FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The NYT Reporter Who Quit in Disgust

by MAT WARD

Most mainstream media journalists would kill to get one of their stories on the front page of The New York Times. But when that happened to the newspaper’s Balkans correspondent 2003, he was less than thrilled.

Daniel Simpson had already resigned in disgust at the paper’s support for starting wars, and was serving out his notice. He had reached what he calls “a mirrored ceiling” in his career.

The phrase — in Simpson’s gonzo memoir, A Rough Guide To The Dark Side — conjours up an image of the journalist taking a long, hard look at himself before breaking through the mirror. But the story is, like most stories in Simpson’s life, a little more complicated than it first appears.

“I was alluding to the warped world beyond, through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass, while also trying to capture how I felt,” he said.

“It only seemed possible to rise higher at the Times if I bought their illusions, and having seen through them, this would have been consciously corrupt.

“Until that point, I’d been unconscious of cooption as a journalist — like most of my peers. But as my eyes lost their scales, I saw my own flaws more clearly, and freaked out.

“It wasn’t a question of breaking through, more of running as fast as I could in the opposite direction, which of course led in time to me realising I’d been wrong: there’s no escape from being oneself, unlike the addict in me fantasised.

“And that was when the long, hard look at who I was began in earnest, resulting in the book.”

That book charts the English-born Simpson’s journey from private schoolboy and Cambridge graduate, to festival organiser and drug smuggler, with a promising start as a corporate journalist thrown by the wayside. It ends with Simpson’s drug addiction spiralling into another dimension.

“The previous draft of the final chapter was five times as long, and it was largely cut and pasted from my notebooks,” he says.

“I was trying to reflect what happened as I experienced it, which meant trying to make psychosis come to life. So I sat down and wrote, and wrote, until all my pens ran out of ink.

“At the time, I was sure this work would be a masterpiece. Upon rereading, after seeing a shrink, it clearly wasn’t.”

Even so, the ideas that inspired him shaped the book.

“The structure is a rip-off of Dante’s Inferno, descending deeper into hell, and a series of Faustian pacts defined the plot,” he says.

Unlike most mainstream media journalists, Simpson is deeply introspective, constantly questioning the way he sees the world and himself. His complex character, coupled with the complicated characteristics of the Balkans, did not make for ideal NTY copy.

“Covering the Balkans for The New York Times consisted of monitoring whether The Serbs had agreed they were Bad Guys,” he writes. “Trying to explain why they hadn’t, or how ‘we’ made the opposite more likely, was tantamount to ‘understanding’ suicide bombers.

“And in the fog of War On Terror, this wasn’t on, especially not at a paper boasting ‘All The News That’s Fit To Print.’”

Simpson’s book certainly won’t rebuild any of the bridges he has burnt with the corporate media — and when asked about the industry, he is scathing.

“There’s something about the general smugness in most newsrooms that’s insufferable,” he tells GLW. “All that puffed up self-contented self-importance, as if ‘telling the story’ didn’t require you to ask whose agenda you might further in the process, and whether you might have one yourself.

“When I tried to discuss that sort of thing, people said I was biased, or cynical, or worse. I found that quite exasperating.”

Simpson’s natural allies would seem to be media critics, but his consistently critical nature doesn’t always make him an easy bedfellow. In 2004, he approached the editors of the British watchdog website Media Lens to suggest they collaborate on something more constructive than critique: original reporting.

“We should be sceptical of binary analysis, like corporate bad, independent good, especially when the former does most of the reporting that the latter reinterprets,” he says.

But Simpson’s discussions with Media Lens petered out. They took issue with his questioning of everything, and questioned his intentions, which he thinks were unrealistic.

“As with my experience with the Times, it says as much about my own shortcomings as theirs,” he says. “I got lost in trying to find the perfect answer, whereas they were getting on with something flawed.”

He also once got into an 8500-word argument with the intellectual master of media criticism, Noam Chomsky, over Chomsky’s support for a writer who denied some Balkan war crimes. But Simpson now questions the “merits of fixating on fractions of anyone’s work, however important it is to be accurate”.

Sometimes he can even seem conflicted, possibly rueful, about leaving the NYT in the first place, if only to help his other work get published.

He now pays the bills with a low-profile job in investment research, while dabbling in activism. He once produced a fake Financial Times, but admits to “a long-standing pattern of short-term commitment to anything”, until he saved up for a six-month break to write his book.

“It was much the same with brief flirtations with independent media,” he says. “Firstly, there wasn’t much in Britain at that time, apart from the likes of Socialist Worker, which seemed as dogmatic as the mainstream media world I’d left.

“More importantly, most alternatives weren’t very interested in reporting — or at least understanding what it meant. They’d conflated it with commentary, which is fine, if you acknowledge that’s the goal.”

Some may see Simpson as simply exhausting, but he has a saving grace. A Rough Guide To The Dark Side is packed with the kind of uncontrived humour that will leave readers laughing out loud while wondering, “Hang on, how did he do that?”

Mat Ward writes for the Australian weekly, Green Left Weekly, where this interview originally appeared.

More articles by:
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee’s Journey from Izmir to Greece
John Laforge
Wild Turkey with H-Bombs: Failed Coup Raise Calls for Denuclearization
Dave Lindorff
Moving Beyond the Sanders Campaign
Jill Richardson
There’s No Such Thing as a “Free Market”
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Moves Against the Gulen Movement in Turkey
Winslow Myers
Beyond Drift
Edward Martin - Mateo Pimentel
Who Are The Real Pariahs This Election?
Jan Oberg
The Clintons Celebrated, But Likely a Disaster for the Rest of the World
Johnny Gaunt
Brexit: the British Working Class has Just Yawned Awake
Mark Weisbrot
Attacking Trump for the Few Sensible Things He Says is Both Bad Politics and Bad Strategy
Thomas Knapp
Election 2016: Think Three’s a Crowd? Try 2,000
Corrine Fletcher
White Silence is Violence: How to be a White Accomplice
July 27, 2016
Richard Moser
The Party’s Over
M. G. Piety
Smoke and Mirrors in Philadelphia
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Humiliation Games: Notes on the Democratic Convention
Arun Gupta
Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution Splinters Apart
John Eskow
The Loneliness of the American Leftist
Guillermo R. Gil
A Metaphoric Short Circuit: On Michelle Obama’s Speech at the DNC
Norman Pollack
Sanders, Our Tony Blair: A Defamation of Socialism
Claire Rater, Carol Spiegel and Jim Goodman
Consumers Can Stop the Overuse of Antibiotics on Factory Farms
Guy D. Nave
Make America Great Again?
Sam Husseini
Why Sarah Silverman is a Comedienne
Dave Lindorff
No Crooked Sociopaths in the White House
Dan Bacher
The Hired Gun: Jerry Brown Snags Bruce Babbitt as New Point Man For Delta Tunnels
Peter Lee
Trumputin! And the DNC Leak(s)
David Macaray
Interns Are Exploited and Discriminated Against
Brett Warnke
Storm Clouds Over Philly
Ann Garrison
Rwanda, the Clinton Dynasty, and the Case of Dr. Léopold Munyakazi
Chris Zinda
Snakes of Deseret
July 26, 2016
Andrew Levine
Pillory Hillary Now
Kshama Sawant
A Call to Action: Walk Out from the Democratic National Convention!
Russell Mokhiber
The Rabble Rise Together Against Bernie, Barney, Elizabeth and Hillary
Jeffrey St. Clair
Don’t Cry For Me, DNC: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Angie Beeman
Why Doesn’t Middle America Trust Hillary? She Thinks She’s Better Than Us and We Know It
Paul Street
An Update on the Hate…
Fran Shor
Beyond Trump vs Clinton
Ellen Brown
Japan’s “Helicopter Money” Play: Road to Hyperinflation or Cure for Debt Deflation?
Richard W. Behan
The Banana Republic of America: Democracy Be Damned
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail