Old newspapers, the saying goes, are for wrapping fish. It’s a cynical comment, true only when those newspapers contained little of enduring value even when new.
Our guest today, Patrick Cockburn’s new book Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East, proves the opposite: that a collection of old clippings, or as Cockburn himself describes it, “a contemporary diary drawing on my notes, diaries and writings produced between 2001 and 2015,” can combine the virtues of daily reporting and persistent study and reflection into a gripping account and penetrating analysis of one of the most significant slices of the history of our times.
Great daily reporting applies a very particular focus on particular events as experienced by a few, very particular witnesses. The immediacy of the reporting process and the intimacy of the characters and scenes described penetrate the consciousness of the reader, listener or viewer like shrapnel, and like shrapnel, embed in their discomforting power.
As great reporters stick with in their coverage they learn which of their stories are merely unforgettable incidents, and which knit together into themes that illuminate less obvious but more important aspects of larger narratives.
The clips from the London newspaper The Independent and the magazine The London Review of Books that make up much of Chaos & Caliphate demonstrate not just Patrick Cockburn’s courage in collecting his stories and his focused artistry in telling them, but the deep knowledge and broad perspective that are the marks of a great reporter who has spent decades immersing himself in his beat.
As his book’s subtitle makes clear, Patrick Cockburn’s beat, for more than 30 years, has been the Middle East, and the large narrative he has covered is the struggle for power and dominance between Islamic fundamentalists, “jihadis,” and “the West,” pre-eminently, the United States.
Let me add one more prefatory note, although I only know Patrick from having read him admiringly for a long time, I did have a great pleasure of being part of a Correspondent-Producer team with his brother Andrew for a couple of years 35 or more years ago at ABC News’ 20/20.