Michael Totten

No, the Dungeons Aren’t Charming

Cliff May, founder of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote the following post for The Corner.

THE DUNGEONS ARE PARTICULARLY CHARMING THIS TIME OF YEAR
The New York Times Travel section this week features Libya, which it describes as “a once-forbidden fruit …a complicated and confounding land on the North African coast, opened in February after 23 years of a travel ban tighter than Cuba’s.”
There’s also this: “Despite American air strikes designed to kill its leaders, and a Bush administration that has enflamed Muslims around the world, I found the Libyans to be warm and self-deprecating. And despite being branded a rogue terrorist state by the international community, Libya felt perfectly safe in both urban and rural areas.”
No mention of Libyan dissidents being held incommunicado in prisons, such as the ailing Fathi Eljahmi.

I don’t want to pick on Cliff May. I have a great deal of respect for both him and his organization. (You’ll notice that I permanently linked to it on the right-hand sidebar of this Web site.) And a friend of mine, Andrew Apostolou, came over from Oxford to work for him — where he does some very good work, indeed.
That said, I want to address this post.
As regular readers know, I got home from Libya myself less than a week ago. And I’m working on a story about it for the LA Weekly.
My editor Marc Cooper explicitly told me he doesn’t want a newspaper-style travel piece like the one at the New York Times. And thank Heaven for that. I don’t want to write that kind of piece, which is one reason I pitched my story to the Weekly instead of many other places that might have been willing to send me. I don’t want to write a general article about tourism. I want to write an article that basically and honestly answers the following question: What the hell is it like to visit Libya? Hardly anyone knows. That’s the kind of story I’d like to read, so naturally it’s the kind of story I’d like to write.
I spoke to Marc on the phone last night and wondered out loud: How can anyone visit a place like that and not write about how weird and oppressive it is? He told me what I’m sure is the correct answer. That’s just not the kind of piece daily newspapers publish. Those kinds of articles are found in weeklies and magazines.
Cliff May’s point is to some extent a fair one. He points to an article about Libya that doesn’t mention dungeons or dissidents like Fathi Eljahmi. Okay. It’s a glaring omission. Sure. But in another sense this criticism isn’t fair. It wasn’t a political article. And it wasn’t trying to be. The writer didn’t have an agenda that included covering up or smoothing over the political crimes of the regime. The writer was simply working on a different kind of article. His editor almost surely said “no politics.” The editor would have said “no politics” no matter which country the reporter was visiting.
I spoke to Fathi Eljahmi’s brother on the phone a week before I left. (He lives in Boston, and told me stories about Libya that harrowed up my soul.) Andrew Apostolou, one of Cliff May’s colleagues, put me in touch with him. I wanted to speak to a Libyan national who really knew the country, who could explain to me what goes on there behind the scenes, and who could give me some advice about what to expect and how to behave. I’d like to thank him for this.
I should also say that I don’t intend to mention his brother in my piece. It’s not because I don’t care about his brother or the rest of the suffering people of that country. (Believe me, I do, especially now that I’ve been there.) It’s because my article is, and must be, about what it was like on my trip. It won’t be a policy piece or an explicitly anti-Ghaddafi piece, but a personal one.
So give the Times reporter a break. The kind of article he wrote serves a purpose and has an intended audience. It’s not the kind of thing I want to write, nor is it the kind of thing Cliff May wants to write. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the New York Times wants to whitewash Ghaddafi as he implies.
UPDATE: Julie Carlson emails:

I agree with your point completely, but don’t forget that this is the same New York Times that found a way to criticize the Bush Administration in a restaurant review, for heaven’s sake. Many of their reporters certainly never miss a chance to take a shot at a Republican president (so to speak) in all kinds of stories where it is completely out of place. But I guess I’m glad to know that when it comes to dictatorial regimes, the NY Times has its journalistic practices well under control!