London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Jeffrey Goldberg is an American–Israeli journalist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine. He has previously worked for the Jerusalem Post, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker. Goldberg is known for his work on foreign affairs, particularly the Middle East and Africa. Although born in America, Goldberg served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a prison guard during the First Intifada. He wrote a book on his experiences in the Israeli army entitled “Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.” He has also published a number of renowned articles such as “The Great Terror” which focuses on human rights abuses in Kurdistan, and a two-part investigation into Hezbollah “A Reporter at Large: In the Party of God” which won the National Magazine Award for reporting.
The text of the interview is as follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you begin your professional career as a journalist? Was there a defining moment that led you to become a journalist?
[Goldberg] My career in journalism began as a teenager, in New York, when I became editor of my high school newspaper, which, quite unfortunately, was named “The Mule.” I was certain I had chosen the right profession when I realized that being editor of the paper allowed me to ask impertinent and annoying questions of the high school principal. This is what I enjoy most about journalism – the license it gives you to bypass bureaucracy and standard procedures and all the rest and go after, full-throttle, whatever piece of information you happen to be seeking.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Goldberg] I don’t think there’s anything particularly interesting to say about myself. I’m a middle-aged journalist (is 44 middle-aged?) who lives in a nice house in Washington, D.C. with his family. Because of time constraints in my life, I try to devote myself to only three things, my family and my work. I try to be a good citizen, but I don’t volunteer as much as I should. I try to be a good member of my synagogue, but I don’t devote as much time to that as I should, either.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many years did you serve in the Israeli army? And how has your army career helped in your media career?
[Goldberg] I served in the Israeli army for about a year, when I was in my early 20s, and after that year, I rose all the way to the rank of private. I wrote a book about this experience, called “Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.” The army sent me, against my will (that’s what armies do, of course) to a prison called Ketziot (known to Palestinians as Ansar 3) in the Negev Desert, where I worked as a “prisoner-counselor” – that was the strange title I had. It meant that I was one of the people in charge of making sure the prisoners received food, clothing and shelter, and that their health and religious needs were met. It was a very bad experience for me – I had grown up supporting Israel and believing in Israel, but I didn’t want to become involved in jailing anyone, and I was a supporter of a two-state solution even then. The book I wrote reflects my unhappiness with the occupation, but also my belief that Jews deserve a country in part of their ancestral homeland. My time in the army made me believe even more fervently that a Palestinian state – a real one, with full sovereignty, a capital in East Jerusalem, all of that – is in the vital best interest of Israel as well as the Palestinians.
Serving in the prison did one thing for me, though: It introduced me to Palestinians. I had never met many Palestinians before this experience. Some of these guys – Fatah guys, mainly, but also a couple from Hamas – -became my friends after the prison.
When I went to the army, I was already working as a journalist (in college, mainly, though also at The Jerusalem Post), so this was a detour. The journalism skills I had developed already were good for me, though, because they allowed me to surreptitiously “cover” the prison even as I was working there.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our Arab readers a little about the Atlantic magazine that you work for?
[Goldberg] The Atlantic is a monthly magazine of politics, culture and opinion, with a very active and impressive website. It is, in my humble opinion, the most venerable magazine in America – it was founded shortly before the Civil War to agitate against slavery. It has a noble past and an exciting future – there aren’t many outlets these days that dig deep into the big issues of the day (most everything these days seems to be gossip) so the Atlantic is a rare sort of magazine.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own opinion, what is the most successful or important story that you have written to date?
[Goldberg] That’s a hard question. I think it might be a story I wrote ten years ago for The New York Times Magazine, about life in a madrasa in Pakistan. This appeared well before 9/11, and the radicalization of poor youth in the Northwest Frontier Province was not yet commonly-known. There are many moments I remember from that story, but one stands out – I was in a classroom and the teacher asked me to talk to the students. Eventually, we came around to the subject of Osama Bin Laden (who, at the time, was not so well-known) and I asked the students if they wanted Bin Laden to acquire an atomic bomb. They answered yes, enthusiastically.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Stories take months of research to be written. What story at the Atlantic required the most research to write?
[Goldberg] I don’t know for certain, but it might be a three-part, sixty-thousand-word series written by William Langewiesche, about the “unbuilding” of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks. He spent several months just observing the massive project to remove the debris from the attack, and shore up lower Manhattan. It was a very patiently-done and compelling story.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our Arab readers a little bit more about your book ” Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.”
[Goldberg] The book is a bit of a memoir, and also a bit of a history of the Middle East conflict, told in personal terms. I try to explain to my readers how a young Jewish boy, myself, came to Israel, and how he ended up in the army, and how he began to see the conflict as very complicated and morally grey. I try to place the readers in the shoes of various people, from staunch Zionists to hardcore members of Hamas. My belief – which carries through to my journalism – is that the more you know about the Middle East conflict, the more you see that it defies easy, “bumper-sticker” sort of solutions and analysis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As a magazine journalist, your articles often take weeks if not months of research. Can you explain how you conduct such research, and how you convince your sources to provide you with valuable information that they might not otherwise want revealed?
[Goldberg] The great thing about being a magazine writer is time. People think the great gift of magazines to writers is space, but it’s really time. Time means you can have an interview with someone, run through your questions, and then two weeks later, go see the person again and, in the interest of clarifying what he said, ask him the same questions again. And then again. Each time, the answers get deeper and more complicated. The other thing to realize – and this is true even when you’re covering terrorists, or mobsters, or religious fanatics – is that just about everyone wants to tell his story, and just about everyone thinks he’s right – right about his basic outlook, right about the path he has chosen. Once you realize that everyone is walking around with a story trapped inside of them that needs to get out, journalism becomes easier.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Long term projects, particularly those that might require a lot of travel, have high fiscal costs. Who pays the expenses for such investigations and projects, and have any stories put forward by a writer been rejected by the Atlantic due to expenses?
[Goldberg] The magazines pay for all the costs, and so far, at least, I’ve never run into a problem. You have to be mindful of your costs, but good editors know that stories cost money and time. I hope this never changes!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you consider your article “The Great Terror” that deals with the issue of Kurdistan, or your two-part examination of Hezbollah “A Reporter at Large: In the Party of God” to be among your best and most important articles?
[Goldberg] Yes, I consider those both good stories, the story about Kurdistan mainly because it highlighted war crimes which at that point had been partially forgotten, and the Hezbollah story because I think it proved that the organization did not have the ability to moderate itself.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How important is the Middle East in your news coverage?
[Goldberg] Very important, though I do find the Middle East tiring after a while. I used to cover Africa quite a bit, and would like to go back to that. I used to be a generalist, and I would like to return to being a generalist.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe it is important for a journalist to focus upon one region or have a specialization in one subject, for example how some journalists specialize on Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, etc?
[Goldberg] I don’t really believe in specialization. Sometimes fresh eyes bring a new and welcome perspective to stories. On the other hand, it helps to know the players, and it’s certainly safer to send war correspondents to war zones than people who’ve never seen violence or been in danger.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have worked at the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Post, what are the differences in your work at each publication?
[Goldberg] There are big differences. At the Jerusalem Post I was a columnist, at the Washington post a daily reporter (covering the crime beat) and at the New Yorker a feature writer. The feature-writing is the most satisfying sort of work I’ve done.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever felt as if you were under surveillance by the FBI or other security services?
[Goldberg] I’ve never felt under surveillance in America. In various countries in the Middle East and Asia, yes, I’ve been under surveillance. It didn’t get in the way of what I was doing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the popularity of the internet, and content being available on websites for free, do you believe newspapers are under threat? What is your opinion to the proposals that online news content be limited and subject to pay for access?
[Goldberg] Unless readers pay for access to quality journalism on-line, there won’t be much quality journalism left in a few years. To me it’s as simple as that. Earlier you asked about the costs of magazine stories. They cost a lot to pull off correctly; someone has to pay. Before the Internet, who ever gave away a quality product for free? It was insane, in retrospect.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The global financial crisis had had a huge effect on a number of industries, how do you believe print publication, and particularly the Atlantic are faring in these tough times?
[Goldberg] So far, subscribers to magazines like the Atlantic and the New Yorker have been loyal, and I think people know that they will miss these magazines if they disappear, so they are working to keep these magazines alive.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I was recently revealed in a UK survey that 1 in 10 university graduates are having difficultly finding employment, despite receiving top class honours. What type of degree would you advise is required for those wanting to work in magazine journalism, such as at the Atlantic, and how important are such qualifications?
[Goldberg] I don’t think any degree in particular is needed to work at a magazine like the Atlantic. You have to come with a high-degree of curiosity, the ability to learn quickly and communicate well. But often I think that these are things people are born with. They can get better – one of the greatest things about journalism is that you can always get better – but I think some people are born to be journalists and some people are not.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What type of writing do you favour personally?
[Goldberg] I like long narrative non-fiction pieces, though I love to read fiction.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe a typical day at the Atlantic, with regards to how articles are commissioned, edited, etc?
[Goldberg] The writer’s life is pretty unstructured at the Atlantic. I blog every day, so my mornings are sometimes taken up with that. But then it’s up to me to get my longer stories done on time. I don’t have to go to too many meetings, thank goodness. I get pretty antsy at meetings.