JournalismNow Interviews Dahr Jamail

by D.Tyhacz, for JournalismNow

Dahr Jamail is an award-winning freelance journalist. His reporting from Iraq has earned him numerous awards, including the prestigious 2008 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage, and four Project Censored awards. His stories have been published with The Nation, The Sunday Herald in Scotland,, Al-Jazeera, and The Guardian to name a few, and he’s appeared on NPR and is a special correspondent for Flashpoints. He has spent a total of 8 months in Iraq, and in the Middle East, and he’s reported from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the region for 5 years. He has a new book out called Beyond the Green Zone which is a chronological collection of his dispatches from Iraq. His reporting is un-apologetic, and he isn’t afraid to go where the story is. We contacted him through his website, and here’s our conversation:

JNOW: You arrived in Iraq in the Winter of 2003 as a freelance journalist a few months before the fall of Falluja. What were your first impressions upon arriving there?

My first impressions upon arriving in Baghdad in November 2003 were largely chaos and lack of reconstruction. The streets were jammed, there was no order to anything, already most Iraqis I spoke with were complaining of lack of electricity and water, and there was much confusion. While most Iraqis I spoke with had no illusions about what the invasion and occupation were really about, they still had hoped for some improvements, regarding the promises of reconstruction and a better life. Not only were there no signs of this happening, 7 months into the occupation, things were going backwards. It was a time of a mixture of hope for a better future, fear of an uncertain future, and a growing concern for the chaos that appeared to rule the day. It is also important to mention that I had only been in Baghdad a few days before hearing about U.S. soldiers/mercenaries torturing Iraqis in U.S. detention facilities up and down the country.

JNOW: Your book Beyond The Green Zone consists of compiled writings from your time spent in Iraq. Was the ritual of writing these articles a combination of therapy and/or a sense of mission?

My initial reporting from Iraq was more from a sense of duty and mission. Beyond the Green Zone was more of a personal catharsis. It was a difficult book to write, in that several people in the book are now dead, and most of the others I knew in Baghdad have become refugees in Syria or Jordan. The contrast of the Baghdad I knew in the early chapters of the book to what that city has become today is shocking. Yet writing the book certainly was therapeutic, and was instrumental in helping me deal with my own PTSD from my time in Iraq and other war zones. It was only by writing the book have I been able to reconcile much of what I saw and where it has led Iraq, in addition to helping me move on into continued reporting from the Middle East.

JNOW: You’ve reported on some of the dialogue by the current Presidential candidates regarding Iraq, and you’ve noted their “silence” on this issue. Do you see this changing in the months leading up to the election?

I really don’t. The bottom line is this: until Obama, McCain, and Clinton address the need to change the U.S. National Security Strategy and the goals for the U.S. military outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review Report, both of which are clear about U.S. control of the natural resources of key countries in the Middle East and the shipping lanes of said resources, it’s a mute point. The fact that most mainstream reporters choose not to ask these questions of the candidates, and instead allow them to gloss over Iraq without giving a firm timetable for withdrawal, and whether or not they intend on providing compensation to the Iraqi people. I expect this to become even more heavily censored as the election nears.

JNOW: The website JustForeignPolicy recently reported that 1.2 million plus Iraqis have been killed since the US invasion. Why hasn’t the mainstream US Media done their part in reporting this?

One could write a book about this question, and some have, like Noam Chomsky with Manufacturing Consent. To answer this one must look at the fact that the mainstream media (ie-corporate media) in the U.S. is owned by many of the same corporations which back the power brokers in D.C. For example, when we have weapons manufacturers funding and/or owning a media outlet, like NBC being owned by GE, it doesn’t exactly behoove GE to have a national television network airing footage of what happens when their products destroy human beings. Then we have direct state pressure on the media….exemplified by the edict from Rumsfeld that the media stop showing pictures of coffins of U.S. soldiers after the Washington Post printed a photo of flag-draped coffins of American soldiers. Most of the media have complied with this edict, and continue to do so to this day.

Then, worst of all, we have the most insidious form of censorship-self-censorship by the “journalists” within the corporate media. They have learned not to pursue stories that their editors/owners of the outlet will likely not run…so they simply stop covering them. This would apply to the lack of coverage of the fact that over one million Iraqis are dead, in the last five years, as a result of U.S. foreign policy.

JNOW: Do you see reporting on the Middle East becoming less of a taboo-subject for our media here or do you see it becoming more of a challenge in the years to come?

I think it will become more of a challenge in the coming years. Because I think the trends I just mentioned will increase with time, in addition to a continued projection of U.S. power deeper into the region. When the U.S. (or Israel) begins to bomb parts of Iran, and the region is set aflame, I expect we’ll see broad-brush stroke type of “reporting”, but still no critique of why the Quad. Defense Review report calls for “full spectrum dominance” by the U.S. military across the globe, or why it’s alright for the U.S. to occupy a foreign country or two half way around the world, and certainly no discussion about the lies and manufacturing of consent we’ve seen leading up to this bombing to date.

I believe it’s a lost cause to attempt to reform the mainstream media of the U.S. This is media that has been bought and sold, and is filled, with few exceptions, of journalists who lack a clear idea of what real journalism even looks like. What happened to monitoring the centers of power? What happened to asking the tough questions and not letting the power-brokers dodge them? What happened to sticking with a story? The answer is simple-the media have become more concerned with turning a profit than with conducting legitimate journalism. And nowhere is this as apparent as in the “coverage” they provide of the Middle East.

JNOW: Regarding the war in Iraq, has the US media blurred the lines between “news” and “entertainment” in your opinion?

Of course. First-why is it called a “war”? It’s an occupation. But war sells, occupation does not. War is sexy. Occupation is oppression and repression. Look at the “coverage” of the invasion. It was like watching a video game. The pundits and so-called news anchors were cheerleaders for war. I remember, clearly, several times watching “journalists” on TV drooling over slick computer graphics of helicopters, missiles, and jet fighters. Showing that, and not showing real war-headless bodies, dead babies, destroyed cities…is propaganda of the worst kind. How can one glamorize war?

JNOW: The former US Press Secretary Scott McClellan is now claiming the White House press corps was too easy on the administration during the run-up to the war. What is your opinion on this matter & the White House reaction?

It’s always in the memoirs, isn’t it? What if McClellan had stood up at a press conference he was holding and say this then? But now, it’s nice media for him and it’s shot his book right up to the number one seller on Amazon. He issues his critique now when it costs him nothing. I still feel it’s good that he has come out and said this, but he doesn’t appear to take any personal responsibility for being the lead propagandist. Why not? And the White House reaction of snubbing him and dismissing it-par for the course.

JNOW: What would you like to see happen regarding the US media’s journalistic approach to Iraq and the Middle East in general?

Real journalism would be a good start. Asking various members of this and the first Bush Administration pointed questions about international law. Showing the occupation-showing what the inside of a Humvee looks like after the four soldiers in it have just been hit by a roadside bomb (it looks like spaghetti sauce with bits of skin). Show the dead babies and report, repeatedly, the fact that it is likely that well over one million Iraqis have been killed by the invasion and occupation, and that half of all U.S. taxpayer monies go to fund a military that has more funding already than every other country on the globe’s militaries combined.

People here need to see, read and feel the stories of the human beings who are affected by U.S. foreign policy. And they need a clear picture of what it is costing this country-both in terms of human lives, financially, and world standing (lack thereof).

As journalists our job is to report what is happening as accurately as possible. That means reporting on the occupation of Iraq every day, because that is what is happening. Scores of Iraqis are dying every single day, and it is because of the U.S. occupation of their country. It is not our job to report, instead, on stories that sell, and stories that are sexy, or stories that we think the viewer/reader/listener might prefer to hear about. That’s what movies and Hollywood are for, not journalism.

JNOW: You’ve recently won some prestigious journalism awards this year. What are your plans for the future in terms of reporting?

I’m currently working on a book about resistance within the U.S. military to the occupation of Iraq. In addition, this winter I have plans to return to the Middle East…where specifically will be determined by what happens with U.S./Israeli policy regarding Iran.

JNOW: Thanks Dahr for answering our questions!

For more on Dahr Jamail, you can see his website here.
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