London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Asharq Al-Awsat sits down with the New Yorker magazine’s George Packer, an award-winning writer, journalist, and playwright.
Packer became famous for his articles on the US war in Iraq, as well as his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and in 2003 he was awarded two Overseas Press Club awards for his work on these two subjects. His book “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by The New York Times.
The Following is the full text of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How did your career as a journalist begin?
(George Packer) I never studied Journalism, I studied literature and history and then I spent 15 years writing fiction novels, essays, reviews and I’ve written a play recently, so I’ve done a lot of different kinds of writing. I only began to do full time journalism around the year 2000. My ambition when I was young was not to be a journalist, it was to be a novelist, but I think I am better at journalism (laughs).
(Asharq Al-Awsat) A bit like your colleague Lawrence Wright?
(George Packer) Yeah, Larry and I have a lot in common. But I think the moment I thought that journalism could satisfy me and be the kind of writing that I like to do was when I went to Iraq for the first time in 2003 just after the American invasion and I felt like Tolstoy there because I felt that I was in the middle of a huge historical event, but what interested me was the experiences of individuals; really small people, not famous people, so I spent my time talking to university students, low level religious people, to soldiers, to middle level American officials, just to see how this huge event was being experienced by people from different points of view, and that felt close to writing a novel.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How many books have you written on Iraq?
(George Packer) Just one book called ‘The Assassins Gate’ and one play.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Yes, I’ve read parts of the play in Arabic.
(George Packer) Oh. I didn’t know that it had been translated into Arabic.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) As an investigative journalist how you convince your sources to provide you with much needed valuable information that is often not privy to others?
(George Packer) I think it’s because if I show them that I’m really willing to listen to them and to spend time with them, most people want to tell their story – except powerful people. With powerful people it’s another thing, you have to try and ask the right questions to get a little bit of information. I prefer talking to ordinary people because they’re more honest and more interesting and you learn more from what they’re telling you; so I find with ordinary people if I show to them that I am sincere and want to hear their story – and they can tell just by the way you speak to them or by the look on your face – then I find that they are willing to talk to me, sometimes for weeks.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Long term investigations, particularly those that take place in other countries can be expensive. Who pays for these projects and have any of your proposed stories been rejected due to cost issues?
(George Packer) The New Yorker pays for the expenses. They’re very generous even now with very hard economic times they will cover the cost, and sometimes the cost can be as much as $10,000 for one story if it’s a big story. None of my proposed ideas have been rejected for economic reasons.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Before starting a story do you have to get the green light from your editor?
(George Packer) Absolutely. I talk to my editor, who is a very good editor , and together we discuss what would be a good story and then once we’ve thought about it we go to the editor-in-chief David Remnick who is about 50 years old; although he seems very young and has been running the magazine for about 12 years now, so he started when he was about 38 or 39, which is very young in this country, and I’m sure it is very young for you too as you have a hierarchical structure for most organizations. So he’s young in my view and he’s almost never said “no” to a story, maybe just a few times.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You were a one time supporter of the Iraq invasion, what made you re-evaluate your opinion of the war?
(George Packer) Seeing it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How many times have you been to Iraq in total?
(George Packer) I went 6 times, but it was after the first time that I saw that the American didn’t know what they were doing. The leaders were arrogant and ignorant and they were making so many mistakes that any reasonable person would say if this was the best they could do they should not have done this. The attitude to the Iraqis was something that I paid very careful attention to, and I saw that it was changing quickly from the moment of the invasion, to let’s say the rest of 2003. So by the end of 2003 you could tell that the majority of the Iraqis were against the Americans. But I don’t think that was true at the beginning because I think that there was such excitement that Saddam Hussein was gone and people forget that, but that was a powerful thing for Iraqis; and foreign reporters noticed it and couldn’t avoid it. The American actions were so wrong that first year, and second year and third year that they lost the Iraqis and they lost the war, so it was on those grounds. I didn’t decide the world would be better with Saddam Hussein, I didn’t decide that it was all about the lies about the weapons of mass destruction, I thought there were legitimate reasons about why they would be better off without this regime. There’s a line from the Arabic poet Nizar Qabbani “Dive into the sea or stay out”. That quote is in my book The Assassin’s Gate. And that was my feeling about the war.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What was the most expensive article you have written and how much do you think it cost?
(George Packer) I think maybe it was that first story from Iraq which was called “War after the War” which appeared in the New Yorker in November 2003. I don’t remember exactly how much it cost but I think it may have been close to $10,000 because first of all the article itself is really long, it’s like 20,000 words which is huge, it was almost like a small book; and not only was I sent to Iraq for 6 weeks and traveling around Iraq and paying for interpreters and for hotels and then going back through Jordan, but I was also going to Washington and talking to officials in Washington and it took me from June to November to do all of this, so it took me five months. So it was a very long time, but that is not extraordinary for the New Yorker.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) And how long have you been at The New Yorker?
(George Packer) I’ve been there since 2003, so it’s been 7 years.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Have you ever had any stories that have cost you friendships or led to you receiving threats?
(George Packer) I’ve never received any threats, but let’s be honest, if I had ever been kidnapped in Iraq by Insurgents and they had ‘Googled’ me and read my articles that would have been the end of it. So I think that it was just my luck that I was never kidnapped. So I never got a threat from any side, American side, Iraqi side or any other side. I have lost friends. I lost a very good writer friend here in New York because of things that I have written in ‘ The Assassins Gate’ and that was mostly because of things that I wrote about him, but there are other friends that I have lost because we disagreed about the war and there were arguments. It was very bitter. It was a very bitter experience of those years as the Iraq war tore a lot of American relationships apart.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is the story that you are most proud of?
(George Packer) I think that the story that my play came from. The play was called ‘Betrayed’ and the story that it was based on was also called ‘Betrayed’ appeared in the New Yorker in March 2007 and it was about the Iraqis who worked as interpreters and what happened to them. First of all I think that it was a very good story, it was a very powerful story and I spent a lot of time talking to these guys in Iraq, in Syria, in Jordan – which all took maybe 3 months – regarding the traveling, I went to Sweden, I went to Damascus, I went to Oman, I went to Baghdad and I went to Arbil and then I went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to Washington, so it was a lot of travel and interviews. I talked to so many of these interpreters that I felt like I really got their experience into the story; and it moved people, and it actually changed things in Washington and it forced the Bush Administration to take a little bit of responsibility for what was happening to these interpreters. They were getting killed and they were getting threatened and nobody was helping them.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think that it is particularly important to have specialized journalists covering specific areas or stories, such as having specialized knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan.
(George Packer) I think it helps a lot to speak the language and I think that my greatest weakness is that I don’t speak Arabic, except for a few words, so that was a real difficulty in covering the war. In some ways I think the best form of reporting is from someone who is not an expert because if you are an expert you can lose yourself in details and you don’t see the big picture because you’re so focused on the small pictures. I think it is better to have a general interest than to spend a lot of time in it. Don’t have a background that is entirely about the Middle East because that can be too academic, it can be too specialized. Bu then you have to spend a lot of time on it, you can’t just parachute into the story.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) To what extent is the Middle East important to The New Yorkers news coverage?
(George Packer) Well for a while it was the only thing that was covered. I was in the Middle East a lot and I was writing about the war, but my main interest is not the Middle East. I first started writing about Africa, and I am still very interested in Africa, and to be honest after a few years of covering the Middle East I began to get tired of it and began to think that this was a place where ideologies were strong and democracies were weak; I got tired of hearing the same speeches over and over again, so I have not written about the Middle East for 2 or 3 years now.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) As an investigative researcher have you ever been under surveillance from the FBI or other security services?
(George Packer) I don’t think so. I’ve never been aware of it. They may read my e-mails when I am overseas. I think the CIA probably is reading the e-mails of journalists in Iraq or Afghanistan, but nobody has ever interfered or spoken to me about it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you know they were reading your e-mails?
(George Packer) I have some journalist friends who were in Iraq and Afghanistan who will sometimes tell me that I have a story that I am working on but I can’t tell you about it in an e-mails because I’m not sure if it’s safe. I am not certain about this but I have some reasons to believe that they read them in some areas, not here in the US, but overseas.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think the print edition of newspapers is under threat from the internet, and what is your opinion on “paid content” versus “free content”?
(George Packer) Well I think that a paper like Asharq Al Awsat will continue to have a future in print because when I go to Damascus or Oman everyone is reading a newspaper in the coffee shops; it’s still the culture of the place to sit there with the newspaper. But unfortunately in the USA, and maybe in London young people just don’t buy newspapers. I have a friend at the New York Times and I asked him ‘in five years do you think that there will be a print edition of The New York Times?’ and he said ‘no’. Can you imagine the New York Times with no print edition; so I do worry about it a lot.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The economic downturn has had severe effects on many industries. How do you think Newspapers and magazines (Particularly the prestigious New Yorker) are faring in these tough times?
(George Packer) I think that it is very difficult. The advertising dollars have gone down; there are fewer advertisements in the New Yorker, which means that there are fewer articles. But if you read the New Yorker regularly you can see that the magazine is still publishing long stories, expensive stories, stories that are not just about this weeks news.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) If money from advertisement is down how do they continue to make money?
(George Packer) Well I don’t know the business side very well, but I think it’s from subscriptions and very loyal readership that are not going to drop the magazine. I think they need to charge more for the magazine. I think you can buy it for about 50 cents if you subscribe for a year, which is not enough. And then there is the website which the New Yorker is trying to make a much bigger part of the whole operation.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) It has recently been found that 1 in 10 university graduates have been unable to find employment within the UK despite earning top honors. What type of degree is needed to work in a prominent publications, and how important is it to have these qualifications?
(George Packer) In this country I don’t think the degree matters very much. I studies literature and history; some people get a masters in journalist but I did not and I don’t know very many people who did. People at the New Yorker, which is a very prestigious place and very few of them got a masters on journalism. What’s important is talent and luck. Luck is a big part of it, and even connections. We like to think that it’s a meritocracy and yes to some degree talent is very important, but how does the talent get noticed. I began to do full time journalism in the year 2000, but I’ll tell you what happened in the year 2000. I moved to New York from Boston, and because I was living in New York I was meeting editors at parties, and suddenly I began to get my work published in important magazines,
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you remember the first person who gave you a chance to be journalist?
(George Packer) Well there were some smaller magazines when I was younger.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What type of writing do you personally favor for example, investigative articles, features, literature…etc?
(George Packer) Features. I like writing about the lives of ordinary people in these historic situations, much like the Iraq articles that I have written. It’s what I like best.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Can you describe a typical day at the New Yorker? For example, how ideas for stories are conceived, attending editorial meetings and the process of getting your final piece published.
(George Packer) I don’t think that there is a typical day for me as I don’t go to the magazine every day, I work from home someday and I travel a lot, so if I go in it’s for a particular reason like we’re closing a story and I need to be there to close it or I need to talk to my editor about a future story. But if you went into the offices you would find that it is a very quiet place, it’s like a library; it’s not like a Middle Eastern newspaper with everyone arguing, although I do kind of wish it was more like that. The New Yorker is very quiet; it’s very polite, maybe too polite.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where do you see America 10 years from know?
(George Packer) Oh god. That is hard. I think a lot will depend on the next two years. We can go in one of two directions; either we can begin to solve out problems in a rational way, and we all know what out problems are, or we can continue to have a circus of politics with irresponsible media like Fox News where they are impatient and a public with attention deficit disorder where everyday they need a new story. America is declining; we’re in a long term decline. We’re like the late Ottoman Empire, and how do you stop that? It takes more than just a President; it takes the whole culture to change. Obama tried but it’s not working.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You told me that some stories can take months to complete. Any fears of leaks before the story is ready for publication?
(George Packer) Well I do fear that a little bit, but my story is never a top secret. So I could tell a friend that I am working on a story about Iraqi interpreters but I don’t think that they could take the story from me as it would be smaller, shorter and it would not be as deep as they would not have the space and time to do it justice. I am a little careful, but if the New York Times did a story about Iraqi interpreters 3 weeks before my article came out I don’t think it would be a problem because it would be a different kind of story in the magazine. It’s not breaking news, I don’t have a secret story as everyone already knows about the story, it’s just how you do the story that matters, and the new Yorker allows me to do the story in a way that’s different from any newspaper.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is your opinion of the current American and British occupation in Afghanistan and how do you think that the situation can be improved? Do you think that President Obama’s decision to send more troops there was the right thing to do?
(George Packer) Well first I don’t think I would call it a British/American occupation, it’s a NATO intervention and NATO is there with UN approval and afghan approval so I don’t think that this is an illegal one sided occupation. Afghanistan is the war that should have been a success. The Afghans wanted it, the world wanted it, and we let it get away and I think it’s probably too late.