Bret Stephens is the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. He lives in New York City. MUNPlanet Content Strategist Milena Milicevic talked to Bret at the recent CIRSD conference in Belgrade.
MUNPlanet: Mr Stephens, what is your reflection to the coverage of the First World War in journalism and by people in the United States? How does the homage to the First World War look like in your country at the moment?
Bret Stephens: The American experience of the First World War is very different from the European experience. It was much briefer, it was proportionately much less bloody. And it was victorious. So, our understanding of the war and our experience of it has never been the same as a country that loses a quarter of its population as Serbia did, or the huge numbers that even Australians or Canadians did.
What's interesting, nevertheless, is that the 100th anniversary has prompted a reasonable amount of intelligent reflection—I think largely centered around Chris Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers, which was very well timed—on the nature of the tragedy, the parallels with the present and the manner by which we can avoid stumbling into a similar experience. And I think that Americans are more keenly aware of it now, because we feel a kinship not only with United States of 1917 but also with Britain in 1914, the great naval power, the guarantor of the security of small countries.
MUNPlanet: What is the role of words, and the role of journalism in the 21st century? What would you give as an advice to the community of MUNers, as a Pulitzer Award winner, how to approach writing, especially on international relations and sustainable development?
Bret Stephens: It is an excellent time to start working as a journalist. You hear a lot of people saying ‘it is a terrible time’, that the newspapers are in decline, that news and even analysis is becoming a commodity. I think that is wrong. I think it is a dynamic time. I think it’s a time where the opportunities for true entrepreneurship and technological innovation and reinvention in journalism have never been as strong.
The second thing I would say is: great journalism is about great writing, and it is about asking great questions. To be a great writer you have to read great writers. So I would say to young journalists:do not study manuals for journalism. Read Tolstoy and Stendhal and Austen and Faulkner and get a sense of just how powerful language can be. Secondly, become historically literate, because you can't connect the dots if you don't know where the dots are in the first place.
The third thing I would say is: understand the power of new technologies; understand that they are dynamic and that there is no incumbency now in media that small media organizations, one person, like Arianna Huffington can have remarkable impacts that would have been unimaginable years ago.
The final point is that the role of journalism is to bedisrespectful. And I mean that in a sense of not simply obeying the forms and conventions of the industry, or the rules of the society.
You have to have the courage as a journalist, to think differently and to ask differently. And that requires a certain personality type. You often meet a lot of journalists who are personally quite unpleasant people. But that's OK because if you have to be unpleasant you may as well be one as a journalist. That’s our job. We are supposed to be stinging the people in power. Yesterday I heard a historian from Germany on the stage saying that the role of the historian is to 'butcher the sacred cow.' I would say that is also the role of the journalism.
MUNPlanet: Can we as young people be considered The Lost Generation? We are facing a lot of global problems, which maybe even governments cannot solve themselves. What can we do about that?
Bret Stephens: There is a kind of tyranny in a cliché of a “Lost Generation” or the “Woodstock Generation” or the “Greatest Generation.” These phrases I think tend to obscure more than they clarify. The Lost Generation of the interwar period was lost mainly because of what happened on a much greater scale to Europe, to the world. I meet a lot of young people who are lost souls, and my advice is two things:
Number one: stay absolutely focused on what is in front of your face.You cannot control what is going to happen next year. Maybe you can control what will happen next week, or the next day. So do your best at a task that is straight in front of you, and then you will find that the patterns of your life begin to emerge in a useful way.
But the other piece of advice is, never lose the sight of a great personal dream even if you only tell it to yourself in a daydream. I was once told that by an older friend who said, ‘‘If you want to be a writer your dream has to be to win the Nobel Prize. If you win the Pulitzer Prize, okay, right, not bad. But you want to dream about winning the Nobel Prize. And if you want to be a politician, we who are Americans, you want to be the President of the United States. If you end up a governor or congressmen, OK. What he meant was thatyour achievement will always be measured as the fraction of your ambition. Alexander the Great wanted to conquer the world; he got as far as India, not bad.
So I would say to young people: keep inside a very clear image of what that great ambition is. You want to be the President of the country, or maybe you want to be the president of the General Assembly. I haven't asked him, but I bet that Vuk Jeremić, when he was a young man, said, "One day I am going to be a great statesman." And sure, that happens. Make sure to have a great ambition. Again: Your achievement will always be a fraction of your ambition.
MUNPlanet: Mr Stephens, thank you for devoting your time to talking to MUNPlanet.
Cover Image: CIRSD
*The First World War Centenary - A Special Interview with Miguel Angel Moratinos