What the garbageman doesn't know
October 27, 2014 4:30 AM   Subscribe

After a New Yorker piece (previously) on one of Cairo's trash collectors went viral in Cairo, several issues regarding consent of the illiterate Sayyid, as well as possible threats against him, have come up. The author, Peter Hessler, responded in a Facebook post to some of these issues, but it seems that the story is more complicated with accusations that Hessler did not adequately inform Sayyid of what had been written, resulting in retaliation by the people he works for.
posted by sherief (14 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Odd that a reporter is called an "Orientalist" for trying to describe the society that he sees. People want to pretend that their language is a secret code, but that's the first lesson of international security - your language isn't special, anyone can learn it given time and effort, and you shouldn't depend on it to keep your secrets. I wonder how much of the outrage is because the upper crust of Cairo society would prefer that foreign readers not know what's going on in their home town? Even the internationally-aware politically active set can be remarkably blind about how their relationships with servants and workers looks from the outside, and that's not confined to Egypt. In my experience Egyptians love to talk about how screwed up Egyptian society is. So I'm not sure what code of silence was broken here. Maybe Sayyid is supposed to be too stupid to notice anything and they're mad that they now have to consider that he isn't a machine?
posted by 1adam12 at 5:09 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


With only the linked pages to go off of, this seems thin. The reporter is at least saying the right things about being thoughtful and careful about issues of consent, and says he is checking on Sayyid daily.

In the old days reporters could be more purely extractive -- taking the stories they reported and sending them back to the US or Europe, and not having those stories come back to their origins. That's obviously not the case anymore, and I can only hope that reporters are sensitive to the issues of trust and consent that this raises. I do see stories from time to time that make me worried for people quoted or profiled, but this case doesn't seem like a great example of that.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 AM on October 27, 2014


Man just skimming that article skeeved me out. What were they thinking, publishing something like that?
posted by empath at 6:59 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Odd that a reporter is called an 'Orientalist' for trying to describe the society that he sees."

What? How does that make any sense at all? That's the whole point of Said's critique.

"With only the linked pages to go off of, this seems thin."

Does it? I think that on its face there are a lot of hard questions to ask about the piece. I agree that Hessler says some of the right things in response. But then Sherif Alaa's contrary claims about what Sayyid told him are very troubling. You can say, reasonably, that we don't know that he really talked to Sayyid. But, frankly, many aspects of the piece -- that is, Hessler's own words -- make it pretty easy for me to believe that Hessler is lying or self-deluded and has misled and exploited Sayyid. Because even if Sherif Alaa's claims are false, as empath says there's a whole lot of skeevy in that piece.

I don't know quite how to articulate this and have written and erased something already, so I'll just make a brief final attempt: I think a lot of what's wrong with the piece and how best to guess at the truth of the matter is found in Hessler decisions to include so much -- and specifically what he included -- of Sayyid's marriage and how it was explicitly placed within the context of cultural misogyny, especially as illustrated by FGM. Hessler is signaling to his audience a whole lot of stuff there -- stuff that I happen to agree with. But it's saying something very personal and hostile about Sayyid and his life to Hessler's audience, and I don't think Sayyid really understands this at all. Hessler isn't Sayyid's friend. I do think he presents himself that way to Sayyid and I suspect that he defends himself within his own mind on that basis.

My fear is that this self-deluding exploitative opportunism is the typical modus operandi of this sort of journalist. The subject trusts too much on the basis of a presumed friendship, to their detriment, and the writer tells themselves that presenting their subject fully and truthfully is "honoring" them and, anyway, it's their journalistic obligation. If it's the glimpse inside the sausage factory, I don't have to like it. Sure, it's one thing when the subjects are the more powerful people in our society -- but another when they're not. And Sayyid empatically is not.

Hessler's almost aggressive ignorance and indifference to Said's critique of orientalism is in keeping with this. Hessler's perspective comes off as quite patronizing to me, and the thing about patronization is that it hides its self-involvement with a pretense of good-will. Hessler is as carefully ignorant of his orientalism as he is of the exploitative and patronizing nature of his relationship to his subject. Really, they're the same thing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:43 AM on October 27, 2014 [9 favorites]


"Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Jane Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

There was no need to use the real names, at the very least. That a lot of it is second-hand gossip doesn't help either.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 9:13 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


> What were they thinking, publishing something like that?

It was an excellent article and I'm glad they published it.

> Hessler isn't Sayyid's friend.

You're shocked by this?

> My fear is that this self-deluding exploitative opportunism is the typical modus operandi of this sort of journalist.

Minus the SHOCK HORROR adjectives, this "opportunism" (if you want to use such a loaded term) is the typical modus operandi of every journalist. If you want to respect people's privacy and keep them happy, don't become a journalist. Or a writer.

> "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Jane Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

Again with the SHOCK HORROR, this time on Malcolm's part. (By the way, she's Janet, not Jane.) But of course the basic point is correct: journalists exploit people's willingness to talk to them. Would you rather not have journalism?
posted by languagehat at 9:32 AM on October 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


How can a MacArthur grant winning New Yorker journalist who has lived in China and Egypt for the better part of a decade say, in response to charges of Orientalism, that he has "never been big on theory"?
posted by Corduroy at 9:37 AM on October 27, 2014


Unless you are doing an expose on a notable personality or exposing corruption, why would you not use a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of your subject, especially if the subject is as powerless as Sayyid?

Is there a good reason beyond "because I don't have to?"
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:42 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


... this "opportunism" (if you want to use such a loaded term) is the typical modus operandi of every journalist. If you want to respect people's privacy and keep them happy, don't become a journalist. Or a writer.

Languagehat, I agree to an extent in a general way, but do you not see any ethical issues specific to this piece?
posted by Corduroy at 9:44 AM on October 27, 2014


There are always ethical issues specific to any piece of journalism; ask anyone who's ever been the subject of one. I think the reaction to this piece has been blown wildly out of proportion, and I think his response is reasonable and should satisfy most reasonable people. I've been following his writing since he was in China and I think he's one of the best. If people would rather read the standard thumbsuckers written by hacks who spend their time in the bar with other journos and get their facts from Wikipedia and government handouts, fine, but I'd rather read the in-depth reporting of people like Hessler.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


"But of course the basic point is correct: journalists exploit people's willingness to talk to them. Would you rather not have journalism?"

The false dilemma pretending to be a cogent argument is not a rebuttal. It's just lazy. So is supercilious cynicism.

"Minus the SHOCK HORROR adjectives, this 'opportunism' (if you want to use such a loaded term) is the typical modus operandi of every journalist."

I'm mostly okay with that when the subjects are the powerful and the informed. When they're unschooled garbage collectors living at the margins in developing countries and featured in profiles that exist mostly to provide voyeuristic amusement and superficial knowledge for an elite audience, not so much. But you really enjoy his writing, so there's that. That's very important. I failed to take that into consideration.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:53 AM on October 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


A few possibly relevant items from the Society of Professional Journalists' SPJ Code of Ethics:
Journalists should:
  • Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.
  • Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
  • Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
  • Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
  • Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
  • Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
posted by Lexica at 5:05 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I first read the piece I was worried about this precise issue. It's not like the New Yorker is new to this kind of controversy, either.

It reminds of me of arguments I've had with journalist friends about the use of pseudonyms in ethnographic accounts. As an anthropologist, I'm not going to name my research subjects or make them identifiable unless I have to. I don't understand why journalists don't do the same, particularly when they are writing not about an individual event: a crime, for instance, or another account where individual culpability or responsibility is central. In those cases, I buy that verifiability is important.

Here, I just don't see it. Hessler was writing about a system: a set of economic, cultural, and social relations that link waste management, lower class laborers, their domestic settings, the political ramifications of all the abovegoing. As such it was a fascinating article, and very well observed, to my outsider's eyes. It would have been no less fascinating had he decided to switch some names and private details around.

(Oh, and if he'd left out some of the details of the man's marriage. I felt a sinking feeling when reading that part of the article in particular: surely, I felt, he'd gotten the waste collector's consent. But what about the wife?)

A friend of mine in journalism maintains that an important element of truth is lost when you change names. I don't get it. We can't verify the individual details easily without the name, but as we see here that's no guarantee of being able to settle things, either. The article subject can dispute that he said the things that he was quoted as saying, the tapes could be selectively edited or quoted, the notebook could have been falsified. And so on and so forth. The most interesting claims aren't going to be proved or disproved by verifying a quote, anyway.

For me, including identifying information makes sense when the benefit to doing so clearly outweighs the potential damages to the article/research subject. I think Hessler failed miserably on that point.
posted by col_pogo at 8:00 PM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


(Oh, and if he'd left out some of the details of the man's marriage. I felt a sinking feeling when reading that part of the article in particular: surely, I felt, he'd gotten the waste collector's consent. But what about the wife?)

The cynic in me simply smiles.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:49 PM on October 27, 2014


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