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This is Not a Movie


Susan Zakin

When reporters die, most people don't pay attention. On October 30, Robert Fisk died. I didn't even hear about it until almost two weeks later. And that's a shame.

This is how I first heard of Fisk. It was in the '90s. My friend Julie told me that she had a crush on someone. Not someone she knew; one of those crushes women have on movie stars. At the time, mine was Anthony Hopkins. I was in a tortured relationship with a brilliant, unstable Brit and Hopkins gave me the satisfaction of the brilliance without first-hand torment.

Julie's crush was British, too, but hardly movie star material. Her crush was a bespectacled, rather ill-groomed foreign correspondent named Robert Fisk. It took me a certain amount of time to realize that Fisk was not only a tremendous writer--Julie, in her enthusiasm, could not be prevented from reading passages aloud--but a profoundly moral man.

Fisk's Rosebud incident came not in his own life but his father's. A World War I veteran who had seen hard action, Fisk's father taught him about history and politics. He also bullied and abused his only child, exhibiting behavior that in hindsight, is clearly evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One incident solidified Fisk's character. In 1999 he wrote about it in The Independent:

"At the very end of the war in 1918, he said, he had been ordered to command a firing party to execute a soldier. He had refused. Then, with the war over, the army punished him by forcing him to help transport the corpses left lying on the front lines for burial in the great British cemeteries. My father's insubordination sounded unlike him. But I admired him enormously for it. Indeed, as the years went by, I came to the conclusion that my father's refusal to kill another man was the only thing he did in his life which I would also have done."

When he was 12, Fisk saw the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film “Foreign Correspondent,” and decided on his career. He worked for the venerable Times of London, covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and moved to Beirut in 1976. In 1983, he finished his PhD. in political science from Trinity College, Dublin. He became a dual citizen of Britain and Ireland. When a stroke felled him, he was in Ireland.

After the vile and corrosive Rupert Murdoch bought the Times, Fisk jumped ship, for all the reasons you might imagine. He almost certainly took a pay cut to join the Independent, a startup newspaper where he had the freedom to cover the stories that he decided were important and do the work the way it had to be done.

When The Independent went all-online, he supported the move.

By then, Fisk was The Independent's greatest asset. The boy who had emerged from the horrors World War I visited upon his own family had become a man called "the greatest foreign correspondent of his generation."

Not everyone felt that way. Fisk treaded the line, and a few times, arguably, stepped over it, in his criticism of U.S. and British foreign policy in the Middle East. But few could argue with his shoeleather reporting. He knew that the essence of being a reporter meant getting out on the ground, talking to people, seeing what was really happening. And he quite properly disdained what he called "hotel reporters."

Patrick Cockburn, no mean journalist himself, wrote about this in his moving obituary:

"It was all too easy to be demonised as a pawn of Saddam Hussein in 2003 if one said, as Robert frequently did, that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq would end badly. Similar denunciations of partiality were directed against anybody who wrote about the Syrian conflict post-2011 as a genuine civil war, described the armed Arab opposition as being mostly jihadis, and suggested that Bashar al-Assad was likely to stay as leader, given the balance of power between those fighting each other."

Looking back, it's not hard to see who called it right.

Reprorters like to call themselves equal opportunity offenders. But few get to take on power with the sweep of Robert Fisk, or his breadth of knowledge. As Mark Manduca wrote in The Times of Malta, Fisk "was hated by every kind of government, from dictatorships to democracies and everything in between, always a good sign for a fearless truth-telling journalist."

Losses are magnified in the Plague Year. When I finally heard about it, Fisk's death hit me particularly hard. So many people are dying, it seems, and only a fraction from Covid. But additional layers of grief came with Fisk's death. Quite simply, we cannot do without people like Robert Fisk.

I've come to believe that the next election, and quite possibly all elections for the foreseeable future, will be fought on the battlefield of disinformation. As we drown in memes and propaganda, cries of enemies of the state, practicing good, painstaking journalism can feel like illuminating manuscripts. Does anyone care about this arcane trade? The craft and art of journalism as it's usually practiced haven't kept up with intellectual ideas or aesthetics. I sometimes wonder if journalists colluded in their own demise with their middle-brow caution.

Fisk never did that. And now he is dead, and too many of journalism's best practitioners, the passionate writers, the obsessive and often abrasive investigative reporters, even the workaday hacks who thrive on deadlines, are out of a job.

As journalism struggles to evolve in the face of so many challenges--a process we are trying, in our modest way, to propel at Journal of the Plague Year, mashing up the techniques of literary nonfiction with the kind of analytical reporting Fisk did so well--we must provide homes for more people like Robert Fisk.

Here is what he said in a 2010 speech at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California:

“I think it is the duty of a foreign correspondent to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer, whoever they may be.”

I don't mean to engage in hero worship. Looking back, Julie and I were at an impressionable age when we fell in love with men because we admired their moral character. Now we would be more jaundiced. We're old enough to know that it's virtually impossible to be a moral giant in your personal life.

But the work? The work is something else.

Fisk won our admiration with honest reporting, eloquent writing, and, above all, profound human sympathy. "You gotta serve somebody," was the refrain in a Bob Dylan song from an inexplicable Christian period of his life. And there is something religious in it, Jesus-like, or as close as our raffish breed gets.

Serving people who are powerless is the attraction for the right kind of reporter. You can get close to people. You can love them, in your way, by telling their stories.

Not yours. Theirs.

Robert Fisk was the kind of public figure whose death should result in an international day of mourning. But he was a reporter. Not famous, in the conventional sense. The reward was that he was able, for his whole life, to do the work.

For most of us, that's enough.

Susan Zakin is an editor of Journal of the Plague Year.

Robert Fisk: Writing

On September 18, 1982, between 460 and 3,500 civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiite Muslims, were massacred by a militia linked to the Phalange, a predominantly Christian Lebanese right-wing party, in the Sabra neighborhood and the adjacent Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

The massacre was carried out in plain sight of the Israeli Defense Forces, who had ordered the militia to clear Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters out of Sabra and Shatila. The Israeli forces, given the order by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, surrounded the camps, blocked camp exits, and provided logistical support.

It was a watershed event that changed world opinion of Israel, and altered Israeli politics.

What we found inside the Palestinian camp at ten o'clock on the morning of September 1982 did not quite beggar description, although it would have been easier to re-tell in the cold prose of a medical examination. There had been massacres before in Lebanon, but rarely on this scale and never overlooked by a regular, supposedly disciplined army. In the panic and hatred of battle, tens of thousands had been killed in this country. But these people, hundreds of them had been shot down unarmed. This was a mass killing, an incident - how easily we used the word "incident" in Lebanon - that was also an atrocity. It went beyond even what the Israelis would have in other circumstances called a terrorist activity. It was a war crime.

Jenkins and Tveit were so overwhelmed by what we found in Shatila that at first we were unable to register our own shock. Bill Foley of AP had come with us. All he could say as he walked round was "Jesus Christ" over and over again. We might have accepted evidence of a few murders; even dozens of bodies, killed in the heat of combat. Bur there were women lying in houses with their skirts torn torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies - blackened babies babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24-hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition - tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.


Watch This is Not a Movie, the 2019 documentary on Robert Fisk's life. Stream here: This is Not a Movie

Robert Fisk interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times. Here, partway through a speech, he talks about bin Laden's effectiveness at turning nice, liberal Westerners into racists - including, momentarily, himself.

Brian Cullman's Playlist: Tell the Truth

Tell The Truth ::: Otis Redding

Ugly Truth ::: Lucinda Williams

The Partisan ::: Leonard Cohen

The Truth Will Set You Free ::: Bobby Charles

Sometimes I Forget ::: Loudon Wainwright III

He Was A Friend of Mine ::: Bob Dylan

To The Ghosts Who Write History Books ::: The Low Anthem

Truth Serum ::: Garland Jeffreys

My Pencil Won’t Write No More ::: Bo Carter

Everybody Knows ::: Leonard Cohen

The Wind Comes In ::: Otis Taylor

A Luta Continue ::: Miriam Makeba