Noah Arjomand on his book, Fixing Stories

Fixing Stories

Interview by Susan Seizer

Susan Seizer: Please briefly explain your choice of the term “fixers” and describe the work they do. One of the chapters in your book is titled, “Are Fixers Journalists?” Please explain the need for such a chapter; what are the issues at play here?

Noah Arjomand: Conventions vary from place to place and among print, television, and radio journalism, but in most dialects of journo lingo, a “fixer” is a guide and interpreter whom a foreign reporter hires to broker their relations with local news sources. Fixers find people, arrange and translate interviews, explain political and cultural contexts, and manage logistics and safety for their clients.

Labeling someone a “fixer” not only describes their role in journalism’s division of labor, however, but also symbolically places them in a particular position in journalism’s hierarchy, implying that they are at a level of professionalism higher that “translators” or “drivers” but lower than “producers.” Editors, reporters, and producers hem and haw over whether fixers are really journalists, and accordingly over how much they deserve a say over the selection and framing of news or public credit for the stories they help produce.

Some people interested in decolonizing journalism dislike the term “fixer.” To these critics, the label is a tool of boundary-work that denigrates local knowledge as biased and local news contributors as dispensable non-persons in order to naturalize the supremacy of supposedly more objective and professional (usually Euro-American) outsiders.

I thought it was important to use the term “fixer” in my book precisely because it serves as an emic signifier of contested inequality. Rather than taking a side in the label’s controversy by embracing more politically correct neologisms like “local partner” or “freelance producer” that symbolically reject (or perhaps obfuscate) relations of inequality, I sought to use the “fixer” label as a key to open up international journalism’s internal conflicts to readers.

What are the conditions under which news contributors embrace or reject the label “fixer” for themselves or their colleagues? What do people do to convince their colleagues that they should or should not be labeled as such?

Susan Seizer: I like the ongoing focus on insiderness and outsiderness, and how these positionalities shift. Such contextual shifts are what sociologists call “fields.” Your composite female characters Elif and Nur each enter the fixer position for opposite reasons and from opposite backgrounds. How do they each use insiderness and outsiderness strategically in interaction with reporters?

Noah Arjomand: The characters Elif and Nur came from very different backgrounds. Elif was a member of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan elite, had lived abroad, and became a fixer by way of socializing with foreign journalists. When the Gezi Park protest movement broke out in 2013, Elif helped a friend of a friend with his reporting and found that fixing gave her license to connect with all different kinds of people, to escape her White Turk bubble.

Nur was the upwardly mobile daughter of a Kurdish family in the eastern city of Diyarbakir; she was working as a translator for minority rights organizations when her first client recruited her to help report on the Kurdish Movement in which she herself was an activist. Nur enjoyed fixing in large part because it afforded her the opportunity to get to know exotic international journalists and become more worldly.

Elif was a relative outsider to her sources and insider to her clients; Nur was the opposite. The two accordingly brought different cultural toolkits to their interactions with reporters and sources. Elif’s colloquial English and understanding of American and Western European perspectives allowed her to gain her clients’ trust and help them make sense of local happenings. Nur’s fluent Kurmanji and Kurdish Movement connections helped her to secure access and set sources at ease.

Yet for all their differences, both characters used fixing to chase adventure and escape conformity to the social milieux into which they were born. For Elif, adventure was meeting sources from outside of her corner of respectable society; for Nur, it was getting to know foreigners.

Sociologists who conceptualize the social world as overlapping but semi-autonomous fields with their own values and hierarchies tend to assume that participants in any field are primarily motivated to enhance their status within it. Those field theorists do a wonderful job of explaining how inequalities in cultural and social capital allow some to better conform to a field’s standards. But what I found among fixers was a non-conformist pursuit of adventure that pulled them in the opposite direction. Neither Elif not Nur had much interest in achieving high status within familiar local fields of social life (that is, to become a belle of Istanbul high society or a leader of the Kurdish Movement, respectively); instead, each took advantage of their strategic position at the intersection of local and international fields to strike out into the unknown.

Susan Seizer: Your book is organized in a creatively accessible way. You use short sections throughout the book that follow the characters you introduce, one of whom is yourself. As a reader I found it easier to enter into the historical realities you document when tied to personal lives. What influenced your choice of this format?

Noah Arjomand: I wanted to write a book that was not just for insiders to my own field. I aimed for a style that would spark and hold the interest of anyone with an interest in journalism or the region, one that would offer continued discoveries and surprises from start to finish instead of putting all my cards on the table in introductory exposition. In centering the career narratives of fixers, I sought to give readers fleshed-out characters to love and hate and follow along their journeys. Short narrative chapters are interspersed with passages of social theory that serve to provide readers the tools to understand characters’ motivations, strategies, and fates. My hope is that the book’s narrative approach also makes it easier, as you say, for the reader to enter into the historical reality, to understand how large-scale events and changes like the collapse of the Kurdish-Turkish peace movement or the rise of ISIS in Syria shaped people’s lives and conditioned who was making the news and how.

Creating composite characters allowed me to keep names and backstories down to a memorable number while including the most illuminating vignettes and high-stakes adventures. Composites also provided the benefit of better protecting the anonymity of my interlocutors, whom I describe doing and saying things that could get them in trouble with their colleagues or with violent state or non-state organizations.

I found, not entirely expectedly, that the process of creating composite character narratives offered not just literary benefits to the reader but also analytical benefits to me. To determine which real-life fixers and reporters to combine, I developed a method for systematically thinking through similarities and differences in the sequences of their careers, which I describe in a methodological appendix. Some key insights—including about the aforementioned boundary-work with which journalists differentiate “fixers” from “producers”—came to me not during my fieldwork, but in the laborious process of creating and interrogating composite narratives.

I subjected myself to the same analysis: the “Noah” who appears on the pages of Fixing Stories is a composite, not indexical to me the author. Explicitly comparing myself to my research participants helped me to make sense of and reflect critically on the limits of my access as a researcher, my experience as a participant-observer working as both a reporter and fixer, and ultimately my own motivations and adventure-seeking.

Susan Seizer: As a cultural anthropologist I find it useful to hear your frank discussion of the key role of fixers as locals who provide entrée. Anthros used to call such people their primary informants or key informants, while they more recently use the terms collaborators or interlocutors. Whatever term we use, such people made my being an anthropologist possible, and I feel I owe them everything. We maintain ongoing relationships as ethnographic family. Do you anticipate maintaining relationships with any of those you worked with in the field beyond this project?

Noah Arjomand: You’ve hit the nail on the head in comparing fixers to “key informants,” “collaborators,” or I might add “indigenous research assistants.” All fields of knowledge production across cultural differences rely on analogous processes of mediation, on brokers who can help outsiders gain access to and make sense of local realities.

Anthropologists and journalists have a shared history of erasing these contributors from their accounts. Their mediation complicated claims of objectivity and unfettered access, and authors’ need for their services belied the myth of the intrepid (White) adventurer going native. First in anthropology and more recently in journalism, though, there has been a shift from erasure toward acknowledgement of these local brokers as an ethical imperative and toward considering them as partners in knowledge production. Many reporters now think about their relationships with fixers as something like mutual apprenticeships rather than as series of extractive transactions. Some prominent international correspondents started their careers as fixers.

Complicating this move toward acknowledgement and methodological transparency is the fact that some of these mediators want to remain in the safety of the shadows, to maintain a kind of strategic ambiguity about whose side they are on. Recognized affiliation with an ethnographer or reporter can be a source of both power and harm for a local broker. A fixer might not want their name on a report critical of the Turkish president or a Syrian militia.

As for my relationships with research participants, I certainly feel a debt of gratitude toward people who gave me their time and opened up to me about their triumphs and shames and fears and aspirations, especially because as media producers they were doubtless aware of the potential for me to represent them in an unflattering light or even put them in danger. As compared to ethnographers who study subaltern groups from positions of relative privilege, though, I have been much less able to reciprocally express my gratitude through material aid or service. I offered one Syrian refugee-turned-fixer help applying to graduate school and have done sundry minor favors from childcare to covering beer tabs for other journalists. But by and large, I continue to need them more than they need me, to take more than I can give. Several read my book and gave helpful feedback; one even copy-edited my writing in close detail, saying she couldn’t help herself. Just the other day I wrote to a couple research participants asking for recommendations of journalists in London who might serve as discussants for a talk I have coming up there. One or two of them might even write a review of the book, if I’m lucky. Most of my interlocutors also lead such busy professional lives that I don’t share the experience of many ethnographers of feeling guiltily compelled to continually respond to calls and messages from bored and needy “fieldwork kin” aggrieved that they don’t keep in touch. My collaborators have moved on to their next story.

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