Fifty-fifty journalism – the idea that all sides of an issue need to be covered with the same degree of credulous questioning – is killing us. It's an opinion I have held for years, and it was reenforced by my decade covering the Texas legislature. The idea that serious people are to be treated the same as crooks, bullies, and seatwarmers enrages me, and so I wanted to cheer with grim recognition when veteran foreign correspondent Robert Fisk exclaims, "This is not a football match. This is a bloody tragedy."
A 40-year veteran of international reporting for British newspapers, most notably for The Independent and most especially on the interface between the Western and Muslim worlds, Fisk is one of the last remaining leviathans of journalism. Yet he is first seen in This Is Not a Movie, the stirring documentary by Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze, The Fruit Hunters), in footage from 40 years ago, ducking behind a wall in the Iranian city of Abadan during the Iran-Iraq War. "Got to wonder why I got into journalism," he mutters as sniper fire cracks on stones and mortar fire bursts nearby. Four decades later, he drives through the wreckage of Homs in Syria – older, balder, wiser, and with a very clear idea of why he's spent his life. The truth, ugly as it can be.
As portrayed by Chang in this intimate documentary, Fisk is brusque and gentle, ready with a compassionate comment and a sharp question, but always an open ear. Drawn to the trade by the allure of international travel and the glamour shown by Hollywood fantasies like The Foreign Correspondent, and shaped forever by his coverage of the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila, he's clearly never lost his passion for blasting past the accepted line and getting to the reality, no matter who it upsets.
Chang's thesis is the merit of – no, the essential need for – expertise, for longitudinal knowledge, for knowing what a city was like before a battle, to know the sides, to recognizing a blast pattern. Fisk is not impartial but it's not, as has been lazily thrown at him, taking sides with one nation or another. "Our job is to record people's suffering and let the world know about it," he tells a younger warzone denizen, but he touches on a wider issue in journalism. It's a swipe at fencesitters, glad-handers, anyone who's indulged reductionist arguments, both-sidesers, and those afraid of being called a dupe for one side or the other just because "the wrong side" has been caught with a bloody fist (Fisk was one of the first reporters to dare to call out Israel for its role in destabilizing the region and enabling massacres like that at Sabra and Chatila, and he's been paying the consequences ever since).
Chang's decision to follow Fisk and let him explain his view of the Middle East – especially as he travels into the Palestinian ground seized by Israel and blandly dubbed "settlements" – will probably be written off by lazy thinkers and knee-jerk reactionaries as taking sides. But that's the point. Chang accepts, implicitly, that Fisk's fight is the right one, that reality doesn't need a counterpoint of lies. There is raw power in Fisk meeting the same man he saw getting thrown off his rightfully owned land 25 years ago, and going back to see the rental property constructed on his home.
Arguably the most insightful examination of the life and psyche of the combat zone correspondent since Anthony Lloyd's peerless My War Gone By, I Miss It So, mixed with the acerbic idealism of the David Carr sequences of Page One, it doesn't claim that journalism will save the world. Instead, it proves that value of the journalist as record keeper of horrors. As Fisk explains, "No one can say this didn't happen, and no one can say, 'We didn't know. No one told us.'"
This Is Not a Movie is available now as a virtual cinema release.
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