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Author Doesn't Give a Flying Fisk About Fisking
Published on Tuesday, November 29, 2005 by the Toronto Star (Canada)
Author Doesn't Give a Flying Fisk About Fisking
by Antonia Zerbisias

The controversial British foreign correspondent whose name birthed the ugliest phrase in the blogosphere — "being fisked" — doesn't know what it means.

"I have to be honest: I don't use the Internet. I've never seen a blog in my life. I don't even use email," says the Independent's Robert Fisk. "I don't waste my time with this. I am not interested. I couldn't care less. I think the Internet has become a hate machine for a lot of people and I want nothing to do with it."


We are sitting in the boardroom of publisher HarperColllins's offices, a couple of hours before Fisk is to speak to a rapt standing-room-only crowd of about 800 at the University of Toronto last Wednesday.

He's here promoting his 1,328- page memoir/history/cry for justice, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. It's part of a worldwide whirlwind tour that has him asking me what date it is. He also asks me what "being fisked" means. I explain that it's a term coined by right-wing bloggers to describe the point-by-point deconstruction of a column or piece of reportage.

It is not a compliment to be fisked, and Fisk won the honour with his reporting about being attacked by Afghan refugees in Pakistan in late 2001. He wrote that he did not blame them for the bloody assault, given that their country was being bombed by U.S. forces — all of which was thoroughly fisked by the right and added to his anti-American reputation.

"People in America believe that journalists who challenge authority are unpatriotic and thus potentially subversive," he says, shrugging off the barbs. "(Polemicist) Alan Dershowitz, in a radio interview on Sept. 11, said that to ask the question `why' meant that you were supporting terrorism, and that I was a dangerous man. I was anti-American and that was the same as being anti-Semitic."

Fisk has also been attacked by U.S. neo-con Richard Perle, who once called the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh a "terrorist.'' Perle charged that Fisk supported Saddam's regime, primarily because he called the invasion of Iraq illegal.

Challenging the institutionalized and official version of reality is the theme of Fisk's book.

In his introduction, he recounts a discussion with Israeli journalist Amira Hass. She tells him that journalism is not about writing the first draft of history but about monitoring "the centres of power."

"I think, in the end," says Fisk, "that is the best definition of journalism I have heard; to challenge authority — all authority — especially when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die."

Of course, it isn't easy.

Says Fisk, who has called Beirut home for nearly 30 years, "If you're going to work in the Middle East, you have to take the sticks and stones."

You might have to take more than that.

Right now, coverage of the war in Iraq has been reduced to "mouse journalism," says Fisk. That's because it's too dangerous for journalists to venture into the streets for more than 20 minutes or so. That's all it takes for a cellphone call to be placed and a car of men to arrive.

"NBC lives behind a kind of cage on the 7th floor of a hotel. Their armed security men tell them they can use the café downstairs but not the swim pool which is overlooked by an apartment block in which Iraqis live. The Associated Press lives behind two steel walls in the Palestine Hotel. It takes 10 minutes to negotiate your way into the newsroom. The New York Times has a stockade of concrete and steel with four watchtowers and Iraqis wearing T-shirts with New York Times on them and armed with Kalashnikov rifles.

"My objection is not that they don't leave their hotels," says Fisk. "My objection is that they don't tell their readers, listeners and viewers that they don't leave their hotels — giving the impression that they can make a tour d'horizon, they can check out stories on the streets."

Instead, journalists must rely on official spokespeople from the U.S. or British authorities.

"The Americans and the British are very happy that we can't go and check what they say," says Fisk ruefully.

Of course, the alternative is not very appetizing.

"The fear of all journalists is the kidnap and what follows, which is, `Please Mr. Blair, withdraw the British troops by Friday.' And you can imagine Blair back at Downing Street, `Poor old Bob, hahaha.'"

Given Fisk's dispatches from the war, that's easy to picture.

"The Middle East is such hard work now, that the Perles, the (pundits), the blogospots, I couldn't care less. If I can stay alive, keep writing and have an editor who trusts me — which I do, thank goodness — I'm okay."

Antonia Zerbisias, a National Newspaper Award-winner, has been television critic at The Toronto Star for ten years, and is now its media columnist. Prior to that, she served as The Star's Montreal correspondent and worked for ten years as a reporter and producer with CBC news and current affairs.

© 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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