Punished for asking Saudi royal tough question, writer Sam Husseini says ‘journalism needs to be re-invented’

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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Writer and activist Sam Husseini asked Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal a tough question at a National Press Club news conference earlier this month. As a result, and much to the chagrin of his colleagues, his membership in the organization was suspended.

“There’s been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime,” Husseini asked Prince Turki, the kingdom’s former ambassador to the United States. “I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir.”

“You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth,” Husseini continued. “Human Rights Watch and others report of torture, detention of activists, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt, and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does your regime have — other than billions of dollars and weapons?”

Husseini’s blunt tone and line of questioning, both unusual for the club, did not escape notice. He was quickly reprimanded, and within hours, his membership in the club had been suspended.

“Raising eyebrows is good,” Husseini told The Daily Caller in an interview, “a lot better than lowering eyelids.”

He offered no apologies for his manner of questioning, saying that “there is an objective reality. Real people are suffering. It should be said. I think my questions come off like fingernails on chalkboard to certain people because they question the established order and certain facts are so inconvenient.”

The uproar following Husseini’s interview was bad publicity for the National Press Club, and by Monday morning they had reversed their decision. “I welcome this decision and aim to ask ever tougher and sharper questions,” Husseini wrote on his blog. “I hope others will as well.”

In the transcript of the interview below, Husseini talks about his thoughts on the state of journalism, media bias and the need to hold public officials accountable.

1) Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to journalism.

I’ve always avidly followed the news, when I was a kid I was at a school in DC and we each got a copy of the New York Times. I’d critique the Sunday morning talkshows while watching them with my dad. After graduating, I decided a corporate career wasn’t what I wanted — in practical terms putting aside a computer science degree and a gig on Wall Street — and got into independent journalism, initially by volunteering at the media watch group FAIR in NYC and doing some freelancing. Eventually I landed at the Institute for Public Accuracy, which was founded by Norman Solomon and we’ve worked to get critical information out through there — at our best, debunking falsehoods in real time, when it actually matters, like the whole WMD scam on Iraq, the hype over the necessity for the Wall Street bailouts and now, the counter-revolutions the Saudis are leading in the Mideast.

2) Where does the situation with the National Press Club stand? Are you still suspended? Do expect to ever become a member in good standing again? And what has the reaction been from your colleagues — are people standing with you, or are people telling you you were out of bounds that day?

I’ve gotten a lot of support from people, some at the Press Club and a lot online, and I’m very grateful for that. After I wrote an open letter to the Press Club Ethics Committee, they lifted the suspension. I sincerely hope I won’t be singled out in any way after this point — or more properly, I hope the Press Club will actually encourage, not just me, but others to be asking the critical “let’s talk about the elephant in the room” type questions.

3) Your question was blunt, and I can see why it would raise eyebrows. Were you surprised at the reaction you got from the Press Club staff? Would you perhaps rephrase it if you could do it again? Why was it important for you to say the Saudi regime is one of the most “autocratic, misogynistic regimes” on earth, and not just ask how Turki justifies the legitimacy of the regime?

Raising eyebrows is good, a lot better than lowering eyelids. I would do it fundamentally the same. There was a bit of crosstalk as I added at the end of my question — what is your legitimacy, “other than billions of dollars and weapons” and I wish I’d gotten that out more clearly. I wish it were tougher, sharper. My actual question was 37 seconds, before the “Prince” attempted to have a folksy back and forth asking me if I’d been to Saudi Arabia, like you had to go to Stalin’s Soviet Union to know that was oppressive. I believe it’s good to have succinct factual information setting up a question, especially given how ill informed the U.S. public has been. Some things are true. It is an “autocratic, misogynistic regime.” There is an objective reality. Real people are suffering. It should be said. I think my questions come off like fingernails on chalkboard to certain people because they question the established order and certain facts are so inconvenient.

4) I think there’s this notion that the Washington press corps is increasingly unwilling to ask tough questions of candidates because they it will threaten their access, that everyone wants to be the “friendly” reporter who gets a scoop from time to time in return. At the same time, journalists, and in particular political journalists, have traditionally shown a willingness to protect public figures they like or want to get cozy with — for example, it was something of an open secret among reporters that JFK had mistresses, but no one wrote about it at the time. Is this a problem that’s getting worse, or has the proliferation of independent media outlets (blogs, etc.) made it easier to ask tough questions of officials and get real answers to the public?

The problem of access is a serious one and part of the solution has to be people blowing the whistle on “reporters” who are just outlets for officialdom — when a journalist gets a “scoop” that depended on them ingratiating themselves to officialdom, they should be mocked for it more than celebrated for it. The answer to the access problem cannot possibly be to avoid asking tough question. If you do that, journalism has no meaning. And then disasters happen. That’s how you get endless war and death and destruction and hideous economic policies leading to intolerable conditions for more and more people. If you don’t have some friction in a news conference with a powerful figure, you’re probably going to get real human suffering outside that room. And then you are complicit in that suffering. That blood is on your hands because you had the chance to stop it and you didn’t. With the project, I get access by getting up early on Sunday mornings and going to the Sunday talkshows and asking though questions there. You get creative to overcome the “access” problem.

5) Conservatives often charge that the media has a liberal bias, and liberals are now starting to say there’s actually a conservative bias. Would you say one is more correct than the other, and do you think it’s possible to have a truly objective media? Would you say that you come at the issues from either a left or right perspective, and if so, does that matter?

I think quite often the issues are not left or right — there is a pro-corporate, pro-war bias. So, for example, much of the establishment media clearly have it in for Ron Paul, either ignoring or attempting to belittle his candidacy. Left-right is breaking down in many ways. That was the idea behind another project of mine: — which advocates conscientious conservatives (who are trapped by establishment Republican operatives) pairing up with principled progressives (who have been trapped by establishment Democratic apparatchiks). So you’d siphon off votes in pairs to third or independent candidates, thus solving the “spoiler” problem. One could vote for the Green or Socialist candidates while the other for the Libertarian or Constitution Party candidates — or you could have the emergence of a Ron Paul-Denis Kucinich type ticket. The two of them agree with each other on war, Wall Street bailouts, corporate trade deals and a host of other issues. They have majority support, but they don’t win because the Bush-Clinton axis and much of the corporate establishment is on the other side.

6) You write that “tough questioning seems to be done selectively” at the Press Club. Would you say that’s the case at most (if not all) media outlets these days? Are there any news anchors or print reporters out there who you think do a good job at challenging their subjects on a regular basis?

Absolutely. I don’t think this question is limited to the Press Club at all. No one is really doing what’s desperately needed.

7) Is the American media broken, and if so, what advice would you give to journalists trying to fix it?

Journalism needs to be re-invented. What passes for journalism is frequently farcical. There are certainly good people in journalism, but the general system, the economic pressures, the heavy dose of conventional wisdom push aside the core facts that the public needs to know. Part of what needs to happen is we need to move beyond a system of “free speech” — because money will win. It will always have a bigger bullhorn. We need to move to a system of accountable speech. People who deceive need to be held accountable. That is one of the great tasks of a new journalism.