By: Alicia Mundy
“I’ve covered the Middle East during war. I’ve covered it during peace. But now I’m covering it in the war after the peace, and it’s a whole new world. … I’m disoriented. … I’m speechless. I don’t know what to think.”
If you were expecting pat answers or sanctimonious lectures from Thomas L. Friedman, you clearly picked the wrong moment. After winning his third Pulitzer Prize, this one for commentary, last week, Friedman agreed to be interviewed by E&P about his specialty, the Middle East, and the media treatment of the war that will not end. When we talked, he was nearing the conclusion of a 10-day break from column-writing and just 48 hours from having to file his first column since winning his latest Pulitzer. He said he didn’t have any idea what he was going to write.
“It’s one of the few times,” he admitted, “I don’t know what to say.” He repeated the word “disoriented” several times, referring to himself, other journalists, and veteran diplomats.
The good news is that Friedman thinks most newspapers are covering the mess objectively. The bad news is that it’s hard to determine what, at this point, “objectively” means on any given day.
“My feeling is that, as a general matter, the American media are doing a pretty good job trying to be honest and fair about what is going on,” Friedman said. “You can always find exceptions, tilting one way or another, but, generally, reading the wires and the major papers and newsmagazines, I feel I am getting a fair and honest view of what is going on.”
However, Friedman agreed that the language and nomenclature right now is a minefield, just waiting for errant editors and deadline-deadened reporters. And most papers don’t have the room or the reporters to explain the complexities leading up to the current crisis, such as the traditional Arab hatred of Palestinians as well as of Israelis. Another problem, he said, “derives from the fact that Israel is an open society and is surrounded by closed societies, where there is virtually no press freedom — and, in a conflict, that can certainly work to Israel’s disadvantage.”
The Pulitzers don’t keep Friedman from “agonizing” over his columns, before and after they run, calling experts he trusts to ask if he was on target — most frequently Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum in New York.
He wonders, for example, if he’s being too hard on the Palestinians right now. “I think I’ve been more critical of Palestinians recently because I believe there is an Israeli constituency for a Palestinian state,” he explained, whereas there doesn’t seem to be much of a Palestinian constituency for peace with Israel.
It’s an unpleasant irony: Friedman’s first Pulitzer, awarded in 1983 for international reporting, was for coverage of Ariel Sharon’s destruction of the Sabra and Chatilla camps in Lebanon. Friedman earned his second Pulitzer in 1988 in the same category. Later, he reported on the Oslo accords and Yasser Arafat’s embrace of peace afterward. Then Oslo disintegrated, and now Friedman is covering Arafat and Sharon as they attempt to lock their hands around each other’s throat.
Friedman’s latest Pulitzer in part reflects the stature he’s attained, which he doesn’t really want. Many readers — Americans, other journalists, legislators, diplomats, world leaders — are looking to his columns for some kind of “revealed truth.” In fact, a fellow customer at Sutton Place Gourmet in Washington pounced on him at the orange bin recently, saying that he relies on Friedman to explain the Middle East to him.
Unfortunately, at this moment, Friedman said he has no idea what will come next. “I don’t want to think about this role [of grand explainer], or I’ll be self-conscious and I won’t open up a vein when I need to,” he said. “A columnist is either in the heating or lighting business. You can heat things up or shed some light — I fancy myself doing the lighting.”
Last week, on a day Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Arafat, Friedman was on the golf course, giving himself some distance, wondering what on earth he was going to put in his next column. When it appeared Wednesday, the piece, titled “George W. Sadat,” was equal parts heat and light. A sense of complete frustration pervaded it. But, apparently, Friedman has not lost all hope, or grown afraid to stick his neck out, for he called on President Bush to try to settle this crisis with a bold program that includes everything from seeking a new United Nations mandate to the use of U.S. and NATO peacekeeping troops.
If the rest of the world is turning to Tom Friedman, his teen-agers aren’t. They don’t read his columns, and he doesn’t expect them to. But after seeing so much of the Middle East debacle, there is one thing he insists on: “I want them to be aware every single day how lucky they are to be living in America.”