Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Margaret Wente and Amanda Lindhout: when aging journalists eat their young

Here’s how Margaret Wente begins an article about Amanda Lindhout, whose book about being kidnapped and gang-raped in Somalia for 460 days was recently released:

At 24, Amanda Lindhout decided to quit her job as a cocktail waitress in Calgary and become a foreign correspondent. She had no journalism experience, no contacts and no background in history or geopolitics – she was a high-school graduate – but she didn’t let that hold her back. She bought plane tickets to Kabul and Baghdad, but almost nobody was interested in her work. She decided that to make her name, she needed a breakthrough – something really big, like the hurricane in Galveston that had made Dan Rather famous.

Here’s how other reports like the New York Times, describe her background:  Born in 1981,

“Lindhout began her… travels at age 20, heading first to Venezuela. She financed her peripatetic lifestyle by saving the tips she made as a high-end cocktail waitress, taking off for months at a time, roving on a shoestring budget through Central and South America, Asia, and Africa”.

USA Today writes that Lindhout was a “seasoned backpack traveler” who “visited dozens of countries in seven years, from Burma to South America to Ethiopia… returning to her home in Canada to wait tables only when she ran out of money”.  “After six months in Kabul and another seven in Baghdad, Lindhout, at age 27 in 2008”, ventured to Mogadishu.
“She backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India, then to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan… she continued to push the envelope, moving more and more off the beaten path…Although she had no formal schooling in journalism, Lindhout began writing columns for her hometown paper, and did freelance work in Afghanistan and Iraq. After almost seven months in Baghdad working as a television journalist for Press TV”, Lindhout set out for Somalia.
So Ms. Lindhout travelled for many years, then began to write about her experiences, taking the initiative to try and sell stories and photos, occasionally returning to wait tables to help finance her journalism ambitions.  But Ms. Wente isn’t prepared to give her credit for that, or indeed even for her own memoir, which as every review notes, was “co-written” by Lindhout (first author) and New York Times Magazine’s Sarah Corbett. “It was actually written by Sara Corbett,” Wente says. 
Nor is there any mention by Wente of what The New York Times and others describe as Lindhout’s unfathomable grace and wisdom”, or her substantial charitable work on behalf of Somali women and children since her release.  (What is this article, really? Not a book review, not a discussion of larger issues, just sniping at Lindhout’s character, her looks, and what seems like jealousy of the attention she’s received).
While Wente’s lack of generosity is remarkable in its specificity, it’s pretty much in keeping with the way she usually describes young people (particularly young women) - as lazy, stupid, naïve narcissists.  While she slips in a swipe at Lindhout’s high school diploma, those who have the nerve to think they’re university material usually come in for even more disdain. 

I’m not suggesting Lindhout’s decisions didn’t have some bearing on her capture, or that her rescue may not have been dangerous or costly. But Wente hasn’t similarly attacked the thrill-seeking skiers and snowmobilers who go out of bounds, cause avalanches and provoke expensive searches in the Rockies every winter.

Apparently, unlike Ms. Wente, Lindhout comes from a hard scrabble background, and job prospects for young people these days are bleak.  For example, there’s a tragic story today about the effects of unpaid internships on a young man desperate to work in journalism.  
So given Ms. Wente’s criticism of Lindhout, it’s worth remembering both her significant plagiarism problems last year, and what she did in one of those other easy, repeated columns about stupid, naive young people. Wente’s fake Occupy protester is pretty ironic.  An eager young, would-be journalist – willing to travel - might have gone down the street to try and snag an interview.
It’s just possible that, unlike some of her betters, Amanda Lindhout was at least trying to work for a living.  For that, and for what she’s done since, she deserves a fairer hearing, and a better journalistic role model.


  1. I don't think Wente is allowed to copy from the NYT anymore, so.....

  2. I cannot stand reading Wente, I try to get through her articles but end up quitting in disgust. Kudos to you for being able to finish it and critique so eloquently. She is definitely bitter, and not all that bright!

  3. Thestraight.com also has a good article, and it specifically cites Wente's awful write-up as an example of media hypocrisy on the Lindout story.

  4. @The Nerd: Yes, saw and tweeted that piece.

  5. Your work on plagiarism is impressive but i am closer to Wente's opinion on this one. I suppose people are free to take extreme-to-the-point-of-suicidal risks, like the subject of Grizzly Man, but then society often has to step in to pay the bill. Imagine the cost of setting up this RCMP operation in Alberta, all the person-hours involved by Canadian govt staff, the risk to her rescuers and therefore to her rescuers' spouses and children. So this does strike me as narcissistic and i don't really see why we should indulge people who do this. Oh, and it appears the NYT mag writer's name is spelled Sara, not Sarah as you spelled it: https://twitter.com/yocorbett

  6. Margaret Wente is clearly unable to give credit to someone who just might perhaps have the initiative and courage to do what she wished she had done! Amanda made a mistake but to downplay her trauma and abuse is very unprofessional and immature...you sound like a spoiled child on a playground, mad because someone made it to the top of the slide before you...shame on you Ms. Wente!