Hollywood loves heroic journalists. Brave reporters, editors and publishers take on powerful, corrupt institutions in films such as “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” and “The Post.” Relentless determination triumphs in the final scenes as the news heroes drag the ugly truth into the light of day. Presidents and prelates are toppled; wars are hastened to their ends.
Based on actual events? Yes — and yet deeply misleading if you draw general lessons from these exemplary cases. Journalism that changes the world is rare. More common is journalism that changes nothing.
The brave, intrepid reporting on Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder fits this category.
The antagonist was certainly formidable. Few institutions can rival the power of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which counts its wealth in trillions — with an emphatic capital T. The family’s corruption is bone deep. The kingdom began lying on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance and never stopped, even as bit by gruesome bit the truth was learned and published.
We now know that Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, based in the U.S., living in self-imposed exile, was lured into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, ostensibly to receive paperwork allowing him to be remarried in accordance with Saudi Arabian law. Hailing from a prominent family — his grandfather was personal physician to the king; an uncle was a billionaire arms dealer — Khashoggi was overconfident of his safety. Having criticized the thuggery of his country’s new leadership in his writings for The Post and other outlets, he was a marked man, harassed online by Saudi troll farms, stalked by hackers of his friend’s cellphone.
We now know that an elite assassination squad had flown into Turkey to meet Khashoggi. We know that a forensic pathologist was part of the team. His job was to cut the victim into pieces. The CIA concluded that the murder was authorized at the highest level of Saudi government, and a U.N. investigation concurred. In December, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible, and Time magazine featured the slain journalist on its “Person of the Year” cover.
This is the point in the movie when the music would begin to swell. But in real life, it was the moment when the U.S. government fell into abject and shameful silence. After months of hemming and hawing (“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”), President Trump waffled pathetically. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh in January to shake the prince’s bloody hand and smile obsequiously. Trump shook the same hand in June.
Volleys of headlines over the past year have failed to pierce the protective veil of sycophancy that Trump and his administration have draped over the murderous prince known as MBS. This deference is hard to explain. Trump’s courtship of the oil-ligarch has embroiled the United States in a wasteful, brutal war in Yemen while producing no advance in the administration’s stillborn plans for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump’s blind eye also overlooks the prince’s mass executions and his prisons full of human rights activists.
The only thing Trump has noticed is the mountain of cash the Saudis promise to spend on U.S. weapons.
The case of Khashoggi should be an object lesson for every young person contemplating a journalism career. A reporter has no powers or privileges beyond those of every free human being; indeed, if you intend to do it right and play straight with the facts, you will have less latitude than those who feel free to spin and lie. Journalists subpoena no witnesses, issue no warrants, prosecute no crimes, pass no laws, enforce no regulations, set no public policies. Inevitably, that often means that we fail to right what seem to be obvious wrongs.
The Khashoggi case also teaches that, while the power of journalists is limited, the risks they take are real. At least 34 reporters were deliberately targeted for murder last year, including four killed in Annapolis. Many others are imprisoned. Lesser dangers are familiar to virtually everyone who pursues the news: the potential loss of friends, the attacks on one’s reputation, the social media trolling and the drive-by slurs.
Somewhere between caped superheroes and enemies of the people are the ordinary human beings who try their imperfect best to find and tell the truth to an audience that doesn’t always want to hear it. We have only the powers to question, to learn and to bear witness — though it might not change anything. In telling the sordid story of Khashoggi’s murder, we bear witness to the deflating fact that a coddled U.S. ally brazenly dismembered a journalist and critic just to shut him up, and the president of the United States did nothing about it.