Michael Totten

Just Journalism Interview

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House on Feb. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Chris Dyszyński interviewed me over at the British Web site Just Journalism. I’m going to break with convention here by excerpting the second half of the interview rather than the first half because that’s where the freshest questions were asked.

CD: There’s an ongoing debate about the ways in which radical Islamist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas are portrayed in the media. For example, there’s controversy over terms such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘militant’, and from one side complaints that the ideological extremism of these groups is never spelled-out, and from the other that the legitimacy of their territory-based grievances aren’t given due prominence. A noticeable curio is the tendency to ‘balance out’ the rather more unsavoury aspects of these organisations – for example, by emphasising their social charity work – as if they were just Islamic equivalents of the Salvation Army, albeit with more literal weapons. What’s your take on this?

MJT: First of all, Hamas and Hezbollah don’t have territory-based grievances. They explicitly say, in no uncertain terms, that they wish to erase an entire nation from the face of the earth. No other country gets discussed in this manner. I don’t believe that if the Irish Republican Army vowed to conquer London and massacre the English that even the most radical of British leftists would find the IRA remotely acceptable or describe its program as “territory-based.”

Second, I’ve never understood why some people think it’s such a big deal that Hamas and Hezbollah engage in charity work. They’re still terrorists. They’re still fascist movements that place the murder of Jews at the core of their ideologies. Pol Pot may not have built hospitals, but Hitler did. Both Hitler and Pol Pot built schools. So what?

I’m not sure I have much else to say about this.

CD: As well as being published in established journals, you also produce very in-depth pieces specifically for your blog, and you fund your travels via PayPal donations. On the one hand, you’ve gone from creating a very successful model for how a writer can best utilise the internet, while on the other you’ve just authored your first book, a slightly more traditional medium for the professional wordsmith. As the press finds itself under ever increasing pressure to supply its consumers with more content, as social networking sites such as Twitter become invaluable journalistic tools, and as people become accustomed to reading from screens rather than pages, what do you think the future holds for reporting?

MJT: Newspapers are slowly becoming Web sites, and I imagine that in a decade or so there won’t be many dead-tree papers left at all, at least not in the West. The production and distribution systems are fantastically expensive relics of the industrial revolution era that we’re rapidly leaving behind.

Twitter will never replace newspapers because you can’t even fit a full paragraph in a “tweet,” nor will blogs replace newspapers (or news sites, if you will), but I’m almost certain that blogs have become a more or less permanent feature of our media landscape. Even stodgy old newspapers like the New York Times have blogs on their sites now.

I started mine at a time when most professional journalists still looked down on bloggers as an unprofessional rabble, but now most journalists who don’t have a blog either wish they had one or suspect that maybe they should. I was early to the party, but that’s because I was just getting started in this profession when blogs were new in the world. It was an obvious way for me to get started.

The donation model I use is actually a fairly established way of doing things even if it’s not the usual way of doing this. National Public Radio in the US asks for donations from listeners and funds a large part of its operation that way. I don’t need to raise nearly as much money because my overhead, compared with a national radio station, is miniscule. You could think of me as a one-man NPR on the Web instead of the radio, which is new, sure, but all I’m really doing at this point is merging one old established business model, donor-funded radio, with a new established model, the reported blog.

I have nothing against the traditional way of doing things, as you can see from the fact that Encounter Books, a publisher based in New York and London, just released my first book. I go with what works, whether it’s mainstream or “alternative,” and not because it’s mainstream or alternative, but because it works.

As more people get used to reading on screens rather than pages, I think we’ll see a lot more professional authors publishing their own electronic books on the Kindle rather than signing deals with traditional dead-tree publishers. The Kindle “screen” isn’t really even a screen. It isn’t lit, and it renders letters in ink. Amazon will distribute any author’s book on the Kindle and let the author keep 70 percent of the profit rather than the 15 or so percent that publishers pay. Some authors still think self-publishing is for amateurs, but that’s what they were saying about blogging less than a decade ago. They’ll learn, especially now that money is on the table where it wasn’t for blogs. Ten years from now, authors who haven’t yet released their own e-book on the Kindle for 70 percent of the profit will wonder why they’re still putting up with 15 percent.

That said, I’m glad my first book was released by a traditional publisher. Encounter Books is an absolute joy to work with, and I’ll gladly work with them again. They promoted my book above and beyond what I can do by myself. I don’t yet know if self-publishing or traditional publishing is better. Most professionals might want to wade into both, just as most professional journalists today should be blogging as well as publishing articles the old school way in online and traditional magazines.

Read the whole thing at Just Journalism.