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Interview: Jeremy Scahill on Dirty Wars, journalism and Obama's covert army

29th November 2013

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Jeremy Scahill is an award-winning journalist, war reporter and is the producer and writer of Dirty Wars, an investigation into America’s secret wars around the globe. He spoke to the National Student about investigative journalism in some of the world’s most hostile environments, why internships are a waste of time and why Obama is just carrying on from Bush.Copyright: Terri M Venesio

Dirty Wars is out today – you can read our review here.  

What motivated you and Rick Rowley to film “Dirty Wars”?

When Obama became president, it became clear that he was not going to be this dovish character that people thought he would. In large part that was because people were only listening to his campaign speeches and not looking at his policy platform, who he was surrounding himself with, and I was fascinating with the idea that Obama wanted to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

When he came into office, early on, he started to select people from the military who came from a covert ops background and put them in charge of conventional war in Afghanistan.

Rick had been spending time in Afghanistan and I said we should go together and look at ‘Obama’s War’. At the beginning the idea wasn’t to do a film, but a series of shorter documentary pieces, maybe 30 minutes each.

We went to Afghanistan and we started investigating these night raids. When we realised the night raids were being conducted by one force, and that force was an elite unit that reported directly to the White House, and we started investigating where else in the world they operated, we understood that we had a film.

Some of the scenes are quite harrowing. You’ve been a war reporter most of your life – is it hard not to be become biased?

You’re a journalist. You’re taught in journalism school that the golden goose of the trade is objectivity or impartiality. It is complete bullshit that there’s such a thing as an objective journalist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we shouldn’t be accurate, or that we should be taking sides, but sometimes the truth is just true.

I think that often objectivity or impartiality, certainly in the United States, is defined as always giving the state the right to assert its position. In some cases this is right, but it shouldn’t be the default position.

I think that the default position should be to have an adversarial relationship with those in power, whether you like them or not, but often there is an attempt to smear people who have a passion or believe in the stories they are reporting on as activists. There is nothing wrong with being an activist, but, it’s a device used to say “you’re not a journalist”.

I don’t make a secret about it. I do get to know the subjects of my journalism and I care about them and I want justice for them. I try to find lawyers for people who are victims of US military action, who I think really got fucked in life by a drone strike or night raid.

You become really involved.

Yeah. For instance, the Awlaki family, the 16 year old boy who was killed (Anwar Al Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman was killed in separate drone strike to his father), I’m regularly in touch with his grandparents, uncles, lawyers to stay apprised of the case, because they have a lawsuit in the US for the killing of this kid and who knows what’s going to happen with it. I stay very much invested in those people.

Journalists are thieves, you know, by nature. You take people’s stories and you leave behind a trail of broken promises – “I’ll send you this, I’ll do this for you” – and I try to not be a thief.

Going back to the footage – you’ve promised some of the participants that the footage will be out there – that people will see it. 

Yeah. The sad thing is, or at least the most stressful thing is when you say that to people. It’s like when you’re in an apocalyptic situation with a child, the default is to say everything is going to be OK. You don’t know that everything is going to be OK. It’s similar in these cases. You’re saying, “We’re going to tell this story.” But we didn’t know that we’d be able to get the film in theatres. Two years ago, if someone said I’m going to be sitting here with you in London, talking about our film premiering here, I’d have thought “that’s possible, but we’re renting a small theatre to show it" - not that there would be interest in it in this way.

So you’re surprised at the interest? For me, I like the fact it talks about a lot of things we hear about in the media, but it puts it into a compelling narrative.

Right. If you’re a political junkie or paying attention to things, it’s not that this is going to shatter your world with some earth-moving revelation – although I do think there is some of that in there.

What we tried to do is capture a moment in time where a popular, Democratic president - who won the Nobel Prize and is a constitutional lawyer by training – is continuing some of the worst aspects of the Bush/Cheney presidency that he promised to dismantle. Obama is legitimising these policies. He’s making the argument that America isn’t just right to do these things, but that it has THE right to do these things. For me, that is the central part of the message we’re putting out.

Can you see yourself as anything other than a war reporter? You are working on a new project with Glenn Greenwald.

One of the things that’s exciting about the project –and we’ll be announcing more in the coming months – is that we’re really making an effort to create a hybrid of really experienced reporters and then younger reporters who have potential.

For me, it’s a microcosm of where I see investigative journalism going in the future, where you take what is great about new media, the energy of young people and creativity and you combine it with old school muck-raking, fact checking, lawyers looking through articles and peer review.

Now you can interview via GChat, or email, I’ve seen people do interviews on Twitter, and that’s fine, but nothing is a replacement for old-fashioned on the ground reporting. We want a combination of these things.

Will training be involved beyond mentoring?

I would like to see that, but it’s very much in development. It’s not that I’m not telling you, we just don’t know one way or the other. I don’t like the culture of internships. I don’t think they are the way to train journalists, as people end up running and getting coffee. You’re not working. Journalism is a trade, like carpentry or plumbing, it’s not rocket science. It’s a working class way of life, it’s not the job of the elites.

People think they can get a degree and go straight out there.

Yeah it doesn’t work that way.

Do you have any advice for students looking to get into investigative journalism?

If you want to be a journalist and you’re looking at it as a career or job, then you should look elsewhere. Journalism is a way of life. If you are truly a journalist, you are always on call, just like a doctor. It has to burn in your heart.

For young people, the job market in journalism is so bleak right now. My advice is unorthodox but simple. The best way to become a journalist is to become a journalist. I mean, if you want to do international reporting, my advice is get a job that doesn’t drain you brain – deliveries, work at a store, whatever, and save your money up.

Get enough money to give yourself a 3-6 month run at being a reporter, even if you can’t find anyone to pay you or give you an assignment. You have to take yourself so seriously. Most of the journalists I know who have stayed in the game started off by going somewhere and being there and doing it.

That’s a huge part of being an investigative or conflict journalist - just being there. Acting as if you’re being what you want to be is the best thing you can do if you’re in a financial position to do it – it’s better than any journalism class.

So getting out there is better than interning and work experience? You worked on Democracy Now – how did that help you?

You say worked on – Amy Goodman is the host of that show – I begged my way into working with her. She was paying me out of her own pocket $20 a day to write her news headlines in the morning. They didn’t have a budget for international reporting, so I would beg money to go for a month to places. I would go and start reporting for websites that didn’t pay money – but they were real. There is nothing like the first time you see something published no matter where it is – I remember to this day how that felt to see an article I wrote on a real website.

What article was it?

I wrote an investigative article in Kosovo about a Croatian general who was a war criminal and was being supported by the United States. I discovered info about him but no major publication would take it, so I published it on a site called, which is a fairly popular progressive news site, and it got picked up by all these other sites. I didn’t get paid a penny for it, but it was a substantive investigative piece. I’ll never forget it. Then I started to get emails from people saying “I read your article”, and I thought this is what I wanted to do.

You realise you can have an impact, you can infuriate people, you can teach people - it’s what keeps you going. It’s the idea that what you’re doing actually matters to people. I think at the end of the day, no one is going to tap you on your shoulder as an aspiring journalist and say “hey, we’re the people who are going to give you this opportunity”. Those things never happen - you have to do it yourself.

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