a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, and the author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of how the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, an exposé on the Guantanamo Bay prison and the US war on terror during the Bush era, which put her squarely at odds with some her country’s conservative establishment—and some of her journalistic peers.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the veteran journalist about her career, the state of journalism today and the coverage of Middle East events in the US press.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you start your career in journalism?
Jane Mayer: When I was a little girl, I wanted so much to be a reporter I made a press pass out of business cards that handymen had left at our house. I daydreamed about someday covering important events, but the first job in journalism I could get was for the smallest weekly newspaper in one of the smallest states, Vermont. There, during a summer job, I wrote about tiny local stories, and helped put the newspaper together from start to finish, even delivering it house-to-house in an old Jeep.
Q: What was the moment when you were sure you had chosen the right profession?
Perhaps one of the most thrilling and affirming moments for me personally was when I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, doing features from New York City, and had been curious about the increasingly open opposition to the communist state in East Germany. On a hunch that it was worth looking into, I flew over to Berlin. About three days later, I was literally standing at Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall when the first East Germans were let through. To see that kind of history unfold before your eyes, and to contribute to how the story is told, is awe-inspiring.
Q: What was your first story and when was it published? What do you enjoy working as most: a war correspondent, foreign policy writer or investigative reporter?
It’s hard to remember what was really the first story. I wrote so many unmemorable little stories as I got going. Luckily very few people read them, because they weren’t very good and I had to learn a lot as I went along. I covered things like police and crimes and fires and car accidents. It taught me so much about getting the facts right and checking everything twice.
These days, I really like to dig deep into the news to try to tell the story behind the headlines. I think in the world of Twitter, people really need to know a lot more than they often are getting. The kinds of stories that most interest me often are those in which there is an opportunity to hold people in power accountable. I think that’s one of the most fundamental roles of the press. Speaking truth to power is our responsibility, and I take it seriously.
Q: Your book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of how the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, is considered one of the most notable books about the war on terror and was well-received in the Arab world. When you stated that a third of Guantanamo detainees were falsely imprisoned, was there any backlash or anger towards you from the US authorities?
Yes, many of the detainees whose stories I tried to tell were extremely unpopular in America at the time, so it was an uphill struggle to get anyone to care about them. My magazine, though, the New Yorker, was exceptional. Our editors are the ‘gold standard’ for journalism, and they really helped us cover the subject fearlessly. When the CIA, for instance, asked us to omit names of officers who were not undercover, but who they said would be endangered if we exposed their roles to the world, the magazine went ahead and published the names anyway because my editors, like I, felt it was important in a democracy to hold those in power accountable.
Q: And did your findings influence your own beliefs regarding US foreign policy relating to the war on terror?
Yes, I was increasingly surprised that our own government officials would stoop so low as to implement a program of torture. I hadn’t expected them to violate American ideals so brutally. At the same time, I was very much impressed and heartened by the courage of many dissidents, in and out of the government, of all political persuasions, who risked a lot to speak out and tell the truth. So the experience was both disillusioning and reaffirming at the same time.
Q: Did the research and opinions discussed in the book alter the way you were perceived in political or journalistic circles?
I suppose in some extremely hawkish circles I became toxic. But truthfully, in America there are far more people who oppose torture and brutality than endorse it, both among Republicans and Democrats. So it wasn’t really an issue that hurt me politically in the conventional sense.
I try when I write not to think about the political consequences, though. I really try to just write for the readers, and let the chips fall where they may.
Q: You have won many prestigious awards for your work. Is there one that you’re most proud of?
I feel so honored by all of them. I couldn’t say which made me most proud, but in some ways one of my proudest moments was a night when I didn’t win an award I was a finalist for, and my daughter, who was a teenager at the time, turned to me and said, “Mom, I love you and I think you’re the best.” Knowing I’d raised such a big-hearted and sympathetic daughter actually made me prouder than anything else.
Q: You were the first female White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Do you think there is any particular reason it took so long for a woman to be appointed to the role?
Yes, the reason was that way back then in the early 1980s there was still a lot of serious sexism. Even when I covered the White House for the Wall Street Journal, I was told that I couldn’t cover arms control summits because at the time, the conventional wisdom was that women couldn’t understand all the math and science involved in nuclear missiles. The saying at the time was that ‘women can’t throw their weight.’ So when there was a major arms control summit with the Soviet Union, I was told to stay home and write about Nancy Reagan’s favorite dress designer.
Q: Have there been instances where being a female investigative reporter has worked to your advantage?
I don’t really know how it would be [an advantage] to be any different, so that’s hard for me to say. But I suppose that it’s never a bad thing to be underestimated, and women often are.
Q: We are now more than three years into the Syrian conflict, and the story has been reported on front pages the world over since the war began. Is there a danger here of media fatigue?
In this country [the US], there’s a serious issue not just of media fatigue but really, of war fatigue. I think the American public very much wants our government to focus more effort on our domestic problems and less on conflicts abroad. It’s been a very rough decade since the September 11, 2001, attacks, so I think despite their generosity and sympathy for the rest of the world, many Americans are just exhausted.
Q: How do you rate the New Yorker’s coverage of the Arab Spring?
I think we have many of the most talented and thoughtful reporters and editors working in journalism today, and I think we allow for a variety of points of view, which makes our coverage exceptionally rich.
Q: What is your take on the print media vs. online media debate? Do you think new forms of media are killing off old forms?
The New Yorker magazine, which excels in long-form print journalism, just had one of its most successful years ever. This suggests that there is a continuing market for traditional journalism, if it’s smart and fresh enough. The magazine also has a website that is bursting with interesting shorter pieces, so I don’t see the two as necessarily in a zero-sum competition, at least where I work.
The thing I find missing from much of the online coverage are stories. You see opinions, jokes, news flashes and gossip. But for stories, which I think the human race craves, you have to have the time and space to develop characters, explain complicated controversies, and delve deeper. It’s hard for me to believe that after telling stories since the dawn of time, mankind is going to move forever to Twitter.
Q: What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on a career in journalism? Who is your role model in journalism?
My advice would be to jump in and try to find a way to start reporting and writing, even at the lowest level. “Just do it,” as the Nike motto used to say, really is the best way to get better at it. You have to just start somewhere. For me, the most important motivation has been finding subjects you really care passionately about. My own work has been best when I’ve really felt I’m writing about subjects that matter and that readers really need to know about. It transforms the work from a job into a calling.
Q: What characteristics do you think every successful journalist should possess?
Q: What kind of advice would you give young Arab journalists?
Go out of your way to provide all sides of a story so that you know you are really being fair. It’s hard sometimes to talk with people you disagree with and to accurately represent their views, but if you do, your work will get stronger, not weaker, and you’ll contribute to the democratic process.
This is an abridged version of the original interview.