by David Judson*
Oluşturulma Tarihi: Mart 07, 2009 00:00
The headline on this column Madam Secretary, I will concede, suffers from what is now pretty much cliche here in Turkey. But the thought occurs to me that it might net me just a minute of your time this Saturday morning.
I realize that’s a leap of faith. With the kinks in our circulation operation, the Daily News may not have arrived at your hotel this morning. If by some happy chance it did, I suppose the odds of the State Department security letting somone slip it under your door are slim.
But hey, you know that we reporters will give anything a try. I just need a minute. The reason is that all week long our Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been telling just about anyone who will listen that the first thing he plans to tell you this weekend is what a bad bunch of folks we are here at the Doğan Media Group, the publisher of this newspaper. He’s more than a little ticked that your department’s annual human rights report noted the grief he has been giving us. We reporters really appreciate that support. Erdoğan, however, has publicly promised to set you straight on that. So, just one minute for my side of the story.
Not to presume on ancient ties, but before life’s odd fortunes brought me back to the country of my youth in 2001, I spent about a dozen years in Washington. A good part of that was spent covering your husband’s administration for Gannett News Service. You wouldn’t remember the guy back four or five rows, bad suit, at many a press conference. You might recall a conversation we had at the White House Christmas party back mid-90s, which you held despite the fact ole Newt Gingrich had just managed to shut down the government for a week or so. No reason to remember it except that I came with my good friend Deborah Mathis and her daughter Meredith. We all shared a good laugh over some stunt Meredith had pulled at the Arkansas state house when she was five. Meredith must be 30 by now. But let’s get back to Turkey.
As one outsider to another, there are a couple things helpful to understand. In my experience, the only person I’ve ever met with comparable prickliness toward press criticism was probably Ross Perot. In the patience department, I’ve thought about this and Erdoğan has a lot in common with Rahm Emmanuel. Your briefing on the premier probably included the fact he’s an ex-jock. Damned if he doesn’t strut just the way Jack Kemp used to do. Just think of those three all wrapped into one package and you and Erdoğan will get along fine.
But we don’t. Boy, does he ever get annoyed at any newspaper who doesn’t say nice things about him. One of our reporters and a columnist, Mustafa Akyol, had a great piece the other day attributing this to the treatment he got coming up as poor boy-made-good through the ranks as Istanbul mayor. Mustafa thinks the elite media was patronizing back then and Erdoğan never got over the slights. So if you get a chance, maybe you could tell him about 1990-91, and the arrogance of the Eastern Press toward the little-known governor of a small southern state with a twangy accent who had the wild idea that he deserved to be president of the United States. How do diplomats express, "hey man, get over it?"
Because if Erdoğan can’t, it really leads to bad judgment. I mean, just the other day I was talking to my staff about some of the really low points in the relationship between the Washington Post and the Clinton White House in the ’90s. OK, it was bad. But no one at the White House ever thought to haul the Post into government receivership over unpaid utility bills or something. You never sought to buy the Post in a questionable auction with unsecured loans ordered from the Small Business Administration. And you certainly never thought to do all that and then install Chelsea’s boyfriend in the late Katherine Graham’s job. But that’s exactly what Erdoğan did to one of our commercial rivals when he got ticked not long ago.
I’m sure your staff has briefed you on all this Lighthouse Charity stuff that got started with a German prosecutor. Now, I would be the first to say prosecutor Ken Starr should have been disbarred for the way he handled the Whitewater witch hunt. In fact I did say it during the investigation, which in retrospect was probably bad timing on my part. But back when I was writing about Starr’s allegations, I never recall your husband demanding that Americans boycott my employer, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, just because we printed Starr’s indictment. But that’s precisely what Erdoğan did.
Yes, we newspaper people can get a little abrasive toward politicians. And vice versa. Maybe if you get the chance today you could tell Erdoğan about the Arkansas Gazette back in the ’80s when John Hanchette and Jeff Stinson were running it. They played hardball. I know how angry you got at that duo. We do some aggressive reporting here in Turkey too. And let me share a confession. You may be aware that Stinson went on to become the European bureau chief for USA Today. A little more than a year ago, he called me from London. He was coming down to cover this headscarf bickering you’ve been told about. I told him I’d trade him a translator and driver during his stay in exchange for a day of free coaching to our team at the Daily News. "It’s a deal," Stinson said. So, six degrees of separation and all that, your husband and Erdoğan could blame the same jerk as the ultimate source of a few of their woes. But no one ever called Stinson, who along with his boys is quite fond of pets, "the reporter who sleeps with dogs." I know it may be hard to believe but the leader of this country actually talks this way.
And now we’ve got this tax thing going on. It’s really a crock. The allegation Ğ which we deny Ğ is that we were three months late on a tax payment. I mean we’re not talking Marc Ritchie here. But Erdoğan’s response has basically been: "Fine. You say you’re innocent. Then turn over half a billion dollars to the government for five to seven years. If you can prove your innocence, we’ll give it back." Many years ago, I studied civics at both a California high school and at one here in Istanbul. None of my textbooks in either place explained the functioning of justice in a democracy quite the way Erdoğan apparently sees it.
Things get sportier by the day. Just Tuesday, one of our metro reporters, Gül Tüysüz, who joined us from NPR/Washington, went to cover the inauguration of a new bus route. With Erdoğan there to cut the ribbon, it quickly became a party rally. And one of the party faithful assaulted her, pushing her into a fence and threatening her with a barrage of epithets. For criminee sakes this was a 23-year-old reporter assaulted in the name of the prime minister. And the cops even refused her pleas for help. But don’t worry, we are already working through the formal channels to ensure this incident finds its way into your next human rights report on Turkey.
So that’s my side of the story. Welcome to Ankara. But I realize I’ve taken up more than my one minute. By the way, one other aside about Deborah. She came to visit me here in Turkey shortly after she published her book, "Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don’t Feel at Home," which I know she sent you. She really loved Istanbul. Then she went back home to take a job as a professor at Northwestern University. That’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan’s alma mater and I am pretty sure their times in Evanston overlapped. They may know one another. Not that it is likely to come up.
But it sure is a small world. Maybe you could help Prime Minister Erdoğan understand that. Thank you for coming. Have a good visit. And please extend my regards to your family.
* David Judson is editor-in-chief of the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review