The evaluation of factual information is not only a qualitative exercise, but it is also a crucially qualitative judgement of both the information and its source, according to New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Schmidle.
Speaking to the Walter Lord Society of Mathey College, Schmidle outlined his entry into journalism and discussed the details of several pieces he has written over the years. Though he had a vague notion that he was interested in journalism and international work, Schmidle’s career began in earnest with freelance work written from abroad. While working towards a graduate degree at American University, he studied abroad in Iran for a summer, learning Persian intensively and solidifying his interest in foreign reporting.
He was slated to start a two-year fellowship that would allow him to live in Iran and write about a topic of his choosing. However, the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency soon after made this impossible, and he found himself without a place to go.
Quickly pivoting, Schmidle moved to Pakistan for two years, a trip which would eventually lead him to write his only book to date, titled “To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.” He was eventually deported for reporting on Taliban activities, which he credits with helping to launch his career.
“Getting deported totally sucks, but it’s great for a launch pad or a little attention to spring you into your next career move,” Schmidle said.
After working for several media organizations, he started work on an article for the New Yorker about the only person to be sentenced to death on two separate occasions for the same crime. Just after the killing of Osama bin Laden in a military raid, however, Schmidle found himself uniquely positioned to tell the story of this operation in “meticulous detail.” His military connections from time abroad in Pakistan proved to be invaluable sources.
“When you have an impeccable source, it makes everything else really easy. You’re essentially just fact-checking and trying to triangulate and corroborate,” Schmidle noted.
Though he noted that he was “spoiled” by the ease with which his first article was published, he also credited his editors with allowing him time to work on in-depth, difficult to piece together articles.
“There’s an expectation that, with time, you can go further,” Schmidle said.
This type of long form article, for which both Schmidle and the New Yorker are known, contributes what he sees as a vital type of communication, especially in the current political climate and the age of alternative facts.
“I am in the middle of the only D.C. story I have ever done… After the election, I thought ‘Okay, now I’m staying here, this is where I should be,’” Schmidle said.
Still, the new style of reporting presents challenges as well. In particular, the necessity of both breaking news quickly and of getting the facts straight presents a difficult trade-off that Schmidle summarized in his talk.
“Do you sort of ride this crazy wave of excitement and try to corral whatever reporting sources you might have … or do you just pick stories that go at a normal pace?” he wondered aloud.
And yet, according to Schmidle, the opportunity for journalists to affect policy has perhaps never been greater.
“Who knows if he [Trump] is going to pick up The New York Times, and he is going to take some action because he doesn’t like the way he’s being portrayed,” he said.
Schmidle fielded students’ questions, many of which pertained to the evaluation of facts and fake news. He also told stories about his own reporting experiences, and emphasized the importance of collecting enough information to fill out a piece.
The talk, titled “Digging: Investigative journalism in the era of alternative facts,” took place in the Mathey Private Dining Room at 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 13. The Walter Lord Society will continue to host journalism talks every few weeks for the rest of the semester, according to journalism professor Joe Stephens.