Interview: Jeffrey Gettleman

Marshall Scholar. Oxford Blue in lacrosse. First American Editor of Cherwell. Kidnapped in Iraq. Reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Pulitzer Prize winner for International Reporting in April 2012, for his coverage of East Africa. Jeffrey Gettleman has been places. When I caught up with Gettleman by phone, he was three time zones to the east in Nairobi, and far removed from his journalistic origins amid the dreaming spires.

Expecting to hear graphic stories of rape and death — the unavoidable images which flow so morbidly through his articles — I was relieved when he began with a recollection of journalistic stories from 1994-6, when Cherwell was still produced by creating metal plates of each page and sending them off to a printer.

Gettleman regaled me with narratives of how he “practised” his interviewing skills on such names as Prince Charles, Desmond Tutu and Oliver Stone. In Trinity term 1995 Salman Rushdie, who had been living in hiding since the issuance in 1989 of a fatwa calling for his death because of his depiction of Mohammed, made an unannounced visit to Oxford. Thumbing through the Cherwell archives, I found Gettleman’s article, in which Rushdie declares, “I will not accept the idea of a sacred language which cannot be questioned.”

In May 1996, Gettleman had a massive and exclusive story to cover: OJ Simpson’s first public appearance after his October 1995 acquittal on charges of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Simpson spoke at the Oxford Union, which did not permit non-members, excluding outside reporters from hearing Simpson’s explication of his innocence. The American media “was dying to hear what he had to say.” Gettleman, sensing an opportunity to promote his work and to profit, found himself in “a freelancing dream, where I was in there as a student journalist, and all of these papers wanted the material, so that night I made over a thousand bucks freelancing it to a number of American papers.”

Reporting outside of the Union chamber has proven much less glamorous, and significantly less safe. I paused before asking the ominous question: “Can you tell us about your kidnapping in Iraq?” Gettleman obliged, with the pitch of his voice remaining remarkably even-keeled throughout his description of his kidnapping by Sunni militants in April 2004. Characteristic of his writing, Gettleman employed no hyperbolic adjectives, as his stories don’t require any.

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“Everything is fine until it isn’t. We were driving to go cover a bombing, and we were in a rural area outside of Baghdad, took a turn down a road that we thought was safe, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by 50 armed guys that blocked our car, and had rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

“They dragged us out of our car. This one guy took the safety off his gun and held it up, and I was standing there looking at him and really thought at that point ‘he’s going to shoot me and I’m gonna die’,” Gettleman said. “They hated Americans, I had an American passport in my pocket, and I thought this guy was gonna kill me. I was just kind of calm, and I was totally hopeless that I could talk my way out of it, or anybody was going to rescue us, or anything else. I just thought, ‘This is it. I hope it doesn’t hurt.’”

“And then after that happened, some other guy said, ‘oh no, don’t shoot him,’ and they took us to a house and they interrogated us, and I took [the] passport that I had in my pocket, gave it to the woman who I was with, and she put it down her pants, thinking they wouldn’t search her, and they didn’t, and they interrogated us for hours and I was telling them that I was Greek, and I told them ‘I’m Greek, I’m Greek, I’m Greek, I’m a journalist,’ which was true—and I didn’t like to lie. At the end, I got really exhausted, being interrogated at gun point for hours and hours; just as I was kind of losing it and the sun was setting — we got kidnapped early in the morning and it was late in the day —some elder came in and then he decided that it was okay for us to go back and they let us go.”

This brush with death did not deter Gettleman from pursuing further risky assignments, nor did it induce him to return to reporting in the safer cities of the US (earlier in his career he had worked for various newspapers in Wisconsin, Florida, Atlanta and New Jersey.) Gettleman moved to the Times’ Nairobi bureau in July 2006, where he has been since, winning his Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Sudan and Somalia.

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What keeps Gettleman away from a cushier assignment in Washington? His almost religious belief in his work: “It’s really important to find something that means a lot to me personally and I feel that if I didn’t do it, these stories might not get told. And maybe that’s an illusion, but I think it’s important to try to look for stories that are original and which nobody’s doing, and that’s where you as an individual can really have an impact. And there’s a lot of that in Africa.”

Beyond the content of his writing, Gettleman has also been praised for his sparing writing style. “I try to write as visually, and as viscerally and emotionally as I can,” Gettleman explains, adding, “A lot of what I do in this job is combining a human interest element that gives you some sense of the emotions and the people and the humanity.”

Unsurprisingly, Gettleman cites as influences VS Naipaul, South African writer JM Coetzee, Faulkner, Hemingway, and the journalist Dan Eldon. His favourite novel is Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.

Despite his successes around the world, Gettleman initially struggled at Oxford. He described feeling “a bit of an outsider” as an American. Professionally, Gettleman was ambivalent: “When I arrived at Oxford I didn’t really have a career plan,” he admits, though he did have a passion for photojournalism.

Writing and editing Cherwell was the catalyst that pushed Gettleman’s oscillating life in the direction of a career in foreign journalism: “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and it wasn’t until that second year at Oxford that I got this idea – ‘I want to be a journalist, and I want to be a journalist in Africa’ – and then I began this long, long road from Cherwell.”