Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Journalistic World of George Packer

Another very early waking for me and a vain attempt -- it almost always is - to chase mundane but nerve-racking thoughts away and get more sleep by listening to the drone of some podcast I've downloaded. One of my favourite podcast subscriptions is the Carnegie Council which with what seems high pretension subtitles itself "The Voice for Ethics in International Policy." Holy cripes, I thought when I first ran into this bunch, I hadn't known such a voice exists and I wouldn't have expected it to arise from the riches of one of the great robber barons (yes, I know I've used that word now in two consecutive posts , so now, one more time and it's mine), the industrialist arguably to be blamed for such notorieties as the bloody 1892 Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania and the Johnstown flood of 1889 in which over 2,000 died. That Carnegie would later become a reputed philanthropist, among many other things endowing public libraries throughout the English-speaking world, still seemed merely redress for a wild and woolly career of plunder. Thus my initial puzzlement at also being the benefactor of a centre with such immodesty about its role in "global ethics" whatever the heck that is.

But this said, and with my usual concision, the Carnegie Council has some fascinating podcasts usually centered on an author of some repute with a just-released tome which she or he discourses on, as some relatively small and select audience munches on breakfast in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Among the most recent event was a presentation by a journalist from the New Yorker, George Packer who has compiled a book of essays, titled Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade.

I knew his name by sight but not much of him (still don't matter even after the inevitable "enlightenment," such as it is, from Wikipedia!). Packer is one of the New Yorker's stable of in-house writers whose articles are lengthy - often over 15,000 words - insider perspectives on difficult places. Yes, I know, that is an odd generic epithet but how else does one group contexts that range from the seamiest slums of the bloated city of Lagos, Nigeria, to the butchery in Baghdad, to the soldier-children of the Cote D'Ivoire. Packer's tack is go deep inside finding intimate narrators who can give dimension to the otherwise voiceless. He calls it "long form narrative journalism" and has not only practiced this difficult art form but even transmuted his research from the Iraq context, into a stage play, Betrayed, exposing the shameful treatment of Iraqis who served as translators for the Bush invading force.

But the points that caught my attention circa 4 this morning were those about the perilously rare brand of reportage that Packer conducts, and its perilously plentiful opposite, the talking heads on most news TV networks who, without ever having been to the places they pontificate about, feed their cheap tripe to the great unwashed. Further, that broad public, according to Packer, can now be seen as doing little more in the enunciation of its views than parroting high-paid ignoramuses whether from Fox or Al Jazeera. Insightfully and worryingly, Packer tells of squabbles overheard in heartland, USA diners that are also verbatim playbacks of whatever shallow debates among armchair experts that CNN ran the night before.

I shall not spoil more, the trip you really ought to take to the Carnegie podcast with George Packer nor (look in my side bar) this rare bird's New Yorker blog).