reviews the memoir of a New York Times Balkans correspondent who quit in disgust as the paper demanded war--and was soon caught up in the region's politics.
MOST JOURNALISTS working in the mainstream media 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 own Balkans correspondent in 2003, he was less than thrilled.
Daniel Simpson had already resigned in disgust at the Times' cheerleading for war, and he was merely serving out the time until his resignation became official. He had reached what he calls "a mirrored ceiling" in his career. The phrase--in Simpson's recently published gonzo memoir A Rough Guide To The Dark Side--conjures 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 in an interview. "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 realizing I'd been wrong: there's no escape from being oneself, as the addict in me fantasized. And that was when the long, hard look at who I was began in earnest, resulting in the book.
Simpson's book charts his journey from private schoolboy and Oxbridge graduate to music festival organizer and drug smuggler, with his promising start as a corporate journalist thrown by the wayside. It ends with Simpson's drug addiction spiraling 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," says Simpson. "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--and 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 define the plot," he explains.
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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 New York Times copy.
"Covering the Balkans for the New York Times consisted of monitoring whether The Serbs had agreed they were Bad Guys," reads one passage in the book. "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 burned 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 explains. "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 skeptical of binary analysis, like corporate bad, independent good, especially when the former does most of the reporting that the latter reinterprets," he explains.
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 8,500-word argument  with world-renowned media critic 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 Times 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, which seemed as dogmatic as the mainstream media world I'd left," he says. "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 humor that will leave readers laughing out loud, while wondering, "Hang on, how did he do that?"
The author is planning a speaking tour of the U.S. to launch his book. Maybe comedy will prove his true calling.
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