Thursday, September 30, 2004

Farnaz Fassahi's e-mail

It's appeared suddenly on a number of blogs: the well-known Andrew Sullivan's and the obscure (although not as obscure as me!) Wiserblog .

And what is it, you ask? It's a private e-mail attributed to WSJ journalist Farnaz Fassahi and being circulated around the web through the magic of e-mail forwarding. As far as I know it has not yet been authenticated as actually being from her ( But let's assume that the attribution is correct, and that it is indeed from Fassihi.

The first point this incident makes is a cautionary one: be careful what you write in your private e-mails, and to whom you write it, because once you click on "send," you've lost all power over it, and it can become a public document.

Fassahi's e-mail describes a climate of chaos and fear in Baghdad and beyond. It seems a good bet that the motivation of many doing the forwarding is to stir up fear that the situation in Iraq is even worse than the MSM is already reporting it to be. But, is it?

Remember that this is a private e-mail that was never intended for publication. As such, it is more of a personal and psychological document than reportage. The beginning of the e-mail makes it pretty clear that Fassihi is terrified, and perhaps even suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from a recent nearby bombing. Fassihi is not a seasoned, hardened reporter; she is a young and relatively inexperienced woman (more about that later). She's not speaking as a reporter here, and she's not writing an article; she's speaking privately as a very young woman who is scared out of her wits, and frustrated that she's not been able to explore Iraq freely, as she had originally dreamed of doing.

It's clear that she isn't writing about the situation of the average Iraqi person, because she is mostly unable to talk to Iraqis or to go about the city: "Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest... I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories...There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows."

A recent article quotes Fassihi, making it clear that the recent kidnapping of the two French journalists has greatly increased her fear for her own personal safety ( : "It made us feel more vulnerable... that it could happen to anybody,' said Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal correspondent. Previously journalists had thought they were safe from kidnappings if they carried a non-coalition passport, she said. No longer."

So, who is Fassihi? She is a 31-year-old woman, a Muslim-American with Iranian-born parents. The following biographical information can be found at :

About Farnaz Fassihi
Age: 31
Title: Middle East correspondent, Wall Street Journal
Education: M.S. in journalism – Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. B.A. in English literature – Tehran University in Iran
Previous work experience:
Assistant and translator for Western reporters visiting Iran
New York Times: Stringer
Providence Journal: Reporter
Newark Star-Ledger: Reporter, worked on the team that covered the Sept. 11 attacks and later served overseas as a correspondent

So, it appears that all of Fassahi's foreign correspondence has occurred post-9/11. She is quite new to the game. My guess is that she may have been pressed into foreign-correspondent service post-9/11 because of her language and ethnic background. Until her recent Iraqi stint, her foreign correspondence seems to have involved mainly what used to be called "human interest" stories, mostly in Iran and Afghanistan: Valentine's Day in Tehran, how Iranian women deal with fashion, the plight of Afghan refugees.

You can see that Fassahi's academic background is in English literature and journalism--a BA from Tehran University and an MS from Columbia. Does she have any experience, training, or special knowledge in Mideast or Arab affairs other than her ethnic background and linguistic powers? Does she have any particular knowledge of war, military strategy, or the history of postwar reconstructions and occupations? If she did, I would imagine she might have been able to bring some context to the present situation in Iraq, and perhaps been better prepared psychologically for what she would be facing there.

It's another guess on my part--I don't really know--but isn't it the case that, years ago, someone based in a position such as Ms. Fassahi's would be a senior correspondent with years of experience and knowledge to back up his/her reporting? My strong suspicion is that Ms. Fassahi is in over her head and is terrified by the danger facing journalists in Baghdad, particularly the kidnappings. I can hardly blame her--in fact, I don't blame her at all. But I wonder what relatively neophyte journalists such as Ms. Fassahi are doing in Iraq, and what their superiors are thinking of, sending them there without the situation being more stable.

When Saddam was in power, journalists had to tow the party line, and the news we got from Iraq couldn't be trusted. Now, journalists are virtual prisoners, and their articles (and certainly their private e-mails!) are just as likely to reflect their fears for their own safety as to reflect reality for the Iraqi people as a whole. Hard to draw any conclusions from this, except that the truth of what's really happening in Iraq is elusive, and that Fassahi's e-mail is only one tiny part of the picture.

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