Mort Rosenblum on Dispatches

New quarterly bucks industry trend, exudes smart idealism

During decades spent racing to cover struggle and strife around the world, Mort Rosenblum, a longtime AP correspondent, and Gary Knight, a photojournalist and one of the founders of the VII Photo Agency, had a dream: to publish the kind journalism that transcends the institutional and commercial restrictions that plague the business—the false balance of “objectivity,” the filters of editing-by-committee, the space constraints, the relentless focus on the who and the what of a story. They wanted to publish journalism that gets at the whys and the “what can be done,” that is authoritative and reaches conclusions and says what is true and what is false based on firsthand experience. The first issue of Dispatches, a new quarterly journal and the embodiment of that dream, is out this week. Its theme is “In America,” and includes contributions from Paul Theroux, Samantha Power, and John Kifner, among others. You can order it online at their Web site, CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke to Rosenblum on Wednesday.

Brent Cunningham: How did a guy who spent most of his professional life at the AP come to edit a journal of long-form work? Is it a labor of pent-up frustration?

Mort Rosenblum: I was a wire animal for forty years, and it’s an extremely noble profession. I think wire services are poorly understood. Their role is absolutely crucial. The problem is they’re restricted by form, by time, by the number of hands that get on a piece of copy from the time it leaves the reporter until it gets on the wire—sometimes the copy is improved, sometimes it isn’t. There are filters. There are gates through which it has to pass. It’s very exciting to be a wire reporter, but at this point in my life, having worked for decades overseas, I wanted to sit back and look for the best possible people I could find to tell the story, who knew the story up close, who knew the story is not numbers and phrases, that its about the people involved, the culture involved, and context. So the idea of Dispatches is to find sometimes reporters, sometimes writers, sometimes other sorts of people who understand the story in its visceral, up-close sense, and who are gifted enough to tell it in a way gives the backdrop to people. Having spent a life focusing on the who and the what, now it’s time to look at the why and the what can be done.

BC: It’s one thing to be free of the strictures of objectivity in a quarterly of essays, and another thing for daily journalism. Is there an answer to daily journalism’s objectivity problem, a middle ground between the most restrictive aspects of this ideal and a total surrender to rant and opinion?

MR: I want to be very clear at the outset: we’re not setting Dispatches up as an antidote to what’s wrong with what’s now called the mainstream media. Our role is to be a backdrop. The problem of objectivity—you know the old phrase “get both sides,” well I’ve been covering stories for a very long time I’ve never seen just two sides. I’ve seen fifty sides, I’ve seen 191 sides, I’ve seen a single side. Sometimes things are less complicated than they seem. Early in the Bosnian war, editors kept focusing on ancient complexities, trying to balance “both sides.” But as Blaine Harden, who was working for The Washington Post then, once said, ‘Look, this is about as complex as armed robbery.’ I believe human beings are incapable of being totally objective, but you can be fair and authoritative and professional. In a way it’s how the judiciary works. A good judge may disagree with the findings, but he or she looks at the situation and makes a determination on what’s observable. Journalism has to go farther. A judge is restricted to what’s before the bench. Journalists have to go out and find the facts for themselves.

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.

Here’s how it went down: Gary and Simba first talked about it in a swimming pool in Siem Reap. Gary called me and said, “Hey, there’s this cool guy…” And I said okay let’s meet on my boat in Paris. We had a forty-five-minute meeting and shook hands. We did this whole deal in a handshake. We hired Amber Maitland as our editorial assistant, the fourth person on the team. Then we went to Vietnam, near Danang, for an amazing organizational meeting. We ate crab, swam in the surf, raced motorcycles in a pounding monsoon, and also worked a lot. I was supposed to fly back to Saigon but the monsoon canceled the flight. So we all ended up in Cambodia, and we toasted the founding of Dispatches with champagne at the East Gate of Angkor Wat at dawn. It was great.

BC: Will you do investigative reporting, or is this just for essays?

MR: We’ll do investigative work. The word “essay” is not quite right. There are terms we’re starting to use now as everybody reinvents journalism, you know, “long-form,” “photo essay,” etc. I don’t like terms like that. To me, it’s a bucket of words. Each issue will have four buckets of words. And yes, there will be original reporting. In the case of the first issue, In America, there is a lot of reflection but also discovery. Issue two will be Beyond Iraq, and there will be some real reporting in that. Basically this is a wide-open journal put out by lunatics who run the asylum. We will have photos and words, but the form can be different, the approach can be different.

BC: In your promotional material and on the Web site, the notion of an outreach/educational component is prominent. Right now, you are just offering photography seminars, but I get the impression there is more to come in this area.

MR: That’s right. These photo seminars are what we are initially putting out because it’s an outgrowth of what Gary’s already got going. But our plan is to do outreach seminars for young professionals, or university students, who want to be foreign correspondents. We hope to set these up in different places around the world. The overall idea is that when a reporter reaches a certain point and has seen the world up close for a long period of time, the most important thing he or she can do is find a way to pass this knowledge along. It’s about carrying on the basic tenets of this profession; it’s not an age thing—there are some old guys who ought to be shot, and there are some very young people who get it, who are exceedingly good, who believe in what is good about the old way.

BC: What are your plans for the Web site?

MR: The site is a work in progress. We’ve focused on getting the journal going, because we really believe in the printed word. The point of Dispatches is this printed journal that you can carry with you and read on a plane and reflect on. But the Web site is crucial to us as well, and it will evolve quickly.

BC: How can someone get Dispatches?

MR: You can order it through our Web site. We’re talking to booksellers, but we’re still finding our way and you won’t see it on many newsstands yet. You can say that our initial press run is in the respectable thousands [laughs].

BC: What is the business plan? I assume you’re not just depending on Simba Gill’s largesse.

MR: No, there’s more to it than that. This is a first step. We’re just getting going. We’re kind of launching this like a plane taking off, with people bolting on wheels as it heads to the runaway. We’re a small team, but we’re finding that is a good thing. Each of us knows what the others stand for.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.