Of course, journalists should interview autocrats

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Thursday morning, after the publication of my portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the April issue of Atlantic, the Saudi propaganda machine kicked into gear. For the rest of the day, I watched it work: try to hide the uncomfortable parts (in my article I made many observations that would land a Saudi journalist in jail or worse), amplify the parts the government liked and lie outright about others.

Two Saudi insiders told me that my access to Saudi Arabia was terminated after the story was published, and that the crown prince would “never see me” again.

The government also leaked to the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya an edited and cleaned transcript of the interview with MBS that I conducted alongside The Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg. The official Saudi edits have been helpful, as close comparisons between their versions and what was actually said will direct you to what the Crown Prince’s media team wants to remove – a guide, curated by the government, to juicy bits of the interview (or at least the ones they thought they could get away with deleting them from the record).

Here are some differences:

  • We pressed MBS on the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and MBS made a number of infuriating and bizarre claims, including the idea that, no, he didn’t order Khashoggi’s death, but if he sent a squad, he would send a top notch band, not Istanbul goofs. “If you’re going to have another operation like that, for another person, it has to be professional and one of the top 1,000.” The Saudis detected the JO type notes “If I did it” in this answer and changed it to “If we assume, for the sake of discussion, that we are going to go for an operation like that, it would have been professional and someone on the top of the list.” The Arabic version adds “God forbid!” (sama allah), a nice touch of salts that smell good.

  • During the interview, MBS told us that he had “never read an article by Khashoggi”. Khashoggi was a very prominent dissident and they had met personally. The Saudi transcript refutes this implausible claim and says he never read a “complete” article by Khashoggi.

  • We asked how MBS could justify jailing those who opposed his near-blockade of Qatar after he himself reversed his Qatar policy, with barely an explanation, months before our conversation. He said Qatar and his country are now “very, very close”, but told us that the Saudis who supported Qatar during the boycott were like the Americans who may have supported the Nazis during World War II. . “What do you think [would have happened] if someone was praising and trying to lobby for Hitler in WWII? ” He asked. The Saudi transcript erases the comparison of his Qatari counterpart, recently invited to MBS’s palace on the Red Sea, to Adolf Hitler.

  • MBS expanded on the issue of Islamic law, and he told us that even crimes whose punishments are divinely mandated would not be prosecuted vigorously. “Even though there is divine punishment for fornication, the way we should prosecute it is as the Prophet did. We should not try to seek out people and prove the charges against them. do it the way the Prophet taught us how to do it.The official transcript erases this comment, which would be incendiary for Islamists, because it calls into question the interest of criminalizing ancient crimes such as fornication.

  • I asked if alcohol would ever be sold legally in Saudi Arabia, and received no response. In this case, my words are crossed out of the transcript, probably because his refusal to answer this question suggests that such a change is possible. (Islamists remark his non-response and lamented Heineken’s arrival “in the land of the two Holy Mosques”.)

As all chefs know, the ingredients make the meal, but the art is in what you do with them. From the interview, the Saudis cooked up a propaganda feast, cutting the crown prince’s less controversial comments and adorning them with his smiling face and, on social media, the hashtag #meetingthecrownprince. Propaganda is tedious, and minutes into the story my social feeds were chloroformed by Saudi sources sharing the ‘BREAKING’ news the Crown Prince had spoken and said he intended to sue. economic development of the kingdom.

Then it got more interesting. The Saudi Post tweeted a Account from the interview that claimed to be in my voice:

“When [The Atlantic’s] the team went to meet the crown prince in his palace in Riyadh, we had heard bad things about him abroad, especially from the son of [the exiled Interior ministry official] Saad al-Jabri, who provided us with false information about him. When we met him face to face, we were amazed: we only saw a humble, outspoken, strong and very intelligent leader.

This tweet and many others like it are fictional – and although I observed in our meeting that MBS is personally intelligent and cordial, my article notes that it was not his intelligence but his self-pitying megalomania that stunned us.

As you assess what happened in one media war skirmish, another has begun. English-speakers in Saudi Arabia could read the article for themselves – and would know immediately, from the description of the first paragraphs of forbidden subjects like the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, the climate of fear and oppression, torture and imprisonment dissidents, and the face of the crown prince. tic, that they could not disseminate the substance of the article without personal risk.

Various well-known Saudis tweeted positively about the article and thus showed that they had not read it. A Twitter user reported“I just finished reading [it], and I swear to God, without exaggeration, the most beautiful article I have read on an important Arab personality! The article makes you feel the strong personality of Prince Muhammad bin Salman 💚. This is the general approach to bad news. Act like it’s good news. Lying. Flood the area with what you like and ignore what you don’t. A writer cannot prevent an autocrat from pushing his work through the propaganda machine. But that doesn’t mean autocrats should never be written or asked questions. The fact that they try to retrieve quotes and make up stories that don’t exist shows that they fear the story that does exist and that shows their leader’s delusions and self-esteem in his own words.

Many Saudis read English or know how to use Google Translate. Some, mostly overseas, wrote kind and polite notes, expressing disagreement with some parties and agreement with others. Exiles who cannot return have done the same. MBS fans also send me little valentines. “Fuck you, dog,” one wrote this morning. “Shut up, little boy. This [is] the GREAT KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA. The Saudi flag icon after a username greatly increases the likelihood of incoming verbal abuse.

And of course obtuseness is not an exclusively Saudi vice. Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University, wrote that my profile “couldn’t be nicer if [MBS’s] own press team had written it. “Access to journalism”! cry Elizabeth Spiers, a journalism professor at New York University, may not be aware that “access journalism” is about increasing access to its subject rather than ending it.

Various journalists have complained that I personally described MBS as “charming” and “smart”. To this my answer is twofold. First of all, MBS was indeed charming and intelligent, and if you want me to say otherwise, then you want someone to lie to you. Second, if you think charm and intelligence are incompatible with being a sociopath, then your years in Washington, DC, have taught you less than nothing.

Any publication boasting that it is too preachy to accept an invitation to interview the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia admits that it cannot cover Saudi Arabia. Atlantic is not in the business of moralizing, and he expects his readers to understand, without being told, that someone who dwells on his own indignities following a murder , rather than the suffering of the victim, might not be the perfect steward of absolute power.

All journalism is an attempt to bring readers things they don’t know, and all interviews with heads of state are about getting them to say things they wish they hadn’t said. To obtain these statements, the subject must be approached the wrong way – and, above all, to make it speak and reveal more than it intends to say. “Giving a platform” – to use the cliché that traps the minds of those who don’t know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is – is not a favor bestowed on important people. It’s an invitation to walk the boards and fall through traps. And that’s exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose last two days have been spent desperately inflating pillows for a soft landing, seem to think their leader has done.

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