by Matt Raab
The Georgetown University Lecture Fund welcomed alumnus Alexander Marquardt back to campus on February 13 to speak about the evolving world of journalism and his personal experiences in Syria as a foreign correspondent for ABC News. Marquardt, a 2004 SFS graduate, reflected on his path to a career that has led him around the country and the world, including covering the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign and five years of the war in Syria.
After reporting on the 2008 election, including time following the campaigns of Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, Marquardt was thrust into the forefront of international affairs by his assignment in Egypt in 2011, during the development of the Arab Spring that would sweep the Middle East and North Africa.
Covering the Arab Spring
“Here I was, this 29-year old kid, very green, with this massive story, once in a generation or more upheaval in this region, this massive story that had just sort of fallen in my lap,” Marquardt said, “and I spent the next 5, 6 years traveling all across the region from one conflict, revolution, uprising to the next, and now spending a bit more time in Europe because we’ve had, sadly, out of the Middle East, the birth and rise of ISIS and the terror attacks that have taken place in Europe.”
Marquardt’s early experiences in the Middle East were punctuated by a coincidental, but memorable connection to his time at Georgetown.
“My commencement speaker was Christiane Amanpour, and I don’t remember what she said – none of you will remember what your commencement speaker said – but she was and still is the most famous TV journalist on the planet,” Marquardt explained.
Marquardt hadn’t yet made the decision to go into news, but when he did, he was reunited with his commencement speaker.
“Fast forward 7 years, and the Egyptian revolution was just starting, and I was green and young and nervous and didn’t know really what I was doing. It was my first major story, and I was about to go live on the air this first week and who should come into the room, this hotel room where we were doing live shots but Christiane Amanpour,” Marquardt said. “Here was this woman who had been my commencement speaker, the most famous journalist in the world, all she was doing was watching me and it was terrifying, but it was a fantastic introduction to journalism.”
War in Syria
Marquardt would eventually move to reporting on Syria, where he spent the next five years covering the unfolding conflict there from both sides, as it became the last active element of the Arab Spring.
“I’ve been to Syria eight different times, both on the rebel side and on the government/regime side, where you get a visa to go into Damascus [and] visit other places,” Marquardt said.
In those five years, the conflict in Syria has evolved. Radical Islamists spearheaded the formation of ISIS, fracturing international support for Syrian rebels, while the Assad regime resorted to brutal tactics in its push for victory. Amidst the carnage, Syrian civilians and society were devastated.
“[Aleppo] was once the biggest city in Syria, it was the economic beating heart of this city, absolutely stunning,” Marquardt said. “We went into the city in late November, it was just this apocalyptic hellscape, I’ve never seen anything like it, and people who were twice my age, had three times the experience I did, had never seen anything like it either.”
Marquardt had occasion to cover both sides of the conflict, including sitting in on an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and being assigned to ABC’s team focused on the rebel side of the conflict.
“News divisions like mine started to decide we were going to have one team for Damascus and the regime side and one team for the rebel side, and I wanted to be the rebel guy,” Marquardt said.
While there, he witnessed the dynamics of the rise of extremism, and the growth of an environment that is now inhospitable to Western journalists. One of Marquardt’s biggest takeaways from his experience is the vastly complicated nature of this conflict, where all sides are presenting evidence of a narrative where they have been wronged.
“This is one of the most complicated and difficult wars to cover: a) because you don’t have access to it mostly and b) because even when you do get access, there’s this massive fog of war,” he said.
Balancing Professional and Human Side of News
Marquardt also discussed the intersection and balancing of the human, emotional side of news stories with his professional responsibilities in the context of this devastation. He was never far removed from the specter of death in Syria, including children, and he witnessed families who returned to discover their homes intact and those who found them utterly destroyed, emotional experiences that challenged his conception of his craft.
“The moment you start to get angry and cynical about the fact that you can’t cover the war the way you want to, you have moments where you realize that so much of your job is just to dig down, find those human stories, and convey them to your audience as best as possible, and that encapsulates the best and worst parts of this job,” Marquardt said. “So much of what I get to do, I get to see, is what many people won’t, and I think that’s a luxury but it also could just be awful. And it’s always the kids that really get to you.”
Changing Dynamics of Media Production and Consumption
The discussion also addressed the cynicism and frustration that is pervading news media in the United States, along with the dynamics of transforming media production and consumption.
“There’s so many different outlets, so many different ways to deliver news now, so if I’m going on a story, I’ve gotta do my morning show and my evening show, I’ve gotta do Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and then I’ll do my personal stuff on the side, plus digital video for the website,” Marquardt said. “So all these different outlets, and that can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing.”
On the negative side, the fracturing of media creates bubbles and echo chambers, segmenting news consumers into self-affirming groups, Marquardt discussed. The decline of traditional profit models are challenging major mainstream news organizations, and the most recent election cycle highlighted an erosion of trust in the media, including the rise of fake news and the accusations that continue to be flung towards mainstream outlets by the Trump administration.
Marquardt also stressed, however, that the massive expansion of access and options brought by the advent of digital technology has many positive implications.
“For anyone who’s an avid news consumer, it’s a great time. You have a million different options,” he said. “For someone who produces news like me, it’s a great time, because I have all these different outlets to publish my work on.”
Where many organizations are perceived as holding a bias, Marquardt advocated for a productive middle ground.
“There is a way to be objective and tell these stories with attitude, or in a way that the audience responds to, it doesn’t have to be a right-left thing,” he said.
As he closed, Marquardt stressed these positives and the potential for progress, urging his audience away from pessimism.
“Things can appear very dark but I think globally they’re not as dark as they appear,” he said. “This country is not Egypt or Russia and I still have faith in the general humanity of this country to know what is right and wrong. From a journalistic point of view, things could not be more exciting, and if nothing else, we live in a time when the leading opposition to the most powerful man in the world is Saturday Night Live.”