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Mayer Addresses Reporting Aspects Of ‘New Yorker’

For The Heights

Published: Monday, December 3, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

It is a common misconception, according to journalist Jane Mayer, that writing for The New Yorker involves chatting at endless cocktail parties, attending fashion shows with Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, and essentially joining the Algonquin Round Table, the social circle of cultural taste-makers prominent in early 20th-century New York.

For Mayer, who spoke at Boston College Wednesday night as part of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series, The New Yorker provides something more essential to her writing than those opportunities: a “haven for rigorous reporting.”
Since joining the magazine in 1995 as a staff writer after working for The Wall Street Journal for 12 years, Mayer has established herself as a leading political and investigative reporter in Washington. In her line of work, she consistently faces decisions with potential ethical and legal ramifications, many having to do with the special interest she has taken in examining the war on terror.

Exposing government shortcomings and critically thinking about this country’s founding ideals in relation to how the government works today, specifically when dealing with terrorism, have become central aspects of Mayer’s career. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mayer took terrorism seriously, she said. As a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, she had been in Beirut, Lebanon when American military barracks were bombed in 1983, seeing firsthand the horrors of terrorism.

Following Sept. 11, she began to look at terrorism differently, which led her to choose the focus of her journalistic career. This time with the attacks occurring on American soil, a sense of religiosity entered the equation for Mayer as she was struck by the “sense of horror and devastation” in Washington.

An Episcopal priest, oddly enough, according to Mayer, was among the first to suggest how to win the war on terror. “The coming challenge involves not losing our own souls as we try to vanquish a new enemy.”
After hearing this proposition, Mayer decided that the terrorism story she wanted to tell was “not so much about them, but about us.

“Can we as a country rise to the challenge of taking on evil without losing ourselves?” she asked. “Would we have to compromise our own ideals?”

Within this crisis of conscience, Mayer has explored issues involving state-sanctioned torture during the Bush administration and how apparent human rights violations are now coming as a result of deliberate, legally justified policy. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the United States has implemented among the most sophisticated torture programs the world has ever seen as a result of what Mayer calls “Twin Tower trauma.”
In her best-selling 2008 book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, she examined the implications of the Bush administration’s War on Terror and specific issues associated with it.

Among these topics is the CIA’s program of renditioning terror suspects to foreign countries for holding and questioning, Mayer described specific examples of innocent detainees being tortured overseas for extended periods of time without justification. She felt the obligation to reveal the detainees’ stories, as none of them have been compensated or received their day in court. On this issue, Mayer emphasized the importance of accountability for questionable acts.

“Accountability is fundamental to democracy, but without transparency it’s almost impossible for people to know who is accountable for what,” she said. “It’s really important to have specific names and specific people in the accountability process. We are not the kind of country to have nameless people who are behind masks executing people. We are about accountability.”
Furthering her search for accountability, Mayer has on several occasions defied the CIA and published names of officers despite the potential dangers of doing so, which she called “incredibly difficult legal and ethical decisions.” She noted, however, that she is proud of The New Yorker for covering issues such as if the CIA can legally kill unarmed prisoners, especially in the 2008 presidential election.

Mayer also discussed the differences between the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations with regard to terrorism, looking to counter critics who say the two presidents have acted in essentially the same manner.

Obama, Mayer said, has closed secret prisons, recommitted the United States to the Geneva Convention, and worked to make counter-terrorism actions more directed and specific, narrowly defining the enemy as those who support al-Qaeda against the U.S. and developing explicit written rules for drone strikes against terrorists.

The president has continued to treat terrorism as an act of war, like Bush, but has done so under a different legal rationale than his predecessor. Bush exercised more far-reaching executive privilege, while Obama has consciously tried to base his decisions on the limited power outlined by a key post-Sept. 11 resolution, the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

Since Sept. 11, Mayer said it is hard to write in Washington, a place changed by an increasingly powerful national security establishment that involves more lawyers pushing for pro-CIA decisions and fewer pushing for civil liberties. Obama, she said, has been conflicted as he fights political opponents at home in order to successfully fight terrorists abroad. The government, heavily influenced by intelligence apparatuses and drone programs, is shaped differently now, and faces tough decisions so that something bad does not happen on its watch in this uncertain world of terrorism.

“I fear the war on terror will never end,” she said. “No one has been able to define what victory looks like.”

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