The term stunt journalism first came into usage after 1887 when Nellie Bly wrote Ten Days in a Madhouse where she had impersonated a mad woman to get a patient’s view of a madhouse. The stunt made her famous and did bring the story to a public that didn’t know how bad the madhouses were. Since then journalists have occasionally used stunt journalism as a means to get at a story they might not otherwise get. However, the stunts have also become a end in themselves, as in the work of Hunter S. Thompson who reveled in becoming the story. The stunt journalist, though, always has something over the journalist who just sends in the 500 to 1500 word story. They have the adventure of the story and it is that adventure, whether real or manufactured by inserting one’s self into the story, that can make a stunt journalist’s work exciting and often compelling.
The risks to this kind of journalism range from distorting the story to weak prose and they are something that Nicholas Schmidle in his new book To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan manages to avoid. Yet as I read the book I couldn’t help but think I’m not reading about the ethnic tensions in Pakistan, but the adventure of placing one’s self with in those tensions. The adventure is never so clear as when he returns from southwestern Pakistan, Balochistan, and he us traveling along a dirt road at night worried about bandits and realizing the police escort he had started with has dwindled to one truck with police officers armed with sticks. Schmidle is in great danger, a danger that highlights the problems of Pakistan and yet what is the story? Is it Pakistan or is it him? Is it the thrill of the car through the Pakistani night or is it the depressing ethnic strife that is always threatening to destroy Pakistan?
If you answer both then you have the book, because it is both and that is its strength. Part history, part journalism, part danger tourism To Live will depress with its endless problems, some known, others seldom reported. Of particular note is the ethnic tensions between the Punjabis, Pushtus, Balochis, and Sinds. Lost in the reports of the Taliban in the Swatt Valley are the constant tensions that have racked the country and which the government seems to have little interest in stopping when riots flare up. From what Schmidle says it is a wonder that Pakistan still exists. Add in the Taliban and the ever present state security services who seem obsessed with looking good and thwarting India, and you have the most dysfunctional state. What you hear in the news is even worse on the ground.
Schmidle offers some interesting reporting on the Taliban and the collapse of the traditional power structures in the tribal areas, noting that the Taliban are not a new form of the old tribal system, but a replacement that exterminates any opposition, including the tribal leaders. Yet despite the danger and the brutality, Schmidle meets with fundamentalist leaders and brings a humanizing face to them. He doesn’t do it because he believes in them nor trusts them, but to show how they could gain so many followers despite their positions that are so inimical in the west.
The friendships, too, are part of the adventure. He is honest in describing his feelings and in this sense the book is very good. But the question about what is a stunt and what is reporting still remains. Any act of reporting puts oneself if the story, even if peripherally, but does the story behind the story over take the story? In To Live occasionally it does, but in the I centric world of media it certainly is a light touch and no where near as purple as Dexter Firkins Forever War. Schmidle has managed to write a solid account of his time in Pakistan and if the story is subsumed in his story it is only because those are the demands of the solitary journalist.