BPR Interviews: Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has worked in over 50 countries, with extended postings in Nicaragua, Germany, and Turkey. Among a host of other positions, he served as the chief of the New York Times bureau in Istanbul from 1996-2000. He is the author of nine books, and continues to contribute to a variety of publications including the Boston Globe. Kinzer is currently a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University.

Your articles and books have led the Washington Post to cite you as “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” As a foreign affairs correspondent, how would you characterize the nature and importance of this role as a storyteller?

Writing for a newspaper is an exercise in addressing a very large and diverse group. As such, my view is that you have an obligation to educate, but must do so without talking down to your readers. My approach to journalism has always been to try to provide enough context so that readers can understand the origins of news events. My big complaint about news is that it is too focused on what is happening today. The more intense the news cycle has become, the more demanding the viewership and readership has become in insisting to know everything right up to the minute. We are so focused on the question, “what happened today?” that we fail to focus on two other questions which are more important: “what happened yesterday?” and “what will happen tomorrow?”

The Special Feature of this BPR issue is ‘Space.’ I would be interested to hear your opinion on the space that social media platforms are providing for news coverage. To what extent do you think that the emphasis on immediacy and digestibility in online reporting is exacerbating this failure to contextualize new stories?

I do think the internet opens up space for people who want to take other approaches to reporting, but there is no doubt that the longer form, reflective type of journalism is battling to survive against this onrushing wave of what happened in the past 10 seconds. The pressure for up to the second sound bites is intense. I think it is the job of journalists to try to present startling or unexpected, or even unpleasant, interpretations of news, and to explain where news comes from. When I write, I am constantly trying to open up a new space in the minds of my readers so that they are thinking about other things and new perspectives.”

What was it like to transition from journalism to academia?

I have often been asked why my perspective on American interventionism is different from many other international relations scholars. I think one answer might be the way in which I learned about the world and about America’s place within it. Most of the people in the mainstream of foreign policy in this country shaped their views in Washington — in the think-tanks, in the congressional staff, or in international relations schools that are tied to America’s approach to the world. I learned about the world by living in countries that were the victims of American foreign policy, so I saw the United States from a different perspective. My training is not from being a scholar, but rather from being out in the world and working as a journalist. This gives me a  different perspective on the US and its behavior. My fascination with history also had a great impact on my reporting — I have tried to work it into all the journalism I have ever done because I believe that the past explains the future.