Let’s stop using the term “fixer.”
I am among the many grateful for the rescue of New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell by British forces. He and his fixer, Sultan Munadi had been abducted in Afghanistan this week while trying to cover the NATO air-strike on a hijacked fuel convoy that led to civilian deaths.
Sultan Munadi was killed. As was one British soldier.
Munadi was an Afghan student, studying public policy at a German university. He was “fixing” for The New York Times to make money during a break. (I never knew him personally; Steve is a friendly acquaintance.)
I’ve always hated the term “fixer.” I used to be one – in Cambodia, where I faced NONE of the danger and demands that Afghan fixers face day to day.
A fixer is responsible for everything: from hiring a car, to booking an interview, to – importantly, determining WHOM to interview – and getting the visiting journalist there to make it all happen.
Let’s be clear: Steve Farrell is an enormously experienced journalist, with plenty of Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt – and I’m among the many who respect his work. In fact, he’s so dedicated that he has earned himself the nickname of “Robo-Hack.”
But depending on the journalist one is working with, it’s the fixer who runs the show.
There were times in Cambodia where I used to take some visiting correspondent, tell them A) who we’d interview, B) why that person is important, and C) what questions to be sure to ask – all so the “reporter” could walk away with a story. (I fixed for television, a wonderful medium when it’s done right, but it does involve some smoke-and-mirrors that can cover for a journalist’s lack of knowledge and experience.)
That, of course, was after I ran the 45 errands to impress the interviewee about the merits of the visiting correspondent, convincing him/her why he/she should do the interview in the first place.
And for this, I made $150/day, while the visiting correspondent sailed into a five-star hotel, ate off his per-diem, and used my knowledge and experience to sail out again, with his six-figure salary?
So you know what I did? I quit. I announced at a certain point that I would no longer fix. I would report. Fixing is exploitative, and more than that – once you’re a good fixer, others in the industry want you to forever remain a good fixer – you actually become too valuable to promote.
As an English-speaking, educated, American working overseas, I was in the position to start hustling for reporting jobs – the next rung up. I became a “stringer” for several news organizations (a paid-per-story contributing reporter) , and from there, a retainered reporter, and from there, a correspondent.
That’s a career path that may be open to some local reporters, depending on language skills – but far from all.
As a reporter, I too, hire local journalists for assistance, booking interviews and translating. And yes, in the developing world, “fixing” can be good money. But most local journalists I’ve worked with also have a strong belief in journalism and in their country. By working with me, they would also be telling the world about the situation in their country. And then the rest of the world would understand, and – maybe – do what it could to help.
I didn’t know Sultan Munadi, but I bet you that was part of what he thought. Working with The New York Times? That’s not an accident.
If it were up to me, we’d do away with the term “fixer.” A fixer in my mind is someone who might arrange a car, or get you a generator. Order food. If a local journalist is involved in determining editorial content, then he/ she is a producer. A journalist. A colleague.