Why Bother Researching Anything, Anyway

by Joshua Foust on 8/24/2008 · 9 comments

Guess who wrote this:

While there are no Starbucks or Crate and Barrels in Baku, the city’s 2-million-plus residents experience a life radically more American than Saudi. Soviet aesthetics and mannerisms still dominate, yet materialism rears its Bulgari-ed head.

“Tropic Thunder” and “Hellboy II” play in the local multiplex down the promenade from Cafe Mozart, where foreigners and natives take in ample beer, cappuccino and Wi-Fi to the wee hours. Unfinished high-rises punctuate Baku’s dusty skyline, while Mercedes and Range Rovers compete with Russian Ladas on her hilly roads.

The smell of oil is in the air.

This is Andrew Brietbart, writing in The Washington Times. His report is remarkable for reasons beyond this excerpt, which is noteworthy for it’s sheer generic-ness (that could describe almost any city in the West… even some in Saudi Arabia). No, it’s remarkable because of the sheer number of admissions of ignorance:

  • “Early last Monday, I landed in the capital city of Baku knowing little more than the country’s Wikipedia entry.” (He then proceeds to paraphrase that Wikipedia entry.)
  • “I soon joined forces with one Dutch and seven American journalists on a “fact-finding” trip sponsored by the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy.”
  • “(Should I know something about Nagorno-Karabakh? I recall similar ugly pangs in the ’90s as Bosnia-Herzegovina began to become an American problem. I was actually relieved they got my name wrong.)”
  • “Independent war correspondent Michael J. Totten and National Review’s Rob Long joined me one night in a discussion on an hourlong news program. The topic? Nagorno-Karabakh. Out of necessity, we changed the subject to journalism.”
  • “Azerbaijan is an under-praised ally of the United States, having granted the U.S. military access to Iraq via its vital airspace, and it has 150 troops assisting coalition forces guarding the Haditha Dam.” (Look at an actual map from, say, that Wikipedia page, and you’ll see you’d have to fly over Iran to get there.)
  • “Every time I was given more information, I felt less informed.”

And why bother doing any research at all about a place before you go? This amounts to, “Baku is wealthy, Azerbaijan has oil, and my hosts told me a lot about their country.” And he got paid to write this dreck (in the Washington Times, but still). And Michael Totten links to it! If this is all Totten’s reporting amounts to, I am going to seriously reconsider my respect for him.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Fabius Maximus August 25, 2008 at 12:45 am

Wonderful news, the best I have heard about the fourth estate in years! That they admit ignorance while writing is fantastic progress. Perhaps soon they will learn to consult experts *before* writing, instead of relying on generic geopol gurus and fellow reporters.

Bryan McMahon August 25, 2008 at 12:59 am

That’s not journalism, it’s laziness and disrespect for my country. The details of his description can really represent many of the major cities and capitals of ex-Soviet Union countries. While I don’t really respect the Washington Post anyways, I hope he doesn’t come back unless he really wants to find out about our city. Otherwise he can simply continue on with his assumption that if he’s Wiki’d the country, he’s been there and has enough experience to write an article on it (I know that may seem like a stretch of what he did, but appears he learned nothing in our city so he might as well have only done that).

David Gerard August 25, 2008 at 1:29 am

Journalists are lazy, every journalist I’ve ever spoken to about Wikipedia uses it as their universal background source, the world continues as ever 🙂 Mostly they try to do a decent job, but not that hard. OTOH, the Washington Times would presumably pay well enough to write something worth having been written.

Robert August 25, 2008 at 4:23 am

In his defense, Totten does not write like that other idiot at all, who seemed to be more interested in exposing his complete lack of knowledge and absence of research than writing anything even remotely interesting. I read that article a few days ago and was pretty amazed at Breitbart’s sad performance, never mind his repeated mentions of how knows (maybe it’s a cry for help?). If you look at Totten’s second paragraph however, realize you could interpret what he says there in different ways. 😉

Richard August 25, 2008 at 8:41 am

Brietbart, Totten and several other American journalists were brought to Baku by the Azeri Diplomatic Academy in a trip paid for by the Azeri government and organized by Jason Epstein who is a long-time lobbyist for the Turkish and Azeri governments. It was a journalistic junket.

One must remain skeptical about the result of such paid and chaperoned trips. Brietbart’s repeating of Azeri allegations that Russian planes based in Armenia, bombed Georgia is a case in point. Armenia firmly denied it and the government of Georgia backed Armenia up.

jb August 25, 2008 at 9:41 am

Jesus. That makes Tom Friedman’s supposed cab driver conversations look relatively coherent and well put together.

Why would anyone ever try to report on Azerbaijan without knowing anything about Nagorno-Karabakh? Seems like an awful waste of time to me.

Josh August 25, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Not that any of this deserves the amount of attention we’re giving it, but why is the Azerbaijan government inviting only right-wing journalists on its junkets? What does that say about the message they’re trying to get out?

someguy August 25, 2008 at 8:11 pm

I’ve been fascinated by this blog for a long time, but lately it seems most of the posts have to do with how smart you are and how dumb everyone else is that write on int’l affairs. Can we dial down the bitterness a tad? It’s rather offputting. Just a suggestion. As I said, I have respect for this blog and would like to continue reading interesting things here, but not if it’s going to become a whinefest.

Joshua Foust August 25, 2008 at 11:47 pm

someguy, I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’ve been really grumpy the last few weeks as all these people have just been discovering Georgia’s problems and the Caucasus and Russia expansionism as if it’s something new. It’s not — none of this is a surprise to anyone, and it’s maddening to see these ignorant half-assed journalists getting these paid trips to write press releases about these countries.

That’s all it is.

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