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@Graham_Bowley of @NYTimes Gets His Story. I Want to Throw Up.

I want to congratulate Graham Bowley of the New York Times. I think this may be the first time I’ve been angry enough reading a news story in this country to address a reporter directly.

You may have heard of Sahar Gul. In case you haven’t, there’s the 27 December article in The Guardian. There’s the BBC story on 3 January. There’s even a 7 January AP piece where she’s interviewed. I’m not going to go into more detail on what happened to her. Read the articles. It’s…horrific. On a completely inhuman scale. I’d say her story had been told.

Enter Graham Bowley and his search for Sahar Gul. No snark, no irony, no cutesy wryly cynical approach to yet another bad idea in Afghanistan. In the first part of his article, he goes to the hospital to try to interview her, and is told this:

“No one can see Sahar Gul,” he said. “Too many people have come to see her. She has psychological problems. She is hitting herself. “

I told him that we didn’t want to talk to Sahar Gul if it would upset her. We just wanted to tell her story, and we had a signed permission letter from the Public Health Ministry.

Of course you had a signed permission letter. Because a girl who’s had her fingernails ripped out by pliers and kept in a toilet for almost half a year should understand that some bureaucrat in Kabul said you can talk to her. Naturally, since you came all this way, she should be happy to answer your questions.

When I arrived back at the Times’s bureau, I found that the Associated Press had also visited the hospital — and had more luck interviewing Sahar Gul.

When I was reporting for the business desk, being doggedly persistent — and even pushy — to get access to a protected source was a feature of normal life. But I am new to reporting in Afghanistan, and I have found myself treading lightly around a culture to which I’m not yet accustomed. But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’ Her story was too important.

What’s disgusting here is that Mr. Bowley is motivated less by Sahar Gul than he is by the fact that his “story” was scooped by the AP. This has got nothing to do with her story…it’s everything to do with your story, Mr. Bowley. And congratulations, you persisted.

The next day, Sunday, we returned to Wazir Akbhar Khan. And this time, I wouldn’t be turned away.

Sayad Hassan, a white-bearded man who was in charge of the nurses, led us up the tiled stairwell to Sahar Gul’s room.

I found a small girl, cringing beneath a comforter. Her face was cut and scratched, her left eye bruised and half closed. Her forearm was withered and thin. Her hair was a dark tangle beneath a brown headscarf.

You managed to push your way into her room. You did an amazing job of describing with words what we’d already seen in photos. Her story, in her own words, had been told. This is not some “protected source” in the financial world keeping you from another feature piece on investment banking. This is a child traumatized to an incomprehensible level. And then there’s your conclusions on the event:

The quick arrests may be a small sign that the Afghan government is starting to take women’s rights seriously, though others say the government was only prompted into action by embarrassing news media reports.

I’m sorry, Mr. Bowley, I really am…apparently you’re the only journalist in 2012 who doesn’t have an internet connection. Because if you did, you’d have been able to Google (it’s a thing now, really) women’s rights in Afghanistan, and you’d see that the arrests of these individuals has nothing to do with “women’s rights.” Period.

What happened to her is so above what’s even remotely acceptable here that it’s far beyond a “rights” issue. Those arrests have so much less to do with rights and so much more to do with media attention. The fact that you would even imply that it is otherwise means you know next to nothing about Afghanistan. Those “others” you reference? Listen to them. In fact, let them write your stories. We’d all be better off.

You’re what’s wrong with journalism, especially journalism here. You’re recycling a story, a Kabul story, and doing so at someone else’s expense. So few here are reporting on anything new anymore, or bothering to cover stories with any depth. And I know it’s not just here, and it’s not just you. Regardless, I could have written that same story, and I’m not a journalist — I’m just some dude with a blog.

There are some genuine journalists reporting on this place. They are courageous professionals who continue to report on what’s happening in Afghanistan every day. They tell the stories of what’s happening here, even though so few are listening anymore. What’s alarming is that some of those journalists come from your paper. They post to the same “At War” blog you do. That the same editors who post genuine journalism and not some quest for personal glory allowed your story on the website is just disappointing.

In the words of one commenter on your post:

“But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’” Thank you, Mr. Bowley, for making me want to throw up.

Eloquent? No. Honest? Yes, and a response I can relate to, unfortunately. Do yourself and whatever readers you may have a favor: go back to the business desk. And leave Sahar Gul and Afghanistan alone.


  • This reminds me of my fellow med students – even when a patient is in pain or recovering from surgery or trying to sleep – they still want to practice examining/taking histories. And I’m the crazy one for telling them they’re being assholes who aren’t helping the patients, only trying to benefit themselves. But it’s a government hospital. Wherever there are poor people in a country which doesn’t protect it’s citizens rights (be it Pakistan or Afghanistan), these things happen.

  • Thanks for bringing this up.

    To be “fair”: your assumptions about Graham Bowley’s personal motives – both for wanting to write the story and for not taking the no for an answer – could very well be correct. But they remain an interpretation.

    However the more general perspective still stands and is worrying.

    • You’re right…and if this were some dude with a blog, I’d be less inclined to make an issue out of this. But, it’s a reporter, whose focus isn’t on the people, it’s on his byline. And yes, it is worrying. Thanks for the comment.

  • Dan,

    You’re completely right. Yesterday, reading the story, I did pick up on “the AP got in” comment, but just moved on, which is certainly the sign of a lazy reader. I agree that this story has nothing to do with women’s rights; it has to do with greed, and the exploitation of a child. (Yeah, you can make the case of course, that early marriages are a women’s rights issue, but I don’t think you can link this tragedy to anything other than horrible, aberrant behavior.) About six months ago, a group of mentally disabled people where would being held in a basement in, I think Detroit. Their disability checks where being stolen. The people held, and those holding them happened to be black. Did the crime have anything to do with race? Of course not, it had to do with greed and exploitation of the weak. This is why I mentioned yesterday, a similar horrific case that happened to a young girl in the US in the 1960s. Journalists who want to somehow link this to the Taliban’s treatment of women are just thinking critically. It’s an “easy” interpretation, but not necessarily the correct one. And think about underage girls in the global sex trade. I think that may be a closer analogy to this girl’s terrible mistreatment.

    • The US has its monsters. So does Europe. Unfortunately, if those monsters were say, Catholic, the conclusion wouldn’t be drawn that something like this is an indictment on the Catholic church as a whole (which, has its own issues). Making it about the Taliban is the “easy” interpretation indeed, and fails to address any of the underlying issues at stake here.

  • I was put off going into journalism because of just this kind of focus: the story comes first, if you have to harass human beings suffering considerably to get it, it’s worth it. Awful

    • And I would submit that this is precisely the reason you should re-think going in journalism. If you think this is ridiculous, then be that voice of reason.

  • Rowan, NO idea what you do for a living or whatever, but thanks for putting your support in on this. Appreciate the feedback, and hopefully at some point the NY Times comes up with something like an apology or clarification. That’s really all I’d like to see out of this.