Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Dangerous New York Times Interview

In a startling and unexpected turn of events, I was granted the opportunity to interview over lunch the two top journalists of the New York Times, Steven Wackenhut and Jody Faelton, with Barbara Goodish and Rashid Owst of the Washington Post standing by for moral support of its sister publication and who will write their own accounts of the interview. A somewhat incestuous zeitgeist, I thought, but there it is. The subject was the terrorist attack on the French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and the murder of twelve of its staff, together with three other terrorist incidents in Paris, including the gratuitous  murder of a French policewoman and two hostage-takings by Islamic terrorists.

What I focused on was the Times’ report of January 7th, “’Dangerous Moment’ For Europe, as Fear and Resentment Grow,” which nattered on about the rising anti-Islam and anti-Muslim immigration feelings among non-Muslims in Europe. While Mr. Wackenhut and Miss Faelton did not write the story, they did not seem in the least uncomfortable with the idea of discussing another reporter’s story,  after we had established our talking points over the phone.

I had wanted to interview the actual authors, Steven Erlanger and Katrin Bennhold, but was told by Mr.  Wackenhut that they were unavailable for an interview, having been sent to Buffalo to report on the lake effect on that snow-bound city. I had been told by Mr. Wackenhut over the phone that being assigned a story in Buffalo was tantamount to being sent to Beirut, Lebanon, or some other strife-ridden foreign capital. “They were very excited about the assignment,” remarked Wackenhut over the line.

We were seated around an indoor cafĂ© table in Le OccupĂ© Bagatelle, quiet, a tony, secluded bistro just a block away from the garishly anonymous headquarters of the New York Times on Times Square. The place was once a tawdry pornography and sex toy arcade, one of many such enterprises which once populated Times Square and 42nd Street before the Square was Disneyfied. Here a glass of Evian mineral water goes for $7.50, and a minuscule chunk of Angus prime, about the size of my palm, topped with a handful of off-color Brussels sprouts or some other hapless vegetable, will sock you at $35.00, not including side dishes (or tax, or gratuity). We loosened up with some pungent house wine (“from our deepest cellar,” the wine list read), at $11.00 a shot glass. I gather that meant the basement. God knows whatever else was still aging down there.

Mr. Wackenhut is head of the overseas desk, having been the Times’ deputy bureau chief in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for several years, and then senior correspondent in Berlin and Buenos Aires. Miss Faelton has written about political and social women’s issues her entire career, first for the Bismarck, North Dakota Bugle, then as foreign editor for the Arkansas Yahoo, before moving to the Times as women’s issues editor.

I did not enquire into the journalistic antecedents of the Post’s Goodish and Owst.

I let the Times and the Post engage in their tech talk and journalistic camaraderie before the waiter took our drink and lunch orders. I didn’t want to frighten them yet with my extraordinary and soul-scouring questions. They were a jolly group and I was reluctant to spoil the mood. I sipped my mineral water. I’d already finished the colored vinegar.

At one point, Mr. Wackenhut said with a chuckle and in an execrable French accent, “My nickname for Ulaanbaatar was ‘Oulan-Bator,’ or ‘Ooh-la-la! That’s better!’”

The Post pair giggled. I guess they thought it was a sexual innuendo. Or something equally lascivious. But it was lost on me.

Jody Faelton scowled and replied, “You told me once it was ‘Oh, my ulcerous bladder!’”

Mr. Wackenhut sighed and shook his head. “Oh, it was that, at times, Jo. That Mongolian rotgut they call a native port there really kept me jumping up to excuse myself. It was a lot like seasickness.”

“You must’ve drunk the water, too!” ventured Rashid Owst with a snicker. Barbara Goodish slapped her colleague on the back with a peal of laughter. Owst, I noted, wore a Keffiyah with an American flag pin affixed to one of its folds.

The humor was over my head. There was more of that kind of banter until our orders came. In a show of gourmandish  unity, the four journalists each had the shepherd’s pie lamb ragout.

I had the mesquite-roasted chicken breast, which was really quite good, all three forkfuls. It must have been a very small chicken. I didn’t touch the limp-looking rabbit food on the side. I finished first, and sat twiddling my thumbs, waiting for my guests to look up from their ragouts.

The four scribes finally finished them with a chorus of smacking lips. I took out my tape recorder and planted it on the table. I pressed the button. “Let’s get down to business,” I said.

“Hold on,” said Wackenhut, pushing his plate away with a burp. “Who’s paying for this party? I forgot to ask over the phone.”

I shook my head. “The New York Times. It’ll be getting free publicity from this interview. The least it can do is pay for the lunch. It’ll come at the price of a quarter-inch ad in the obituaries.”

Wackenhut signaled the waiter. He ordered a bottle of Glenlivet. “Four glasses, and leave the bottle,” he said. “Put it on the same Times tab.” The waiter rushed a way.

“All right,” said Wackenhut with reluctance and a frown. “We're talking about a tab of a grand tab here, you know, but…Shoot.” He held up a hand. “Wait. You’re not going to be hostile, are you?”

“That depends on your answers.”

“I mean, you’re not going to pull a number on the Grey Lady like that bald guy does on The Revolting Truth all the time?”

“Yeah, Cliff Clavin,” chimed Jody Faelton. “He’s always calling us a ‘former newspaper.’ How insulting!” 

“No, the bald guy is Andrew Klaven.  Cliff Clavin was that jerk mailman barfly in ‘Cheers.’” said Goodish.

Wackenhut smirked. “Same intellectual class, as far as I’m concerned. And those gaudy shirts of his give me Tylenol head storms. He needs a fashion consultant.”

“And maybe a hair piece,” giggled Barbara Goodish.

Faelton leaned closer to me. “You know, we're thinking of filing a blasphemy suit against Klaven. You can't go around slandering the Grey Lady, just as you can't go making fun of Mohammad. She’s an icon. A goddess. You can't disrespect her. Been around for over a century and a half. Well, not as long as Mohammad, but, still….” She paused and shook her head.  “We are privileged, you know, exempt from such cruel mockery. There ought to be a law.”

“Let’s stay focused, people,” I interjected.

Wackenhut and Faelton looked slightly offended, but sat back in their chairs and looked serious.

“Now,” I began, “that ‘Dangerous Moment’ piece your people wrote, seemed more about the paper’s worry that Europeans are getting fed up with their government’s immigration policies that seem to favor immigrants than it was about twelve of your journalist colleagues being murdered in cold blood – “

“Asylum seekers,” Wackenhut interrupted.

“Freedom lovers,” Faelton added.

“Refugees,” said Goodish.

“Displaced persons,” insisted Owst.

“ – and afford those immigrants favorable terms and treatment,” I continued,  “over the people who’re expected to ‘tolerate’ them with no evidence of reciprocation on the part of the Muslims and to foot the bill – “

Wackenhut interrupted again. “Asylum seekers.”

I held up my own hand. “Allow me to quote from the article in question,” I said, pulling out a marked-up clipping of the article. “’The sophisticated, military-style strike Wednesday on a French newspaper known for satirizing Islam staggered a continent already seething with anti-immigrant sentiments in some quarters, feeding far-right nationalist parties like France’s National Front.’”

“Fascists!” barked Wackenhut. “I saw those 27,000 Dresden Pedidas practicing their goose-steps!”

“Right-wingers full of hate!” chimed Faelton. “Clinging to their wallets and purses!”

“Far right fanatical bigots!” said Owst. “They’ve planted burning crosses on Muslim lawns, and in front of mosques!”

“Racists!” said Goodish. “The videos of whites fighting back against their refugee gangs were disgusting!”

Owst added, “We're steeling ourselves for the first massive anti-Muslim backlash. I’ve seen secret photos of those bigots fondling their whips!”

I asked, “Why use the term ‘seething’? It connotes an unreasoning emotional response to a threat, in this instance, of the swamping of a civilized society, with the connivance of a government, with adherents of an ideology that permits no tolerance or criticism of that ideology – “

“Islam is a religion of peace,” said Wackenhut calmly. “Any acts of violent extremism committed by Muslims in Germany or France or Britain or Spain or Belgium have nothing to do with Islam. They’re committed by renegade Muslims who’ve never read the Koran.”

I made a face. “Even when they quote verses from the Koran, and post them on Facebook or in tweets?”

“Imposters!” said Owst.

“Phonies!” agreed Goodish.

“Mental patients!” echoed Faelton.

“Anyone can read the Koran!” said Wackenhut. “That doesn’t prove anything! I mean, if I quoted repeatedly from Catcher in the Rye, does that mean I’m a Salingerite?”

“ – when it’s actually Muslims who are emotionally motivated to attack non-Muslims, or non-Muslims who say something derogatory about Mohammad or who mock Islam’s purported peaceful nature,” I continued, finishing my observation. “There are so many buttons to push in the average Muslim mind I’m surprised that so many Muslims just sit on the sidelines and quietly perform cheerleading sets, because it would be difficult for their cheerleaders to perform leg-splits and pyramids sheathed in burqas and chadors. Difficult, and comic. Worthy of a Monty Python skit.”

Owst scowled. “That’s not funny!”

“It wasn’t meant to be.” I sat back in my chair. “As for charges of racism, it’s Muslims who practice it, as when they consistently and repeatedly attack Caucasian men and women and Jews and even Hindus.”

Faelton’s face grew ugly and she glared at me. “Eight times more Muslims have been killed by so-called Islamic terrorists than non-Muslims! J.K. Rowling said so!”

I shrugged. “If that statistic is true, it simply points to the internal Hatfield-McCoy conflict within Islam, that’s all. The Sunshine Sunnis hating the Shady Shi’ites and vice versa. Salacious Salafists at fisticuffs with the Awesome Alawhites. In terms of fundamentals, it’s all one and the same show. Between the sects, details of doctrinal differences are irrelevant. All Muslims wear aluminum skullcaps.”

All four journalists pursed their bottom lips in a collective pout and pummeled me with their baleful expressions. I  grinned and leaned forward. “I should add that the Post ran its own ‘anti-immigration fears’ piece, yesterday, ‘Far right in Europe sees opportunity after wave of terror in France.’” I took out another clipping and read from the first paragraph: “The wave of terror that left 17 people dead in and around Paris has ushered in a new sense of insecurity across Europe – but also what could be a defining moment for the anti-immigration, anti-Islam forces of the far right.” I tucked the clipping away. “So, on one hand there’s a ‘dangerous moment,’ and on the other a ‘defining moment.’  Copasetic to the extreme, even to the contents of the two articles. An indecent instance of being on the same page.”

The two pairs of rival journalists glared at each other.

“Copycat!” sneered Wackenhut.

“Monkey see, monkey do!” Barbara Goodish shouted back.

I could see that my interview was going nowhere except to the realm of the invective. The minds of these alleged journalists were so battened down in their insulating narrative they were incapable of answering objectively any objectively posed questions. These people were reason- and fact-proof. But, I gave them one more chance. “Mr.  Wackenhut,” I began, “what is the Times’ position on President Barack Obama not attending the massive Je suis Charlie  march in Paris last Sunday, and insulting the French by watching football playoffs instead?” Not  that I put much faith into the march, but I didn’t say that.

Wackenhut wagged a finger at me. “We've taken him to  task on many occasions for his poor optics,” he said. “Time after time, he walks right into bad picture, on the golf course, in the Rose Garden, at Wendy’s. And then he too often hams it up, like he was playing a planned prank on everyone.”

“And he can't sing, either,” said Faelton. “He really ought to stay away from karaoke. It’s all taking a toll on his poll numbers and eating into his popularity.”

Rashid Owst opined with a sigh, “If only the man didn’t seem to take pleasure in flaunting his incompetence.” He paused and shook his head. “Even at golf, never mind debt management and foreign policy.”

That was the first intelligent remark I heard from anyone during the interview. I made it the last. I turned off the recorder, tossed down the last drops of the Glenlivet, and rose, knowing it was pointless to go on.  I said, “Thank you for your time. I’ve had enough.”

I turned and left the company.  I was desperate for a smoke. But a few feet from the front door I encountered a man in a French Foreign Legion uniform being escorted to a table by the maitre ‘d. He looked a little stocky for a Legionnaire, having a barrel chest under a beribboned and be-medaled tunic.  A fleeting memory of Buster Crabbe and La Boudin (The Sausage) crossed my mind.

As I went out the door, I heard someone yell, “Mohammad is avenged!! Allahu Akbar!!”

The blast propelled me clear down to Herald Square, and I landed in the lap of Horace Greeley.  

Bronze hurts.

 The pain caused me to wake up in a cold sweat.

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