Resetting the Future:
A Conversation with Journalist Stephen Kinzer
“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?”
Jelaluddin Rumi, the last line from Kinzer’s latest book, RESET.
“The influence that economic power exercises over American foreign policy has grown tremendously since the days when ambitious planters in Hawaii realized that by bringing their islands into the United States, they would be able to send their sugar to markets on the mainland without paying import duties. As the twentieth century progressed, titans of industry and their advocates went a step beyond influencing policy makers; they became the policy makers.”
Overthrow, America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
In the late 1970s, while many of my peers were dancing to Donna Summer’sMacArthur Park, I was reading about the careers of Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer. World War II photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White was my heroine. Not that I’d lived through their era, mind you, I just longed to have lived in a foreign country and reported in-depth news to those ‘back home.’
How can we understand the present, I would ask myself, without knowing the previous eyewitness accounts of world events? History through the eyes and ears of these journalist storytellers allowed for reflection and provided a view into the present and future.
In today’s fifteen-second, sound-bite news cycle, it’s refreshing to meet Stephen Kinzer, whose thoughtful and thought-provoking journalism elevates him to the same class as his great predecessors. Like Murrow, Shirer and Bourke-White before him, Kinzer is a storyteller who brings humanity and solutions in his reporting.
Kinzer’s journalism brought him early acclaim with the 1982 publication of his book, co-authored with Stephen Schlesinger, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. He became one of the most trusted journalists in the region and followed his first book with Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua (1991), which analyzed the events leading to the fall of the Samoza government. With Crescent & Star, Turkey, Between Two Worlds (2001) and All the Shah’s Men, An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003) – chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and the Economist – he turned his attention to the Near and Middle East.
In the early 1990s, Kinzer began reporting from Istanbul. Week after week, he would bring illuminating stories of a country that was becoming an important player and bridge between Western and Middle Eastern politics. In 1996, Kinzer became the first New York Times bureau chief based in Istanbul.
Recently, I sat down with Kinzer (who currently teaches international relations at Boston University) in a café in Boston’s Southend to discuss his career, his recent book – RESET, Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future – as well as the future of Turkey and that of journalism.
He opened the conversation by giving tribute to his Dutch mother, “who spoke several languages and taught foreign languages at MIT.” He said, “I grew up in an open-minded atmosphere where conversation flowed easily between my parents and their international friends.”
It comes as no surprise to learn that while in high school Kinzer discovered a gift for writing and along with it developed a passion for history. “I followed the bylines of the New York Times journalists,” he remembers, “and wanted to see my name in those news stories, but I didn’t have any experience.”
In the 1970s, determined to establish himself as a foreign correspondent, Kinzer was given advice by a mentor that would stay with him throughout his career: Go somewhere, settle in, meet people, and start writing their stories.
WRR: How did you get your break into journalism, particularly as a foreign correspondent?
Stephen Kinzer: I’m so grateful for my early interest in writing because I truly don’t have any other skills. I’m not a mechanic, have zero interest in business. I played to the only skill that I had. I got my first break at the age of 25 when Sandy Close, the Executive Director of the Pacific News Service, gave me my first press card. As a freelance journalist, I thought of going overseas, but wanted to stay closer to home so decided to go to Central America. I filed my stories by mail, put stamps on envelopes, and posted from the local post office.
One thing lead to another, and The Boston Globe hired me as their Latin American correspondent. Suddenly, in the 1980s, as the Iran-Contra scandal came to light, my knowledge of Central America became valuable to a number of publications. In 1983, I became The New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua.
WRR: You’ve had a long career reporting from some of world’s most politically sensitive countries. Yet, you manage to see the small stories behind the action. How do you keep this focus?
Kinzer: I have two principals:
First is to tell stories. There is something in the human soul that craves stories. We want to be able to place ourselves inside another culture, its people, tastes, smells. Over the years, I developed a quiet realization that news can become a distraction. When you’re too concentrated on what happens today you can’t focus on the background, on the why.
Second, we fail to focus on tomorrow. What does ‘what just happened’ mean in terms of the future? I became more interested in writing about yesterday and tomorrow than writing about today. When I arrive in a politically unstable country, the first thing I do is to ask myself “How did this country get to be like this?”
WRR: It was interesting to read in your book on Iran, All the Shah’s Men, that CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt led the 1953 coup that displaced Iran’s democratic leader Mossadegh and brought the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was sympathetic to America’s and Britain’s oil interests, to power. What inspired you to write about this?
Kinzer: There’s a strong strand in American life that history doesn’t matter. This is the most arrogant idea imaginable, that it’s possible to triumph over history. Many American’s haven’t learned or remember that Iran’s democracy was halted by the American backed coup, but Iranians remember their history, and this has caused resentment. Ignoring history has had devastating results.
“During the year of 1951, Mossadegh vaulted onto the world stage and came to dominate it. He had become a defining figure whose ideas, for better or worse, were reshaping history. No one was surprised when Time magazine chose him –-not Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, or Winston Churchill–as man its Man of the Year.”
—All the Shah’s Men
WRR: You invite the readers in your book RESET, Iran, Turkey, and American’s Future to question the decisions our leaders make today. I wonder if anyone at the political helm is listening?
Kinzer: In RESET, I’m envisioning a “power triangle” between America, Iran, and Turkey suggesting that peace in the Middle East could be possible as these countries have the means to achieve this. Using negotiations, not punishment, in this volatile climate is a long-term solution, perhaps many generations from now. But it will take real vision and leadership.
WRR: In your 2001 book Crescent & Star, Turkey, Between Two Worlds, you give us a glimpse of your writing as memoir. You reveal that for three years you hosted your own radio station in Istanbul on Saturday night and were known as the Blues Baba, the Blues Father.
Kinzer: I had the advantage to settle myself in Turkey long enough to find the stories behind the front page headlines of earthquakes, Kurdish rebels, and a burgeoning economy. I was there for the big stories, but I loved the city of Istanbul, its quirks and contradictions. The Turks understand the blues and so I had an intimate way to connect with a culture of which I wasn’t a native.
WRR: Would you speak about Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan who, while appealing to the fundamentalist element, has achieved popularity within the secular population?
Kinzer: Erdoğan has a tough-guy persona that is appealing. He has worked to build political bridges with both east and west world leaders and gained the trust of the majority of his people.
He made a good choice in selecting his foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlus. Davutoğlus is a true visionary for Turkey. His first project was to resolve all of Turkey’s disputes with its neighbors. And Turkey has some challenging neighbors like Greece, Iraq, Iran, Armenia. After this success, his next ambition was grander, not only just to zero in on problems with Turkey’s neighbors, but to zero in on problems between neighbors. He sees the world as built of mosaic pieces.
WRR: Why do you consider Turkey to be a future world power?
Kinzer: Under Davutoğlu’s direction, Turkey not only has a policy for negotiations in the Middle East, but has several long term foreign policy plans which include the opening of fourteen new embassies in Africa, and in Latin America. And, among the many new diplomatic posts, one is a Turkish Consulate to Boston, the first in thirty years. The new Boston Turkish consul is a smart, young man named Murat Lutem. I asked him what his role as consul would be and he said that he’d asked the same question, and was told to go into the Boston universities so that the students can learn something about Turkey through him. Since today’s students in Boston’s universities are the future makers of American foreign policy, they would already have an understanding of Turkey. That is the sign of a country that has very good future prospects.
WRR: Your students at Boston University live in a very different world of media and journalism from your days of posting reports by mail. Also, many major media outlets and newspapers have eliminated many foreign correspondents. How do you see the future of journalism?
Kinzer: Today, with a computer and the internet, everyone can be a journalist. There is so much information and the burden is on the reader to determine the source of the news. One of the great challenges for the reader is to separate what’s good and what’s bad. Most people don’t make the effort.
WRR: Then, how do you encourage your students?
Kinzer: I give my students the same advice that I received: go somewhere and park yourself there and start to get to know the place. Then, tell the stories.
In 2006, Kimberly Nagy founded Wild River Review with Joy E. Stocke; and in 2009, they founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC. With more than twenty years in the field of publishing, Nagy specializes in market outreach and digital media strategies as well as crafting timeless articles and interviews. She edits many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
Kimberly Nagy is a poet, professional writer, and dedicated reader who has interviewed a number of leading thinkers, including Academy-Award winning filmmaker, Pamela Tanner Boll, MacArthur Genius Award-winning Edwidge Danticat, historian James McPherson, playwright Emily Mann, biologist and novelist, Sunetra Gupta and philosopher Alain de Botton.
Nagy is an author, editor and professional storyteller. She received her BA in history at Rider University where she was influenced by professors who stressed works of literature alongside dates and historical facts–as well as the importance of including the perspectives of women and minorities in the historical record. During a period in which she fell in love with writing and research, Nagy wrote an award-winning paper about the suppression of free speech during World War I, and which featured early 20th century feminist and civil rights leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Nagy continued her graduate studies at University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she studied with Dr. Karen Kupperman, an expert in early contact between Native Americans and the first European settlers. Nagy wrote her Masters thesis, focusing on the work of the first woman to be accepted into the Connecticut Historical Society as well as literary descriptions of Native Americans in Connecticut during the 19th century. Nagy has extensive background and interest in anthropological, oral history and cultural research.
After graduate school, Nagy applied her academic expertise to a career in publishing, in which she worked for two of the world’s foremost publishers—Princeton University Press and W.W. Norton—as well as at Thomson, Institutional Investor Magazine, Routledge UK, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Kimberly Nagy in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
ARTS – FILM REVIEWS
ARTS – MUSIC
ARTS – PHOTOGRAPHY
The Triple Goddess Trials: Fire in the Head: Brigit’s Mysterious Spark
The Triple Goddess Trials: Introduction
The Triple Goddess Trials – Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
The Triple Goddess Trials: Me and Medusa
The Triple Goddess Trials: Aphrodite and the Lightbulb Factory
The Triple Goddess Trials: Goddess of Milk and Honey
The Triple Goddess Trials: Kali’s Ancient Love Song
ASHLEY – Renee Ashley: A Voice Answering a Voice
BELLI – Giocanda Belli – The Page is My Home
BOLL – Pamela Tanner Boll: Dangerous Women: An Interview with Academy Award Winner Pamela Tanner Boll
DANTICAT – Create Dangerously- A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise Along the Inside Track: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
de BOTTON – The Art of Connection: A Conversation with Alain de Botton
GUPTA – Suneptra Gupta – The Elements of Style: The Novelist and Biologist Discusses Metaphor and Science
HANDAL – Nathalie Handal – Love and Strange Horses
KHWAJA – Waqas Khwaja: What a Difference a Word Makes
MAURO: New World Monkeys: An Interview with Nancy Mauro
MORGANSing, Live, & Love Like You Mean It: An Interview with Bertha Morgan
MOSS – Practical Mystic–Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul
OGLINE – BEN FRANKLIN.COM: Author & Illustrator Tim Ogline explains why Ben Franklin would be a technology evangelist today
OLSEN – Greg Olsen – Reaching for the Stars: Scientist, Entrepreneur and Space Traveler
PALYA – Beata Palya – The Secret World of Songs
SCHIMMEL – Moonlight Science: A Conversation with Molecular Biologist and Entrepreneur, Paul Schimmel
SHORS – Journey into the Male & Female Brain: An Interview with Tracey Shors
von MOLTKE and SIMMS – Dorothy von Moltke and Cliff Simms: Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part I
WARD – On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part One, and
On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part Two
WILKES – Labor of Love: An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library at 100: From the Stacks to the Streets
Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation
That Email Changed My Life: Rolex Arts Initiative. Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Celebrates Rolex Arts Initiative
First Editions / Second Thoughts — Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression
ON AFRICA: May 4 to May 10 — Behind the Scenes with Director Jakab Orsos: Co-curated by Award-Winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Page is My Home: Giaconda Belli – Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
The Power of Conversation: David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
NEW FROM WILD RIVER BOOKS – Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library
Wild River Books Announces the Stoutsburg Cemetery Project: The Untold Stories of an African American Burial Ground in New Jersey
Wild River Books: Surprise Encounters by Scott McVay
Wild River Review and Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast Presents – “BITTER” Writing in a Weekend: How to Write About the Things We Can’t Change
ALLEN – Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life: Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary Where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
HOLT – Rush Holt: An Interview with Rush Holt
MANN – Boundless Theater: An Interview with Emily Mann
Keeping Time: A Conversation with Historian James McPherson