Many journalists have mid-life crises when they begin to doubt their capacity to capture the truth in words or escape the media echo chamber. Joris Luyendijk had his crisis early — when he was 31, to be precise. He was Middle East correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, was widely admired, had just covered the Gulf War ... and he packed it all in to write a book. A book that sought to demonstrate that it was almost impossible for a journalist to say anything worthwhile about the Middle East, where societies are closed, sources are often in the pay of the secret service, and Western media lack the patience to get to grips with “the Arab world,” a term he in any case rejects.
That book, published in the Netherlands in 2006 and in the UK last year with the title Hello Everybody!, is a punchy dissection of the way the media operates, and shows how easy it is for governments to manipulate information. He argues that journalists did a poor job after Sept. 11, 2001, failing to admit it was impossible to gauge support for al-Qaeda among ordinary Muslims and failing, too, to explore the roots of anger with the West. He also says the Israelis’ media savvy makes it easy for them to win the propaganda war with the Palestinians, and that in the Gulf War “the authoritative Anglosphere media adopted the perspective of the American PR machine.”
Hello Everybody! is not a piece of agitprop. It’s an insider’s guide to the impossibility of seeing the whole picture, of getting inside the houses — and the minds — of those living on the “Arab street.” And Luyendijk, who did a PhD in anthropology in Cairo, speaks Arabic — or at least the urban slang that passes for Arabic in Egypt’s capital. Plenty of Middle East correspondents don’t. Their bosses’ knowledge of the region is even more limited: One of his editors told him to hasten to Iran, where his Arabic would come in useful (only 1 percent of the population speak Arabic). Middle East dictatorship and Western media dumbness make a potent mix, hopelessly biased against understanding. But now back home in the Netherlands and calling himself a “meta-journalist” — a term, he says, that is guaranteed to empty rooms — he thinks he may be edging toward a solution. This should be worth hearing.
“What will you have? I spent a long time in the Middle East and have to offer you something,” Luyendijk says when I arrive at his office, slap bang in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district. He disappears and comes back a few minutes later with a perfectly executed espresso. He shares a floor of a three-story building with a group of freelance writers and designers — “it’s like a newsroom, but without the hierarchy,” he tells me.
He retains an arm’s length relationship with NRC Handelsblad, but the success of Hello Everybody! has bought him freedom. He hosted a chatshow on Dutch TV in 2006-2007 that burnished his celebrity status, has just completed a stint as professor of journalism at the University of Tilburg, and a few days before we met had launched his latest book, which he describes as “an anthropological survey of the political class in Holland.” Add his good looks, angular cheekbones and spiky, close-cropped hair to this burgeoning portfolio career, and I think I’m starting to dislike him as much as the politicians, lobbyists, PR people and journalists skewered in his new book.