Former TIME Magazine Correspondent Barry Hillenbrand: I Was Knocked Out by Bulgaria

Interview |Author: Ivan Dikov | May 19, 2009, Tuesday // 08:05|  views

Former Time Magazine Correspondent Barry Hillenbrand (middle) lecturing in the American Corner of the Sofia City Library. Photo by

Interview with former Time Magazine correspondent, Barry Hillenbrand, who was in Bulgaria to lecture on media ethics and elections reporting.

More information about Barry Hillenbrand is available HERE.


Is this your first time in Bulgaria?

No, it's my second time. I was here three years ago to attend a media conference. Now I'm back again, and it's very interesting. You've joined the EU, there's Р° kind of enthusiasm and brightness about the place that I've noticed.

Have you really noticed something like that?

Yes, I notice that. It's all anecdotal, it's all just what I see from walking around, looking for a place to have dinner, it's not scientific but I do have a feeling that there's kind-of an enthusiasm, a little sort-of prosperity going on, and talking to people there's a kind of brightness and self-confidence reminds me a little bit of Ireland when I covered Ireland in the 1990s when suddenly, after it became a member of the EU, it was no longer Britain's little brother. It realized it was a small country, and yet at the same time Ireland maintained its specialty, became more proud of Celtic music, and all sorts of stuff.

So it wasn't what the Brits said. I mean, the English would always say, "Oh, if you became a member of the EU, they would take away all of our identity!" No, it was the opposite in Ireland. In Ireland, you suddenly became more Irish because you were a member of the EU, and I don't want to overdo it, because I am not an expert, and I just spent three days here.

But this same kind of enthusiasm seems to be going on in Bulgaria, and that's pretty attractive. A medium sized country like Bulgaria has the hard time getting noticed but now that you are in the club, you got the vote, along with Germany, Italy, Britain, and so on, and that gives you a sense of entitlement. I think it does. Now, a full member of the EU, that counts for something.

You mentioned that Bulgaria is more noticeable now but what was your image of Bulgaria before coming here? What sort of image about it do you get from the international media?

Well, three years ago when I came here, they said, "Come to Bulgaria", and I said, well, sure, I'd go anywhere, I've been to lots of places, and I love going to new places. Bulgaria's image was guys in big gray suits that don't fit very well. Like the Deputy Minister of Energy - nicest guy but not the sharpest guy on the block.

But I came here, and I was knocked out. I really was. I thought the food was nice, that people were sophisticated, and dressed well. The women dress better than the men. The men are okay but the women dress really well. There's some countries like that. In Britain, for example, the men dress better than the women, and anyway... You food was good, you have good restaurants, nice families, people were jolly. Yesterday we were driving up to Stara Zagora, that's a wonderful little city. This is a lovely medium-sized country, and I was knocked out by it. And when they asked me to come back, I said, "Wow, great, yes, I'll be on the next plane".

What about Bulgaria's image associated with corruption and organized crime that constantly comes up in international press?

I think there's been some talk about that. I did get an email from somebody joking about that at one point. But I don't think that's overwhelming. Hey, I grew up in Chicago, and when I used to go anywhere in the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the 1970s, they said, "Chicago - Al Capone!" Maybe there is a little bit of this but you are not Nigeria, and I don't think that's a big thing, I think people are recognizing the other side of it as well.

You lectured about media ethics and elections reporting. Right now there is a lot of this practice going on in Bulgaria where political parties practically buy their publicity in a certain media, or by certain journalists - and I am not talking about legal advertising here. What do you tell those journalists about media ethics?

I think all serious journalists agree that brown-envelope journalism - the kind that you described - this is a clear breach of the kind of ethics that we as professionals have, it harms democracy, it ruins journalism, and it doesn't help the political process. I think that's easy to agree upon. More difficult is trying to maintain standards of objectivity in the news columns, to run the news columns accurately, to go after stories that are important, to give fair and balanced treatment to all the candidates.

Of course, you can talk about it, you can urge it, you can point out what should be done, and maybe make small steps. Let's be clear about this. Political journalism is common everywhere. If you are in France, and you are on the subway, and the guy is reading Le Monde, you say, a he's on the left, if he's reading Figaro, he's on the right, you know. We have newspapers in America called the Springfield Democrat, or the Tallahassee Republican. Newspapers were political, there's nothing wrong with political newspapers on the commentary page.

There's nothing wrong, which I know you are worrying about, with rich families, or industrialists owning these papers. It's a business. Why do big, rich guys own sports teams? There's something that they like about it. And that's ok. You just have to work and slowly, slowly make sure that people trust our news reports, and even if they read the newspaper because they agree with the commentary on the opinion page - because we all read that, most of the time we don't read stuff we don't agree with - that's ok, as long as the news reports reach a certain standard.

How is the international media environment changing with the new technologies? Are the changes positive or negative?

Oh, I think that's an enormous change, and an enormous crisis. I think that there's two parts of it. There's probably more than two but let me talk about these two parts. The one part of it is, that's encouraging is: you can go online now, and read the Macedonian papers, or the papers from the United States. People in Bulgaria before couldn't have their voices heard because some paper wouldn't run their story. Now, people can put up a website and start doing some things. No longer do five or six newspapers or TV stations have a strangled hold on opinion.

Now, some of the opinion that sprouts up is junk. Or some of the reporting is junk. Ok, fine. But if it's good, somebody has some interesting idea, it's fine. The media is going to change, we aren't going to go back to those old days, and we shouldn't go back. It's great that I can sit in my room in Bulgaria and check out the Washington Post, and find out how the Capitals did in last night's hockey game. They lost. And it was very heartbreaking for me. But this is very good. Let's not think of going back.

When I came here, I didn't do what I've always done my whole life as a foreign correspondent - I didn't look around for the Herald Tribune. Who needs the Herald Tribune any more? I did check it out when I had a cup of coffee, it's a paper but so what? I don't need the Herald Tribune. Same with the Time Magazine, at one point it was a very important publication worldwide, because it was the only our source. And I think we were good, and that was fine. Today Time Magazine - it's just one of the other things, and that's ok. So these changes are alright.

The danger is that newspapers in America are dying, newspapers in Europe I think are having similar problems because the business model, and the advertising model, and the circulation model have disappeared. We, you and I, go online, and learn our news for free. If you go online, and suddenly they want you to register, and pay money, what do you do? You go somewhere else.

This model has to change. We need to figure out a way to support professional journalists. Who is going to pay guys like you? I got a pension so I'm ok. But you guys have to figure out a way to support this professional journalism, and that's the real crisis.

How would you evaluate the performance of the Obama Administration after more than 100 days already?

You probably heard this joke the other night when Obama spoke to journalists, his joke was, "I'm gonna do my next 100 days in 72 days, and on the 73rd day I'm resting." I think it's been a very interesting first one hundred days. It's not what we expected because he's been dealing with this financial crisis, and he was also asked the other day, "How are you, the government, going to run the auto industries?" and he said, "Look, I don't want to run the auto industries, I got enough problems with the wars, and this and that, I want to get the auto industries back on their feet, I don't want to run them."

I think that there's been a lot of crises, and that he's done a pretty good job. But I think we're gonna wait another two years to see that the economic crisis goes up again, that he doesn't do some terrible mistake in Afghanistan, that Afghanistan doesn't become Vietnam. And there is something that I think everyone oversees - we have to solve the American health care crisis. We are the only industrial nation in the world without universal coverage. Obama has a lot of problems ahead. But what he has done, and I can say this because I am no longer a journalist, and I can be partisan now, what he's done is say, "We've got to make some fundamental changes, and we will begin to do it, dealing with health care."

For Europe he made this initiative with the Russians about nuclear weapons. He said, "We are going to go to zero if you go to zero", basically. That's not going to be done tomorrow morning but we've got the conversation going. He's sent some guys to begin talking. In the Middle East, he sent George Mitchell whom I knew in Ireland. This man has an enormous patience. He used to sit with the Northern Irish - people I love drinking with. He sat there for years to solve that problem, and he set up a structure going. Maybe the old George, who should be retiring, will do something with the Middle East. I think it's been a pretty good 100 days. And it's been bloody exciting to see this thing take place. And that is important. It got the rest of the world interested in America. What I can say is that we are back.

Has Obama managed to fix tangibly the international image of America?

I think he has managed to improve it. He is more popular internationally than in America. But even in America - I'll tell you the important number to watch in America. There's the famous polling question which is, "Is America heading in the right direction?" And that number had gone down a lot but now it has gone up to 50-60% - people feel it's in the right direction. And Americans are optimist, they are really optimistic. It's part of our charm, of our naivety.

As you mentioned Afghanistan, do you think US success there is conditional on the Europeans stepping up more substantially?

I think this is interesting. Obama came to Europe with two goals. One was to get the Europeans to accept and join the stimulus. He was only marginally successful in that. And he was only marginally if not at all successful in getting more NATO support in Afghanistan.

But I think this is part of what the difference is. Obama and his nature, it's conciliatory, it's incremental, doing it little bit by bit. He said ok we will try to do a little more, and he didn't go storming around the way previous administrations might have done. Is he on the right course in Afghanistan? I don't know. I have covered a lot of wars, I understood the invasion of Iraq, and the occupation, I don't understand Afghanistan, I've spent time there but I don't really understand it. I can't make a judgment on that.

What about Iraq and the situation there?

I've been in Iraq. Actually, during the Iran-Iraq War, I used to go out with Iraqi troops, covering them from that side, and I knew they were crappy soldiers then. This was an army mostly of draftees. Their hearts weren't into it. The people who are in an insurgency are different. But the kinds of people who were in the regular army in Iraq were crap. There's no surprise that the Americans could beat them in the invasion. It's also no surprise that without a good plan the Americans didn't understand how to run the country, they didn't get it.

What about the Iraqi security forces now?

Apparently they are better. I have not done any straight reporting on that but apparently they have begun to build this up, and I think the idea of saying to them, "You can run it on your own", is right.

Do you think the country will stay together if the US pulls out?

Yes. I don't think it is going to break apart. It's not Yugoslavia. We always think that, that it's going to be the Kurds up there, and the Shias down in Basra, and the middle will be for the Sunnis. I know that's the old idea. I've talked to Iraqis and asked them what they are, and they say, "I'm Iraqi". There is an Iraqi nationalism. The Kurds are pissed off but there is regionalism in all countries.

It will stick together. And it was never a treat to the US. Saddam Husain was a very unpleasant man and ran a very unpleasant government. If we have to leave Iraq and let them sort out their problems, they should sort out their problems, Since we broke it, we have an obligation to help fix it but that is only so much.

In this respect, how do you think the Kurdish question will unravel?

With all of the success in the Balkans in creating nations out of old ethnic groups, you would have to say that the Kurds like the Armenians deserve their own nation. But it ain't gonna happen. The Turks will never let go of their property, nor will the Iranians, and Iraq, has in a way let go of the Kurds, they have been self-governing in most ways, and the real issue is what do you do about the oil? And this is also a problem in Basra. And that's going to have to be solved by the Iraqis. I don't think we will have to keep the 81 Airborne there to make sure the Kurds are part of Iraq.


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Tags: journalism, media ethics, Afghanistan, Iraq, Obama Administration, Obama, Barry Hillenbrand, TIME Magazine


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