That was the problem in early in 2003. I was in Jordan, talking to everyone I could, sources that went back thirty years, on all sides of the issue. Everybody, no matter what they thought of Saddam, said virtually the same thing: if America goes in alone, that’s going to ally Shia and Sunni, the various political factions, and it’s going to turn against them. Working for a news agency, I was in situation where editors say, ‘Well, what’s the other side?’ And you can always find another side. But if you have to look too hard to find it, that is not objective—it’s false balance. I think there should be an area of journalism that sits back and looks at larger contexts, that looks at stories in their real complexities and offers something beyond these cognitive shortcuts that we use to get us through these stories in a hurry. We have these pressures: the news crawl at the bottom of a TV screen, alerts on the wire, a growing need to synthesize a story in a hundred words or less. I can’t think of anything that matter to the future of the world that can be told in 150 words.
Objectivity is a good concept if you understand its greater sense. If your purpose is to be objective, if your sense is to tell the story you see rather than the story you want to see, or the one that your prejudices set up inside your head, then that can be called objectivity. I once heard Bill O’Reilly say that the point is to get listened to. That’s not the point. The point is to get it right. If you really call yourself a journalist — and you can be a citizen journalist or you can make five million bucks on a TV network, none of that matters — what matters is looking at someone else’s reality and faithfully taking that reality across cultural bridges, putting it into an understandable context so that people in another place can understand and react. When you’ve been a foreign correspondent or overseas for any length of time, you see that human beings may have different hardware but their software is pretty much the same. Mothers want to feed their kids, a steady water supply, and a little medicine; fathers want their kids to do better than they did. Parents want a little security so they don’t have to worry about someone breaking down their door. People are the same, and we share a planet that is deeply, deeply in peril. You can turn off your TV and pretend crises don’t exist or you can find some lunatic who wants to say these crises aren’t actually happening and believe that, but the truth is they are happening. What journalism has got to do, and what Dispatches wants to do, is to help to provide a working, up-close context. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, this war is complicated because it goes back five hundred years.’ Often, there’s a right and a wrong. So we want to provide a human context that deals with the present, and also the future, and some of the past.
BC: How was Dispatches born?
MR: Gary Knight, an amazingly good photographer but also a very good journalist, and I have worked together in a lot of places, and from different directions we could see the same problems. You can be a really good journalist, your news organization can be terrific, but you’re limited, restricted by the process. So we would dream of this idea — if we could just say it straight, just get into it at great length, we could equip readers with essential understanding. We could give a photographer two months and a mandate to do what he wanted, like we did with Antonin Kratochvil in this first issue. It was the same thing with Muzamil Jaleel, a wonderful Kashmiri we call our Borat-for-real. He wrote a 19,000-word piece! So we dreamed of something like this and talked about it. When I left AP, I realized we could do it. Meantime, Gary was running a photo workshop in Cambodia and met Simba Gill, who’s a biotechnologist with a great company that sells pharmaceuticals in emerging markets. He believed in the idea and came up with a chunk of money that allowed us to get going.