The art of being a bitch

I'm a big fan of Oriana Fallaci's. She died in last September in Florence, months after making the world mad at her with her blunt criticism against the radical Islamism.

This month’s issue of Vanity Fair carries Christopher Hitchens’ account of what made Fallaci Fallaci. Hitchens explained, in other words, what made her interviews worth reading.

For those of you who haven't heard of her already, I'd say some people have called her the greatest "confrontational bitch" in the history of journalism. I don’t usually like bitches because they are intimidating and I'm easily intimidated. But Fallaci is an exception.

She mastered the art of being, if you’ll excuse me, bitchy.

Henry Kissinger said the interview he had with Fallaci was "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press." (He had confessed to her that he used to have a childhood fantasy of becoming a cowboy. I suppose everyone knows how Kissinger looks and what he did during the Nixon years.)

The late Shah of Iran and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan must have felt sorry for themselves after Fallaci delivered their words to the rest of the world. Bhutto called his Indian counterpart Indira Ghandi "a diligent drudge of a schoolgirl." Ghandi got mad and Bhutto had to send one of his diplomats to Ethiopia (where Fallaci was interviewing the emperor of the nation) to beg her to retract the line. Fallaci said no.

I won’t bore you guys by repeating the well-known details of those interviews. I'll just show you an excerpt from the Vanity Fair article. Here, take a sip.

---------------------------- Here is an excerpt from an interview with what our media culture calls a “world leader”: Dan Rather: Mr. President, I hope you will take this question in the spirit in which it’s asked. First of all, I regret that I do not speak Arabic. Do you speak any... any English at all? Saddam Hussein (through translator): Have some coffee. Rather: I have coffee. Hussein (through translator): Americans like coffee. Rather: That’s true. And this American likes coffee.

And here is another interview with another “world leader”: Oriana Fallaci: When I try to talk about you, here in Teheran, people lock themselves in a fearful silence. They don’t even dare pronounce your name. Why is that? The Shah: Out of an excess of respect, I suppose. Fallaci: I’d like to ask you: if I were an Iranian, instead of an Italian, and lived here and thought as I do and wrote as I do, I mean if I were to criticize you, would you throw me in jail? The Shah: Probably. ----------------------------

Dan Rather looks quite bad, doesn’t he?

But, of course, we all know Rather is not just one of those dumb starters in this trade. Some of us might, rightfully, see him as a mountain peak they would like to reach someday.

What I’m trying to say here is simple: I felt almost personally embarrassed how apologetic Rather sounded. We journalists all sound so these days. We beg the interviewees to grant a chance to share their thoughts with us. (By “us,” I guess we mean the media corporate we work for.) When they finally do grant us the opportunity, we try our best not to blow it. We don’t want to offend our interviewees. We keep apologizing for invading their privacy. If you guys are angry because I’m using the word, “we,” I apologize. I meant “me.”

Reading Hitchen’s account of Fallaci’s interviewing skills, I couldn’t help thinking about another passage I just read from another book. It’s called “Love Thy Neighbor.” Peter Maass, the former Washington Post war reporter, wrote the book and it’s something between a journalistic reportage and a personal memoir about the Bosnian War he covered from 1992 to 1993.

In his book, Maass describes the career diplomats in Washington and Geneva as followed; “[The diplomats] would say they were carrying out the policy of their governments, just doing their professional duty, [...] even though disobedience would have meant nothing more severe than the loss of their job, rather than their life.”

Career diplomats and we journalists are beings oceans apart, but the last line struck me anyway, because it somehow made me think again about whether and why I --Dan Rather as well--have been so moderate and apologetic and obedient doing our job, which is often interrogating our interviewees, unlike Fallaci. What are we afraid of?

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