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Mideast Views to Make Us Squirm

Media: A British reporter finds much to fault in U.S. leadership, news accounts.

April 22, 2002|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In December, British reporter Robert Fisk's car broke down at the village of Kila Abdullah, near the Pakistani-Afghan border. A crowd of Afghan refugees kicked and hit him, and soon started to smash stones into his face. "I couldn't see for the blood pouring down my forehead and swamping my eyes," he would write after his narrow escape.

He was sure his assailants' rage sprang from seeing their nearby village destroyed by American B-52s, he recently told a riveted audience at Chapman University in Orange County. And two days after the incident, he filed a passionately sympathetic view of the "humiliation and misery" of the Muslim world. "If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did," he wrote for the Dec. 10 edition of his paper, London's Independent. "I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."

To fans in Britain and on the Internet, where a growing worldwide readership stalks his work daily, the piece was an extreme case of Fisk being Fisk: A highly personal response to conflict, conveyed with a cinematic intimacy that makes it hard to put down. A Wall Street Journal pundit, Fisk asserts, demonstrated just what kind of response his approach provokes. The Journal article was headlined: "A Self-Loathing Multiculturalist Gets His Due."

"Had I merely reported an attack by a mob," he told the Chapman crowd, "the story would have fitted neatly into the general American media presentation of the Afghan war, no reference to civilian deaths from American B-52 bombers and the widespread casualties of the Afghan raids.

"I hate the 'what' and 'where' stories that leave out the 'why.'"

Like Fisk or not, the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon turned events on his beat as the Independent's Middle East correspondent into the biggest story on the globe. He became increasingly familiar in print and on radio as one of the few Western reporters to have interviewed Osama bin Laden.

He's put in 26 years covering the Middle East, as well as conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, winning the British international journalist of the year award seven times. He's covered the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the current U.S. action in Afghanistan. "He's a legend in Britain," says Anne Nelson, who uses his work to teach international reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Between April 12 and 14, as the region's wounds seemed to grow wider by the hour, he gave a hectic series of talks around Los Angeles, drawing packed crowds and strongly divided reactions.

In his five local appearances, he performed a geopolitical shtick that included throwing out the phrase "peace process" with such sarcasm it sounded like punch line. He's a restless, compact, 56-year-old man with a ruddy face that gets redder when he's worked up, flaring with Swiftian scorn for one form of organized or state power after another.

He savages "cynical, old" Arafat, "cynical" Colin Powell, "murderous" Ariel Sharon, America's "blindly unquestioning" support of Israel and "corrupt, dreadful" Arab dictators (whom he says America supports, even installs). Fisk, who speaks Arabic, derides the duplicity of the British for making conflicting promises to Arabs and Jews that he says started much of the area's modern trouble.

He is driven by a preoccupation with history. "I am fascinated by European history," he says in an interview, "and the history of the Middle East is European history."

Having studied classics and Irish political history, Fisk holds a doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin. His interest in European history started when his father, a British veteran of World War I (he joined up early, was in his late 40s when Fisk was born), took him on tours of European battlefields when he was no older than 5. "I'd visited Auschwitz by the time I was 16," he says."

Journalists, he says, "are usually the first witnesses to history, and we're usually the first independent witnesses to history, so there is a kind of duty in that. You are saying, 'Here is what I saw, here is what happened: Don't ever say no one told you.'"

Fisk's talks sound like his pieces--a blend of reportage, political analysis, history and media criticism, combined in the essayistic approach of the British press. One of his regular themes is his charge that the American media outlets "dishonestly skew and soften" their coverage of the Middle East. (The Arab press, he says, is "just awful.")

He lobbed verbal hand grenades at TV and print outlets alike. The tours, he says, are fun, and he also views them as Middle Eastern coverage, since "America is part of the story of the Middle East." After he flew home to Beirut on April 14, he whipped off a piece about his seven-day excursion from Chicago to Iowa City, Iowa, to Los Angeles during a terrible week when suicide bombers and Israel's incursion on the West Bank led every night's news.

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