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New York Times reporter speaks on the state of journalism, media

Scott Shane is a reporter with the New York Times in Washington D.C., where he covers national security issues. Before that, he was with the Baltimore Sun for 21 years, contributing to various types of coverage, including being a Moscow correspondent.

Shane has also written two books, the first, “Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union,” published in the mid-‘90s after his experiences in Russia.

His second book was published more recently – last September. Its title, “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone,” is a reference to the code name Objective Troy, given to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric from Las Cruces, New Mexico who worked in a U.S. mosque, eventually joined Al-Qaeda and was killed by a drone in 2011. The book, in turn, is about Awlaki’s life and death.

The Daily Lobo sat down with Shane to discuss his experiences as a journalist in the context of the war on terror.

DL: How do you look at the role of media in the context of the war on terror?

Media and the press, going way back, has always played a huge role in the history of terrorism because the whole notion of terrorism is to carry out some dramatic act either against property or against people, and if you don’t get publicity for that act that is carried out in the name of some ideology or program, then it is sort of wasted.

There is always that symbiosis, a close relationship, between terrorism and media. That certainly is all the more true in the age of the internet when an organization like ISIS has essentially built itself attracting tens of thousands foreigners to come fight for it in Syria and Iraq, entirely by the use of media, particularly new forms of media such as social media. The U.S. has not really figured out how to counter the ideological aspect.

DL: How do you think we can counter militant ideology without censorship while maintaining objectivity?

That is tough. In the U.S. there is the question of whether these media companies – notably Twitter, Facebook and Youtube – should be doing more to censor themselves. American law and the first amendment to the constitution make it very difficult for the government to censor media, which in my opinion is a way it should be.

But one could argue that these companies, which are private companies, can do anything they want and should take a more active role in eliminating or cutting back on propaganda that they perceive lead directly to violence. It is a tricky business even for a company to start censoring people’s feed.

The principle in American life, or the ideal, has always been that rather than censoring speech, you should counter that with counter argument. The solution to bad speech is good speech. I still like to think that it is a worthy principle and that you need to convince people that al-Qaeda and ISIS have a wrong message rather than to shut it up. 

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One thing, in this era, it is impossible to completely shut down the use of media from a group of people who are determined to use it. By trying to shut it down you can actually have a reverse effect of making it something forbidden and making some people go and find it even more. But they are difficult questions.

DL: How did the 9/11 terrorist attacks change journalism in the U.S.?

One obvious way in which 9/11 changed journalism is a whole lot of journalists started paying attention to national security, terrorism and counter terrorism agencies and programs. So a lot more attention is being paid by journalists, and therefore by the public as well, to these issues.

Another change was that under Obama, there have been eight prosecutions of former government officials or current government officials for disclosing classified information to reporters. Eight cases under Obama, compared to three cases under all previous presidents put together. I think that those came out of 9/11 and the interest in national security journalism to a degree.

Those prosecutions mean that every time someone from the government is going to talk to me about a sensitive subject, they have to worry that they might get in trouble or even might end up in prison, so it made it more difficult to make people talk and to get information.

DL: Do you have any advice for journalism students?

My advice is to be persistent and be creative in trying to find work. Earlier, it was easier to find a job in a newspaper, although, it has never been very easy. Back then, it was pretty obvious where you will go to work, if you were an aspirant journalist. You would most probably go to a newspaper, and in some cases people might go to television.

Today, you not only have those possibilities, but hundreds and hundreds of news related websites and media related websites. Some of them are really good and some of them are really bad. Some pay well and some don’t pay at all. I think someone going into journalism has a much harder time just figuring out what is out there and what they would like to do.

I guess I would just encourage them to think that it is worth pursuing because you know for a curios person it is just a great thing to be able to take interest in a subject and have this sort of license of being a journalist, call somebody up and ask questions, to knock on somebody’s door and somebody’s office and ask them all these questions that outside of journalism you would never dare do. It is an empowering and interesting job, and on really good days you can’t believe they pay you to do it.

Sayyed Shah is the assistant news editor at the DailyLobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @mianfawadshah.

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