"Covering Other Realities"


Peter Landesman

Contributing Writer, The New York Times Sunday Magazine


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

November 15, 2004



[Note: The text below is an uncorrected and unofficial transcript of a speech; do not quote without first checking with original source.]



The nature of the kind of stories I do inevitably asks me to ask all the time; can I ever believe what it is that I'm listening to or where I even am? This issue of witness, whether he's actually seen something or whether I'm relying on secondary sources is the most important issue for a student of journalism, but also a reader of journalism. That is, how do you ever know that what you're seeing hasn't been staged for your benefit, especially when you traffic in the world where most of the people you're doing dealing with are criminals who have agendas basically trying to convince you of their innocence? How do you know when you're not being manipulated, which is almost never? How do you know when you're not being lied to, and how do you know when you're not being used?


This kind of Faustian bargain, the subjects of our interview, in some ways, always trying to seduce somebody, not obviously in a sexual way, not necessarily negative or derogatory way, but, they have something we want, they have a power over us that we're always trying to get out of them. This is true especially when you're a journalist who traffics in other realities. I almost never do domestic journalism; it's just not something that appeals to me. But when you're in a place that is "other" to you, there's much more to do than just gather data. Actually, every story I do I almost feel as though I'm going to school all over again, in the sense that there's an entire world to learn, and you have to learn it fast; it's a very lonely way to do business. In some ways, we all have to align what we do with who we are, and in the end, ultimately, I think I prefer to be alone in what I do.


My first novel easily could have been a work of non-fiction, I heard a story about a mass death in Maine that took place in 1941, and I got in my car the next day and moved there and lived there for a year. I worked in a paper mill and on a lobster boat, and in this sense really learned to be alone and learn to swim in a world I didn't know at all. Shortly after that, as a way to teach myself something about human nature, a kind of human nature, having been brought up in New York, that I hadn't seen before, without much of a gig-- a couple of assignments, not much-- and certainly my own money, I went to Kosovo, in the war and then shortly after the war. And then Pakistan, post 9/11, was obviously an assignment, but in Kosovo and Pakistan and Afghanistan, seminal moments in history were happening, but on a personal level, from the point of view of an individual reporter who was just getting his legs, I kept running into my friends in these places. In this very weird, kind of surreal moment, the juxtaposition between one person's tragedy and another person's opportunity-- you know, journalists in these places kind of have fun together. This collegiality--they drink a lot, if you're not in a Muslim country-- you're always at the same time keeping a peripheral eye on each other, worried, concerned, not so much competitive, but what do they know that I don't? In other words, what am I missing, how am I not being good enough? And that can drive you to sometimes take risks you shouldn't. That's actually one reason why I think Daniel Pearl got into the car that he shouldn't have gotten in. I know that he was very frustrated by the fact that he was not getting the better stories.


But one thing happened to me in Kosovo that kind of delineated for me how it was I wanted to be a journalist. The borders had just opened, Kosovo was still littered with corpses and body parts. At one particularly egregious massacre site where three other reporters were, we were walking literally among the hands and legs and arms, and this woman came up with her brother looking for her husband, and she found his foot, that is, the foot was wearing a sock that she knew to be his, which is an incredibly disturbing thing to see and she broke down-- it was a horrible moment. And there were sort of four of us there, photographers, and it became a remarkably distasteful moment. If there was one of us, meaning if I was there, alone, it could have become a story, that is, it could have become a relationship, it could have been an experience. Voyeuristic on my part, to be sure, but it would've been a powerful moment. Instead, because of the group it became a kind of moment of exploitation, and I just wound up walking away from the situation not writing about it. But that was a really important moment of demarcation for me, because rather than feeling like a corruption, I just wound up leaving it alone and going my own way.


The thing that I realized I was good at was relationships. Not data dumps, not absorbing other things people were absorbing, but in developing relationships with sources. I was good at being alone with people, and I liked in some ways being in cold, pissed-off places with bad food. In the end, I think I became a journalist not because of the information but because of where the information came from, and the relationship to the sources. Using them, often being saved by them, and sometimes assassinating them. That is, you walk into a situation full knowing that in the end you are really there to assassinate them. It's a very complicated moment. After each of my stories there's a moment in which I just feel utterly corrupted and dirty and it usually takes me weeks before I even have the taste to get back on the ball and do another story.


Reporting in the underworld of crime, particularly smuggling, weapons trafficking, sex slavery, I find, especially in the countries where you don't speak the language, the way of behavior is foreign, I find it akin to floating very still on a river. The question is, at what point do you apply a swim stroke to move yourself up or downriver or one way or another to one shore or the other? And those strokes-- I'm talking about the punctuations and recordings are your sources. Those are the one thing you can hold onto, the shoals in the river. The people you use and the people who end up using you.


I broke it down into three types of sourcing. It's not a definitive list; there are others. The download, the privileged, and the assassinated. I just want to talk about the download for a second. I wrote a story that was set in Rwanda a couple years ago. The story was architected around the story of the minister of women and families there. She was a woman, obviously, and was largely responsible for the very weird and very merciless sexual nature of the genocide, which until then had not really been reported well. It took me four weeks, but I found her mother. Near Mhatsahuka, on trial at a UN court, the first woman ever accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. I found her mother, a very small, old woman in the middle of a village in the middle of Rwanda who kind of knew what was going on but didn't really understand the gravity of the problem. I talked to her for about two day and I realized that there was something about this woman's identity that no one had really known. It was a very odd moment. My wife was a photojournalist on this, and my wife and I-- I'm much more mercenary in my stories and my wife is like the angel; she's like my conscience-- I move in for the kill and she often pulls me back, it actually really works in a wonderful way. It turns out, as the mother starts talking about her family, that the family was Tutsi. And if you know anything about Rwanda that's a little like saying Hitler was Jewish. It became that moment of pure download-- the relationship with her was no longer about protecting her, I didn't owe her anything, she didn't owe me, she would probably disappear into the ether and probably never know the story came out. But the issue of eliciting pure information from this woman, a data dump-- that's one kind of source, and that's actually the easiest kind of source to deal with, because you go home and you don't feel like you manipulated anybody, and she may never know.


But then, the two really complicated kinds of sources. When you report in the underworld, these are the sources that can both undo you and your story, or hold you up. Also, these are the kind of sources that makes a story like this go. That is the privileged source. The point is, what do I use from this person?


One of the threads in the sex-trafficking story was about the methodology of using Mexican girls outside of San Diego and bringing them into the riverbed, and the horrific way these girls are forced to have sex with 20-40 men a day. There was one sheriff in that entire area who had a lead on this story and who was reporting it and his superiors weren't interested, the girls were Mexican, they're foreign, who cares, they're prostitutes, they were whores. Law enforcement didn't understand the gravity of what was going on. So I spend days with him in the reeds, watching. They built these caves in the reeds where they would take the girls and essentially rape them multiple times a day. The details were really, incredibly horrific. These men would put pictures of Playboy and Penthouse on top of the faces of the girls they were having sex with-- girls as young as nine years old, it was really kind of mind-blowing. We were there, and the activity had just taken place, the evidence was very fresh, there were condoms, there was very fresh, sort of, detritus, and then we left, because the new group was about to come in. And one of the criticisms of my piece, which was very interesting, was that I never actually saw sex trafficking take place-- that is, forced prostitution. What happened was-- I did see it elsewhere-- I realized that to protect him there were only certain pieces of the interviews I could use. We actually never even made a contract but I made my own unilateral decision that his operation and his identity, and the identity of the girls would be compromised if I used certain information. Now would the story have been better? Sure. Would it have been more immediate? Of course. But would I have screwed my source? Definitely. In the end, I have to go home and live with myself as a journalist. But also, in terms of sourcing, that man, and everybody he talks to, now knows that I'm a dependable person and I mean what I say and I keep my promises. I know this may sound very facile, but keeping your promises and holding up your end of the bargain strikes me as the only way to have sort of mental and abstract signposts in your mind as you're working through the underworld.


Everybody you're talking to, almost everybody, is either one side of the fence or the other side of the fence of a very bad fence, and most of the people are criminals, so you say, well, everything's up for grabs, everything's available, but that's really not true. How it is you behave on a daily basis is crucial to the architecture of your story. How you operate, who you get to, what you get to use and what you don't.


And then there comes this other relationship, the assassination, which I find fascinating. In reference to this I want to talk quickly about the story I did on weapons trafficking in general, and the Russian weapons trafficker Victor Bout in particular. No journalist has ever spoken to Bout at any length. He'd been the subject of a lot of articles, a lot of attempts by the British, the French and the American governments to literally assassinate him. The reason he eventually allowed me to come visit him in Moscow is fascinating. It seemed like I was rehearsing for that interview for six months and didn't even know it. I had spent six months in very tough parts of the world where a lot of weapons trafficking is going on-- some places where Bout himself wouldn't even go, and when it came time to convince him to allow me an audience, I told him a little bit of what I'd seen, and one of the things I told him was that I believed that he wasn't as bad as people had said he was. The L.A. Times had come out with a very long profile in which they claimed Victor Bout had armed the Taliban in Afghanistan pre 9/11, and had a relationship with Osama bin Laden. Along the route of my journey of reporting I discovered this to not be true. No one had ever said this to him, but it took six months to get this information, and with this information he permitted me to fly to Moscow, at enormous risk for both of us, and spend a week with him. Now, is Victor Bout a monster? You bet he is. Does he traffic in weapons to all the bad places in the world? You bet he does. This is the kind of guy whose planes bring weapons to Liberia for both sides of the conflict, at the same time, the plane will turn around and come back with UN peacekeepers for the conflict. I mean, this guy is the Federal Express of weapons trafficking. Is he charismatic? Is he handsome? Is he fascinating? Is he the brightest person I've ever met? I think he probably is. Does he have a better sense of how the world really operates-- that is, how the world of light and dark intertwine and mingle and how there's really no sense of right and wrong but how everything's gray? Victor Bout is the perfect personification of all of this. Did he have another story to tell? That is, was his story-- yes I've done all these things-- it's not a yes or no, it's a yes but. And the "but" is, you guys pay me to do this also. That is, I may go down in history as one of the worst weapons traffickers in the world, but I've done this at the behest of everybody. That is, I'm merely feeding human nature. Victor Bout is the kind of story that raises question after question until you realize it's almost like an Escher drawing.


But I showed up, and we spent a week together. The last night, he told me probably more than he wished he had. I told him probably more than I wished I had. And it struck me, I had already been warned before by an intelligence agent in Moscow that I was in grave danger, that I was being followed, that my phone was tapped, etc., and Victor and I went out and had lunch and we had dinner and we got-- well actually he always gets me drunk, but we did it anyway, and then he drove me into the woods, and it struck me actually that he was driving me into the woods to end his potential problem with me. In the end, what he did, was that he had hired a traditional Russian bathhouse, rented it all out. It's usually filled with girls, it's where Putin brings his people and the girls and the officials go there, but he hired the whole thing out just for us. And we went in, and it's a physically debilitating and rejuvenating experience at the same time. They whack the hell out of you with eucalyptus leaves, in 130 degrees heat, then they dunk you in ice-cold water, and you do this three different times, and you're perfectly naked when you do this. And big men are doing this. I mean, if I needed to get rid of somebody this would be the perfect place. And we did this together, side by side, and I kept thinking to myself that every time my head was pushed under water that that was gonna be it, and he always let it back up. In the end of it, we were kind of drained, and we sat across from each other on couches, completely naked, and he looked at me and he said; "Russian men bring each other to this place, they go through this process, they take of their clothes, and they're unable to lie to each other." In other words, this is the place where people come to tell each other the truth. We sat there for a few hours, and we talked about what he knew about Western governments and what he'd done. The irony is that it wasn't his assassination of me that I need to be afraid of, but the other way around. That is, we drove back into Moscow and he dropped me off at my hotel at 4 o'clock in the morning. The closer we go to Moscow the more sullen he got, the more quiet he got, and what I realized, and what I think he realized, was that I was now gonna get on a plane in the morning and go home and do my job. And my job was to kill him. This is probably the worst person I've ever interviewed, and after the story I felt the worst. In a weird way, I felt like I betrayed him. Not his confidence, but the complicatedness of his personality, his keen intelligence, and in the end, something maybe, yes, maybe I did betray something of his confidence, because it wasn't a yes or no story, it was a story that really implicated all of us, and where weapons go and who buys them and why.


And what I think is interesting about this, for journalism students especially, is, at some point you make a deal with yourself. I don't know if it's a Faustian bargain, because I don't really see a devil here, but itŐs a bargain you make with yourself that you are willing to suffer the consequences of busting a relationship like this, and in the end, a betrayal. You have to learn to live with it, and I think that a lot of reporters I know-- and this happens obviously on grand scales like this, which is very dramatic, but also in sort of micro-scales-- that a reporter does have to make this bargain-- what he or she is willing to live with. I think that ultimately, every time you have this kind of experience, you go through some kind of crucible, and it takes you to a different level of human nature, and in the end, that is ultimately why I do it. The story to me in some ways is secondary, but my own education is some ways just as prominent. I think I'll end there.





Copyright 2004 Peter Landesman. All rights reserved.