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'Dangerous Reporters' and the Impact of International Journalism

Interviewee: David Remnick, Editor, New Yorker; 1991-1992 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
September 10, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow David Remnick discusses his coverage of the fall of Communism, to the importance of "fearless" reporters who risk everything to "expose the unspeakable." For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

No, question about it: As a reporter, it was my fantastic luck to be sent by the Washington Post to cover what turned out to be the fall of the Soviet Union. I arrived in Moscow in early 1988, on the day that the Communist Party announced the rehabilitation of Nikolai kharin, the Old Bolshevik who had been arrested by Stalin and executed during the purges, and I finally left a few days after the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time at the end of 1991. I came home, in fact, to do the Murrow Fellowship at CFR and, in an upstairs warren, write a book called "Lenin's Tomb." To say that I "covered" that story is laughable. Working alongside the redoubtable Michael Dobbst, we did our best, but there were so many stories of historical importance-political, economic, social, ideological, cultural-that to get even a loose grasp of what was happening was oftentimes impossible.

The fall of communism was the most important political development of the post-war era and its geography was limitless. What was happening in, say, Estonia in the West and in Vladivostock in the East, or in Muslim Central Asia, was of incredible importance, and we could drop in with maddening infrequency. Michael and I had to "cover" a territory of immense size at a time when even the events within the Moscow Ring Road were limitlessly fascinating and historical important. I used to tell people that I could have written several stories a day in Moscow simply by going to the mailbox and summarizing the fascinations that were being printed every day in Ogonyok, Moscow News, Pravda, Izvestia, Novy Mir, and all the rest. And even now, several times a week, thick and often important books arrive in the mail about the period. They are full of surprises. Just the other day brought a rich history of the time by the British scholar Archie Brown and an amazing investigation of the arms race by the journalist David Hoffman. As reporters, we skimmed the cream and did it as quickly as we could, but time proves just how right Ben Bradlee was when he called journalism a first draft of history. And a hasty draft it is, no matter how essential.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind (yours or someone else) that you believe has had a significant impact. This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

Well, I admire most the reporters who are fearless, who go to the dangerous places and say the dangerous things, reporters who write the dangerous stories and care not a whit about their place at the table where the sweetmeats are served. Seymour Hersh is an exemplar of a "dangerous" reporter. Or Jane Mayer. These are people who are not afraid to expose the unspeakable and absorb the attacks for having done so. And I admire the reporters like Jon Lee Anderson, George Packer, Anthony Shadid, John Burns, Nick Kristof, Larry Wright, and Dexter Filkins, to name just a few, who do the real thing, who get close, and do not dare hold forth on that which they know nothing. Without them, we know what the government deigns to announce.

 

 

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