Laila Al-Arian was a Nation intern in 2006. She, along with Chris Hedges, is the author of Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians, which was published by Nation Books in 2008. She now works for Al Jazeera English. In this interview Fall 2010 Nation intern Braden Goyette asks Laila about her book, her work, and her time at The Nation.
1. How did you transition out of The Nation internship into your career as a journalist?
After completing Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians with my co-author Chris Hedges, I applied for a position of producer at Al Jazeera English and eventually moved to Washington DC to work for the network. I have no doubt that my training and experience at The Nation, along with the mentoring I received from a number of Nation writers and editors, helped prepare me for the position.
2. What did you learn from interviewing 50 veterans for Collateral Damage? What was the hardest part of the project for you? The most worthwhile part?
I learned how to sensitively conduct an interview on a very difficult subject (in this case civilian casualties in the Iraq war). I also learned how to find patterns in the dozens of interviews we did, analyze the responses, and put it all together for an in-depth investigative piece. The hardest part of the project was listening to the very difficult stories and watch some of the veterans break down in mid-interview and witness their pain and anguish. The most worthwhile part was telling their stories and giving readers an untold view of the Iraq war — namely the daily atrocities that the Iraqi people endured — through the words of the soldiers and Marines who fought the war and carried out the occupation.
3. How do people in Washington react when you say you work for Al Jazeera?
I think there were more misconceptions about Al Jazeera during the Bush administration because the network was considered a target for its honest, hard-hitting reporting (our cameraman Sami Al Hajj was detained in Guantanamo for years before he was finally released and our reporter Tarek Ayoub was killed in Iraq in a U.S. strike). Donald Rumsfeld launched relentless political attacks against Al Jazeera during press confereces. But the network's work speaks for itself and as people actually WATCH it, they grow to respect and admire it. Unfortunately many of Al Jazeera's critics have never actually watched the channel. At a time when most news networks are cutting their foreign bureax and investigative teams, Al Jazeera is expanding its presence around the globe. We are also not beholden to any corporations, so we don't censor our reporting.
4. What's a good place to meet other journalists in DC?
Any given "Washington" event like State Department press conferences, hearings on the hill, etc. That's the easiest and most obvious ways to meet fellow journos. There are also journalist associations like SPJ and AMEJA (for Arab/Middle Eastern journalists).
5. Where were your favorite haunts in New York when you were an intern?
There were a lot of good restaurants close to the Nation's office in Union Square. Rainbow Falafel was a favorite for Middle Eastern food for my intern group (it's inexpensive and close by). Sadly, some of my favorite places have since closed down and been replaced with chain restaurants.
6. What book would you recommend every young journalist read?
There are too many good books to recommend in a limited space, but a few are The Journalist and the Murderer, The Shah of Shahs, Hiroshima, and of course The Elements of Style to brush up on writing.
7. What advice would you give to recent intern alumni, current interns, or future interns?
I encourage young journalists to create a niche for themselves. Find a subject, area, or region that you are particularly interested in and become an expert on it, while of course honing your writing and reporting skills. That's the best way to stand out in an already-crowded field and in an industry that's constantly evolving and changing. Also, write, write, write — practice and experience will help you improve with time. Another piece of advice would be to learn how to report in all media (broadcast, web, etc.) because versatility is key. Finally, finding mentors in the field whose work you admire so they could give you advice and guidance and critique your work is crucial.