The latest Newsweek features an insider-y read by Joan Juliet Buck, the magazine writer who wrote the infamous 2011 Vogue puff piece on Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. I’m tempted to call it a cautionary tale for journalists—and that’s clearly how it is presented, with the headline “Mrs. Assad Duped Me.”
But to read Buck’s account that way, to assume that anyone could have found themselves in her shoes, would be an insult to most journalists. Unless Buck omitted a boatload of admirable details about Mrs. Assad in this current piece or only recognized the creepiness of her visit to Syria in hindsight, she most certainly was not duped. She knowingly wrote a glowing profile—“the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”—about the wife of a murderous tyrant.
Buck’s time in Syria—arranged through the Washington p.r. firm Brown Lloyd James—was full of creepy details and billowing red flags from start to finish. Her handlers gave her a cellphone to use that was clearly bugged. Her computer was tampered with. She endured a bizarre afternoon at the Assad home, for which the family insisted on making her lunch even though it was fairly clear they had never done it before.
The Assads were obviously looking to burnish their image. A New York Times article this June outlined the concerted p.r. campaign they undertook since 2006, resulting in laughably worshipful and shallow articles. “The Eastern Diana.” “Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty.” Conde Nast Traveller published a 2008 piece promoting Damascus as a vacation destination.
Vogue took the bait as well, titling Buck’s profile, “A Rose in the Desert.” But why did Buck accept the assignment in the first place? In her account, she tried to decline, first saying the Assads wouldn’t want to meet with a Jewish reporter, and then engaging in this conversation with her editor:
“Send a political journalist,” I said. “We don’t want any politics, none at all,” said the editor, “and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You’d leave in a week.”
A week: clearly my name was last on a list of writers that the first lady had rejected because they knew nothing about Mesopotamia. I didn’t consider the possibility that the other writers had rejected the first lady. “Let me think about it,” I said. I had written four cover stories that year, three about young actresses and one about a supermodel who had just become a mother. This assignment was more exciting, and when else would I get to see the ruins of Palmyra?
I clearly don’t think like a fashion magazine writer, because I fail to see how a profile of the Syrian first lady would be any more substantial than a cover story about a supermodel if I couldn’t get into politics at all. And that instruction from an editor—“We don’t want any politics”—would make me very worried.
Buck insists that by the time she returned from Syria, she was worried:
I watched Al Jazeera constantly. I didn’t want to write this piece. But I always finished what I started. I handed in the piece on Jan. 14, the day President Ben Ali fled Tunisia. “The Arab Spring is spreading,” I told Vogue on Jan. 21. “You might want to hold the piece.” They didn’t think the Arab Spring was going anywhere, and the piece was needed for the March “Power Issue.”
There you go. Politics and tyranny be damned. Anna Wintour’s “Power Issue” has to go to press!
Again, call me crazy, but Vogue had an opportunity here to run a killer story and to avoid becoming morally bankrupt. A report from inside Syria, inside the dictator’s home, on the eve of the Arab Spring? What editor wouldn’t run that blockbuster in a heartbeat over a strained puff piece about a pretty dictator’s wife? That view of power isn’t glamorous. But it’s honest.
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