Friday 04 September 2009
Journalist Scott Anderson. (Photo: Timothy Fadek / Polaris)
For war journalist Scott Anderson, the most confounding part of his recent assignment for GQ magazine to explore the root of terrorist acts in
It was the reception his story ultimately received back in the
"It was quite mysterious to me,"
Anderson, 50, is an accomplished reporter and novelist who has written previously for Harper's Magazine, The New
His investigative piece, published in the September American edition of GQ, challenges the official line on a series of bombings that killed hundreds of people in 1999 in
A Management Memo
Conde Nast owns Vanity Fair and GQ as well as other publications, including Russian versions of GQ, Glamour, Tatler and Vogue. On July 23, Jerry S. Birenz, one of the company's top lawyers, sent an e-mail memo to more than a dozen corporate executives and GQ editors.
"Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of
He ordered that the article could not be posted to the magazine's Web site. No copies of the American edition of the magazine could be sent to
It wasn't just that there was no reference to
The idea that information can be sequestered at a time when people can communicate instantly across oceans and continents may seem quaint. But in this instance, Conde Nast sought, against technology, logic and the thrust of its own article, to show deference in the presence of power.
Lawyers, executives and editors at Conde Nast and GQ did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week, and a spokesman ultimately declined on their behalf. But NPR has spoken to several people knowledgeable about the handling of
A Taboo Topic
To understand why Conde Nast might have reacted the way it did, it's worth remembering the subject of the report - and the context in which it is now being written. Back in September 1999, Chechen terrorists were blamed for the attacks. The new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, emerged from the shadows and consolidated power. A crackdown ensued and a second war was launched against
Chechen separatists have been known to commit deadly terrorist acts. Hundreds of Russians were killed after the takeover of a school in
But in today's
"You can be sued for defamation - but you don't even have to be sued. You can be audited," Ognianova says. "Politicized audits are a big hurdle for publications that dare to publish sensitive topics."
Those audits can focus on just about anything - including fire codes - that could paralyze a publication for months and send advertisers fleeing. That's a consequential result for media companies that see foreign publications as increasingly important sources of revenue.
But Conde Nast's Birenz did not raise security issues in his memo. And
"If you're worried about repercussions and you bow to them, you're basically surrendering to the other side,"
Jane Kirtley, an attorney who is a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota's journalism school, says Conde Nast's position makes no sense as a matter of pragmatism or principle.
"On one level, the smart thing is to stay in business and to stay in
More important, she argues, is Conde Nast's failure to live up to its professional obligations. "It goes with the territory of a news organization to speak for those who can't speak - and to bear the consequences," she says.
"It's Really Kind of Sad"
"Here's a guy who spent four years in prison on a trumped-up, really rather silly charge (that) was a direct result of the investigative effort he's made on these bombings," Anderson says. "Now he's out - he's certainly kind of walking around with a bull's-eye on his back - and yet is still willing to tell the story."
"I think it's really kind of sad,"
GQ editors were also told not to promote the story, but in an act of quiet defiance, the magazine sought publicity for Anderson's article from a few news outlets, including NPR's All Things Considered.
Click here to Subscribe
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs