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Q & A with the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Q & A with the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland

Q & A with the Washington Post's Jim Hoagland

Q & A with the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland

Washington D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Jim Hoagland spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his extensive career as a reporter, editor and distinguished columnist for ‘The Washington Post’.

In 2002, Hoagland was awarded the Cernobbio-Europa Prize, which was headed by a jury of the editors of ‘The Times’ (London), ‘Le Figaro’ (Paris), ‘Die Welt’ (Berlin) and four other leading European newspapers for his analysis of the aftermath of 9/11 and its effect on US-European relations.

Q: I must begin by asking about your interest in the Arab world? Why did you have such an early interest in the region?

A: The Washington Post asked me to go to Beirut in 1972. I had been based in Africa, in Nairobi. They said the Beirut post is currently open and asked if I was interested. I immediately said ‘yes’. I spent three and a half years in Africa but there was very little important urgent news that would get you on page one. As a reporter I just felt that the Middle East was a region where there was going to be a lot of important urgent news that would get you on page one, whereas in Africa you had to ‘write’ your way on to page one, and I enjoyed that.

Q: Are you saying that the Middle East is a reporter’s key to page one?

A: I wanted to have a story that demanded that I would be able to cover breaking news in a competitive situation. Journalism is a lot about competition; competition between papers, competition between correspondents but also competition to understand rapidly developing situations and to have the ability to express that. I believe that journalism is a continuous learning process so you are learning all the time. The other part of it is to be able to express what you have come to understand.

In Africa I had watched the end of colonization and the colonial period. I wanted to see it another context, where it was going to take on a different form… in the Middle East and that for me was a very interesting intellectual challenge and it was at a time where I was lucky enough to have an early sense in 1972, beginning of ’73, the growing importance of oil and the oil economy throughout the world. It was a major lever of change, of economic and political change worldwide. That’s one of the reasons that one of the first things that I did when I got to Beirut was visit Iraq in the summer of 1972 when the Iraqi petroleum company was nationalized and shortly after that I made a point of trying to spend as much time in Saudi Arabia as I could.

Although I thought I would leave the region behind after I was moved to France in 1975, within a short matter of time I was back in Damascus and Beirut in 1976 when the Syrians came into Lebanon for the first time. Ever since, I came to realize that you do not leave the Middle East, and even if you do it will come and get you back.

I remember in 1982 when George Shultz was secretary of state; he came to ‘The Washington Post’ at one. I remember he said: “I’m going to handle a lot of economic matters, I’m going to handle important things that secretaries of state haven’t handled in the past … and I’m going to leave the Middle East to the experts. I will look in on it but I will concentrate on other things.” I said to him, “Mr. Secretary, you do not have that luxury.” And I explained my point of view to him. And sure enough, George Shultz, whom I admire and respect a lot, put much of his time into it.

Q: You have an uncanny ability for reading situations early, you were the first to warn that Iraq will become a problem for the Americans and that was in 1987 (after Saddam attacked a US battleship in the Gulf). And after 9/11 you said that it was ‘a shadow war that was going to haunt the US every day’ and you referred to the impossibility of ignoring the Middle East, that it was going to come and get you, how do you read things in an accurate manner where many others have failed before you?

A: (smiles) I have no special abilities. What I try to do is to go places where other people do not, so I can build up a reservoir of information – Africa taught me that. Because I would go to a country and I knew I would not leave for the next six months so I build up that reservoir in a week or two so it can serve me for the next six months. You are constantly concerned not just about what happened yesterday and what’s going on today, you are trying to look ahead so you can get a sense of the trends and developments that you’re going to have to deal with six months or one year down the line. But I don’t think that’s unusual for journalists, that is what journalists should be doing, particularly foreign correspondents. A national reporter can get away with much more focusing on the daily events, while a foreign correspondent has to make a synthesis of many things that are going on in a given country or a given region, has to coming up with overarching themes and has to say to then reader ‘trust me’. Your credibility is on the line, not only for your coverage but for your judgment in a much bigger way than a national reporter or local correspondent.

Q: However, you were wrong on a number of occasions, particularly on the Iraqi issue. You were close to Ahmed Chalabi [head of the Iraqi National Congress] who was criticized for providing inaccurate information to the US media before this last war, especially relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction. What happened to your ability to read situations in this instance?

A: Let me say that I was wrong about many things in Iraq, however I never wrote a story about Weapons of Mass Destruction based on anything Ahmed Chalabi ever told me, except once in 1996, and the UN weapons inspectors did find warheads containing VX gas back then, so that actually happened, and there is no dispute about that.

Generally, I did not talk to Chalabi about WMD, this is not what I talked to him about. I talked to him about terrorism, about Saddam and the events in Iraq and by and in general, the information that he gave me was accurate. Now, what he did with other reporters I am not responsible for.

Q: But, you were convinced by the WMD argument?

A: It would be inaccurate to say that I was wrong about WMD because of Ahmed Chalabi. The other thing I wrote about WMD was a column based on Colin Powell’s speech to the UN. I admit that I was wrong and that Colin Powell was wrong.

Let us not forget that Powell was actually against the war, so he questioned the CIA and demanded all the information they had before he concluded that Iraq had a WMD program that they were trying to hide. By the way, the French Intelligence also had it wrong as I personally know, and so did Russian and German intelligence as I am told.

However, if you go back and look at my writings, starting 1987 I perceived Saddam as a threat to the region. And I supported operation ‘desert storm’ and between 2002-2003 I supported an intervention [in Iraq] on the basis of a humanitarian intervention, that this was a uniquely evil regime that had a destabilizing influence on the region and that it would be better for everyone if Saddam was out. That was my case and I never relied on WMD to make my argument for the invasion.

Q: Regarding your recent columns, you wrote about local politics, globalization and international affairs, have you ever considered specializing in the Middle East? Wouldn’t that give you more credibility?

A: I think a writer, and a columnist in particular, has to bring “value added”. If a reporter writes a story and he/she includes a statement, and you ask him/her “why did you put that in?” The answer can simply be, “because the person said it.”

A columnist can’t just say that. The fact that somebody said it or somebody did it is not sufficient for him/her to put it in the column. You have to bring some insight into what you’re reporting. A columnist has to be able to make connections that are not obvious and that’s why I range from subject to subject – more often the subject chooses you.

Q: What is the process of writing your column, does anyone assist you?

A: I have a research assistant who works at the foreign [news] desk at ‘The Washington Post’ and if I need him to look up something I get in touch with him. I do a lot of my writing at home, simply because it is quieter and I do not get interrupted as much. If you see me in the office it usually means I am not working because I should either be traveling, talking to people, or locked away in a room writing. But it’s not always like that; ‘The Washington Post’ newsroom like any newsroom is like a university, you have people there who know more about something than you do. They may not be people who know more about certain things than you do but if you want to know more about military tactics for example, you go over to the Pentagon correspondent at ‘The Washington Post’ and you ask him. The same goes for national reporters, so you can walk around the room and get instant seminars and details that will help you in writing your column. That is the real value of being in the newsroom, it’s not only sitting there to write.

Q: But still, what is your formula, do you have specific rule that you follow?

A: One of my editors once said to me, ‘the thing you do that sets your stories apart is that you always make the extra phone call’. You do not stop where everybody else stops; you make at least one extra phone call. You must talk to as many people as possible. You must get out there and just talk to people – and must listen. You have to be a good listener.

When I see that one of my colleagues is more interested in talking than in listening, I know that that is not a good journalist. Not only must you listen, but you must listen to what is not said, particularly when you are dealing with government officials because they are frequently in situations where they are constrained from saying certain things you need to know.

Q: So how do you deal with government officials?

A: I start by asking questions that they can answer. One of the mistakes that journalists make most the time is that they spend their time asking either entirely predictable questions with entirely predictable answers. Sometimes officials will surprise you with completely unpredictable answers to predictable questions. But what is worse is asking anybody, officials in particular, questions they can’t answer, that they do not know the answer to. If you do that, then you have wasted an opportunity for a good question and you would have made them (the officials) a little bit more on guard than they need to be. You should ask questions that they reasonably can be expected to answer and you have to listen carefully to what they do not say because frequently that is part of the story. When you realize what they did not say, then you can go and ask them directly about that and frequently that’s a good way to come out with a story. You will have understood what the ‘sensitive area’ is that they are avoiding… Then you can ask others about it, and find out why it is a sensitive area. You cannot believe the amount of times when the story is in what has not been said not what is being said.

Q: Do you have any guidelines for documenting and checking sources and facts etc?

A: Of course, you need at least two independent sources. You want to understand that when somebody tells you they know something, your next question should be: ‘How do you know?’ To me it is the fundamental reporting question, not only ‘what do you know’ but also ‘how do you know’ because then you can grasp how valuable the information is.

Q: Do you miss field reporting?

A: Having been a reporter for most of my career, I think it’s very hard to get out of that habit. In fact, I do more reporting than I need to.

You have to ask the most questions you can. I remember when I was working as the foreign news editor [at ‘The Washington Post’], the best correspondents that I had were the ones that asked the most questions. Columnists do not do as much reporting; they do a different kind of reporting in search of a level understanding that reporters do not need to write the daily affairs.

Q: You have worked as a reporter, an editor and a columnist, which of the three do you prefer?

A: I have enjoyed all three. The reason I’ve been with ‘The Washington Post’ for 40 years is because it’s the kind of place where you get to do so many different things and you have the ability to test your skill in different ways. I worked in ‘The New York Times’ (NYT) before ‘The Washington Post’ and the NYT at that point was very much considered an “editor’s newspaper” and I wanted to be a reporter and the ‘Post’ was considered a “reporter’s newspaper”, Bradley [Ben Bradley, then executive editor of ‘The Washington Post’] making it a great reporter’s newspaper. I left the NYT and joined ‘The Washington Post’.

Q: You mentioned Ben Bradley; can you tell me more about starting to work for ‘The Washington Post’?

A: I was working in Paris for the NYT in 1965 and Ben Bradley had just assumed the post executive editor of ‘The Washington Post’ and he had said that he was going to make ‘The Post’, which was a good local paper, into a national newspaper. He had spoken to Katherine Graham [publisher and owner of the ‘The Washington Post’ from 1963-1993, died in 2001] and she had given him the green light. Great owners make great newspapers. On a visit to Washington a friend said ‘Come over and meet Bradley’, we just started talking and Bradley offered me a job. The meeting helped me arrive to an important conclusion that I had found one of life’s greatest challenges, which was to find somebody you genuinely wanted to work for.

Bradley remains one of the most charismatic people I have ever met. At the end of the conversation I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and I was on a pretty good track at the NYT, he said: “Listen, come and try it for a year and if you don’t like it at the end of the year you can up to me and insult me.” It has been almost 40 years today, occasionally I go up to him and say ‘any day now, Bradley”

Q: Why did you not become the Washington Post’s editor?

A: I am much more comfortable being a reporter and a writer. That is why I got into journalism. Anybody in this business would want to be an executive editor. I enjoyed it, being a foreign news editor. Editing is much more creative than I had ever realized but at the end of the day, what I really wanted to do was write. I wake up every morning knowing that I will find something new and different at ‘The Post’ today.