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A Talk with the New Yorker’s David Remnick | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Amidst the upheaval that journalism is experiencing in light of the rise of new digital and internet technologies and the global financial crisis, David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker magazine agreed to speak to Asharq Al-Awsat about life as a journalist and editor, and the future of print media. David Remnick spoke about his own experiences as a journalist and editor, and discussed the media industry in general and the future of this industry in particular.

David Remnick is an American journalist and writer; he is a former Washington Post reporter, and the current editor-in-chief of the New Yorker magazine. Remnick was the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent, and he won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his book “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.” Remnick has won a number of awards, including a National Magazine Award for his 1997 article “Kid Dynamite Blows Up” about boxer Mike Tyson, and he was named “Editor of the Year” in 1999 by Advertising Age magazine. He is also the author of a number of other books including “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” and “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”

The text of the interview is as follows:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you begin your journalistic career? Was there a defining moment in your life that led you to choose this career?

[Remnick] I was a newspaper and news “junkie” as a child and began writing for my high school newspaper and even community newspapers when I was a teenager. In college, at Princeton, I was a stringer for many regional papers, and was an intern-reporter first at Newsday in Long Island and then at The Washington Post, where I became a reported from 1982 to 1992. For four years, I was in the Moscow bureau of the Post during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years. I never had a thought of doing anything else. I always thought that journalism would let me see the world and make a writer out of me. I think I was right.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell Arab readers a little bit about your book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.” How long did it take you to write? How many times did you meet with President Obama?

[Remnick] The Bridge is a full-scale biography of Barack Obama that ends when he is elected President of the United States. Beyond Obama’s own life, it concentrates on the long and painful epic story of race in America and how it became possible for this man, an African American, to get elected. I first met Obama when he was thinking about running for president and I interviewed him in Phoenix. The book took me a little over a year to write.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us approximately how long it normally takes for a story to appear in the New Yorker, from having the initial idea through to publication?

[Remnick] That is a little hard to calculate, but certainly there are stories that took well over a year to report and write. Some take more than that. Some take a few weeks. Sometimes a story like Seymour Hersh’s on Abu Ghraib happen rather quickly. The point is this: It takes as long as it takes.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] As a magazine that carries out investigative report many of your articles require weeks if not months of research, can you explain how you convince your sources to provide you with the priceless information that you report?

[Remnick] I think the fact that the magazine’s reputation is for depth and careful reporting and fact-checking is a reassuring thing for both our sources and, of course, our readers. The magazine has been around for eighty-plus years, which, in American terms, is quite some time.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Long term investigations, particularly those in foreign countries must cost a lot of money, who pays for these investigations? Has the New Yorker ever rejected an idea for a story due to cost inhibitions?

[Remnick] I never turn down a good story for reasons solely of cost. I’d rather pinch pennies elsewhere.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us how a story is commissioned at the New Yorker? Whose approval do you need to move forward with a story?

[Remnick] As the editor of the magazine, I have complete independence. The owner of the magazine, Si Newhouse, is never consulted about stories ahead of time and he only reads the final product. This is a kind of ideal situation. Once he has appointed an editor, he depends on that editor’s judgement.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How important is the Middle East in your news coverage?

[Remnick] I’ve been criticized for many things, but never for paying insufficient attention to the Middle East. In my time, we have published frequent stories from everywhere in the region by, among others, Lawrence Wright, George Packer, Jon Lee Anderson, Seymour Hersh, Mary Anne Weaver, Ian Parker, and others. The datelines include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Yemen, Jordan, and elsewhere. It is absolutely essential to understand the region, primarily its politics, but also its culture.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it is particularly important for journalists to specialize in certain areas, for example for a journalist to specialize in Al Qaeda related stories, or for a journalist to have specialized knowledge of the area they are reporting in, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lebanon?

[Remnick] Of course. I don’t think you need to be a PhD or an academic, but it is foolish to think that you can just “parachute” into a particular country for a couple of weeks and come away with anything but the most superficial sense of what is happening, which is why we try to get reporters to stay for a while, to read deeply in their subjects, and to continue returning to the region with some frequency.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] As editor of the New Yorker, and as a result of the kind of investigative stories that your magazine reports, have you ever felt that you were under security surveillance by the FBI or other security agencies?

[Remnick] Surveillance? No. Larry Wright once had a situation in which he discovered that he had been paid attention to because he had phoned certain sources in the Middle East. And I was once called by the CIA because they were concerned that insurgents in Iraq mistakenly believed that one of our writers was one of theirs rather than a reporter (which he most definitely was). But, generally, no.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the rise of the internet, do you believe that print publications are now under threat? What is your opinion of the proposal for online news content to be paid for by readers?

[Remnick] Clearly, all print publications are moving toward digital versions of themselves. And I think readers might be able to expect headlines and the most superficial sort of “news” without charge, but if they are going to get the sort of depth they have come to expect from The New York Times – or, yes, The New Yorker – it stands to reason that they will have to pay for it. And I really think the demand, and the readers, are there. It is an unnerving time, to be sure, but I think there are millions of people who want something deeper than headline news.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The global financial crisis has had a huge effect on a number of industries. How do you think print publications (particularly the New Yorker) are faring with regards to this?

[Remnick]The recession of 2008 was not easy, but I am quite sure we are going to be fine.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It was recently revealed that 1 in 10 university graduates in the UK who receive top class honours degrees fail to find employment. What type of degree would you advise for working at a prominent newspaper or magazine like the New Yorker?

[Remnick] A Harvard degree is no guarantee of anything. Seymour Hersh lasted about ten minutes at the University of Chicago law school. I am not sure Carl Bernstein (Bob Woodward’s partner during Watergate) finished college. Talent and drive – that’s what we look for.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What type of writing do you favour personally?

[Remnick] The point is brilliance in all areas, from investigations to poetry. We are a strange magazine because we range so widely in terms of genre. Without fiction, for example, there is no real New Yorker. Publishing a wonderful short story or critical essay gives me as much pleasure as publishing a great investigative piece.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what has been the most successful or memorable story that you have published?

[Remnick] Certainly the ones that got the most attention around the world was Seymour Hersh’s three investigative pieces that broke open the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq and Jane Mayer’s investigations on torture during the Bush administration.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe a typical day at the New Yorker?

[Remnick] There is no typical day, except that it begins early, before the office, with reading, and ends, late at night with more reading. At the office, it is one thing after another; talking with writers, with editors, planning issues, solving problems, dreaming up new projects.