Joyce Davis: Three Decades Covering the Middle East
When Joyce Davis talks about her hometown of New Orleans, the distant lands of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the schisms between Christianity and Islam, it is with a sense of energy and passion that is contagious. You always walk away feeling you’ve only begun to tap into her world of knowledge and want to know more as she shares what she has seen, heard and learned at home and abroad over the past 30 years.
“I took a lot of philosophy courses in college,” she says during a recent telephone interview. “I would be a more sedate, quiet person, if I had chosen to be a philosopher.”
Davis chose another road – that of journalist and author. It has proved a rewarding career choice. She is a rare stamp in American society – a Black journalist whose recognized expertise is the Middle East and Muslim nations of Central Asia.
Today, more than three decades after launching her career as a night reporter at The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, 51-year-old Davis is associate director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). It is an important post with the powerful, broadcast news service funded by the U.S. government. Davis calls the shots daily on news reports and feature stories broadcast in 33 languages and beamed to an estimated 1.3 billion people across 12 time zones in 28 countries of oil-rich Central Asia and the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
From her offices at the heavily guarded RFE/RL headquarters in downtown Prague in the Czech Republic, Davis helps supervise a staff of 1,400 full- and part-time correspondents and editors around the globe and directly controls the work of about half the 700 reporters, editors and technicians. She helps them decide what and how to cover events today, next week and next month, and develops big-picture signature projects such as “Religion and Tolerance,” a recent series that took a look at moderates in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
“In this job, I can have an impact on people around the world being able to have information so they can make choices about politics, economics and religion,” says Davis.
“Religion is being used to promote terrorism and violence,” Davis explains, ticking off several examples in the regions and citing the most familiar in the United States – the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
“When you have a single source on what Islam teaches – that message being that Islam says to kill – to inform people there are other viewpoints, other interpretations of Islam, is important,” she explains. “It’s not promoting or even telling people they need to be religious. It’s promoting discussions to give them a variety of choices. Our role is to give objective news and information to closed societies.”
Davis rebuffs anyone who would question her decision to join RFE/RL, which is viewed by many as a U.S. propaganda machine, after building a substantial career at traditional news outlets.
She says that while the public perception that the Cold War-era RFE was a lopsided news service with a proAmerican bent wasn’t too far off base, it is no longer true. When she signed up, she says, the broadcaster was “trying to raise its standards and bring objective news and information to the Muslim world that was closed.”
Davis continues: “I was brought in as a clear sign RFE/RL is changing. I have 35 years in this business. I would not have thrown that away.”
With a number of “hot spots” on her radar, no day is just a routine day at the office. One day, as winter was slowly giving way to signs of spring in Prague, Davis was directing coverage of debates over the formation of the new Iraqi government and planning the series on religious tolerance. Suddenly, there was a full-scale revolution in Kyrgyzstan, forcing its president to flee to Russia.
“We were at the center of this story, as people fled to the streets and took over government buildings,” she recalls. “As soon as the opposition took over the airwaves, they put Radio Azatyk, our broadcast to that country, on the prime radio station channel so the country could get factual information about the uprising.” The deposed president had been trying to “silence RFE/RL.”
Over the years, Kojo Nnamdi has hosted Davis on his public radio and television programs in Washington, D.C. “She’s a church-going mother, loving parent and wife, yet she seems willing to put herself in fairly dangerous situations to bring to Americans an understanding of foreign affairs we sometimes seem determined not to understand,” says Nnamdi, host of Evening Exchange, a widely viewed public television program, and the Kojo Nnamdi Show, which airs on WAMU-FM, a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in Washington. “There is still a mindset in America that if you are African American, you only have one area of expertise – civil rights, affirmative action. Joyce Davis is living proof you can do both and even more,” says Nnamdi.
Davis is no overnight expert on the Middle East, nor is she a political zealot with an agenda. She’s a diehard journalist with a hunger for knowledge dating from her adolescent years.
“Blame my mother,” she laughs, referring to the late Gloria LeConte Davis, a school teacher and librarian who told her daughter at an early age that she should be a journalist. “There were no role models, especially female journalists, and certainly no expectation of getting a job,” Davis says. “I guess she knew I liked to write. I cared about issues and events. I was always interested in what was going on around me.”
Davis was very aware of the civil rights battles being waged in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, her initial reporting assignments included discrimination in housing and Black political participation. She credits her father, the late Albert Davis, for her interest in international affairs.
“My dad was a Baptist preacher and there was always constant discussion about the Bible and the Holy Land. Once I could afford to go, I said ‘Let me see this place we’ve been talking about all my life.'” That first visit she says, “tripped my interest in international affairs.” She has since made at least 10 trips to the Middle East to report and write on the region.
It took a few years – nearly 20 – for Davis to get a big chance to have an impact on national and world audiences. The key to her success appears to be that she has never wasted an opportunity.
While she was on staff at the campus newspaper at Loyola University in New Orleans, Davis was hired in 1972 by The Times-Picayune. She worked at night as a rookie reporter for the morning daily and went to school during the day.
“They expected me to sit in a corner,” says Davis.
That changed quickly when she single-handedly found and interviewed the girlfriend of a deranged sniper who had kept the city at bay for hours from atop a downtown hotel. Her resourcefulness paid off. The interview ran on Page 1, and Davis, at 19, was off and running.
Next came a series on guns, focusing on the notorious weapon known as the Saturday Night Special. Then she did stories on the Desire area, an impoverished, predominantly Black neighborhood and one of the city’s roughest and least-understood communities.
“It gave them (her editors) a clear indicator of how Black reporters gave them an entrée to the other segregated community they did not have,” says Davis.
After college, she traveled abroad on vacation, visiting France (her mother being of French descent), Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the 1970s, then to the Muslim world, starting with Morocco at age 24.
In 1982, she took that first trip to the Middle East, visiting Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, in addition to Egypt. She would return again and again to the Holy Land and the vast region of the Middle East, fascinated by the area and its people, their conflicts and common interests.
After 10 years with The Times-Picayune, Davis moved to Greece and freelanced for two years. “The wonderful thing about freelancing was they never knew I was Black,” says Davis. “They knew my work. We corresponded by mail and telephone.”
She rejoined the The Times-Picayune in 1984 and continued to travel abroad.
She returned from one trip, in 1989, with notes from an interview with Yasser Arafat in Tunis, then the base for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). “My paper couldn’t believe it. Then I showed them pictures of him and me!” she says.
“The Arafat interview was probably one of the most important achievements of my career. It came at a time when he was in exile, considered dangerous and few people had gotten inside the PLO, especially to talk to him.”
Davis got the interview through her contacts in the United States and after some rather extensive probing of her background, she says, including a midnight visit by agents of Arafat seeking to determine if she was “legit.”
“Arafat was commanding, domineering, rude and almost brutal in the way he treated those around him, but he could also become charming with a young reporter, smiling and complimenting my husband of my knowledge of the Middle East and Palestinian issues.”
During the past 15 years, Davis’s work has drawn a wider and wider audience. In 1990, NPR hired her as its lead editor for coverage of the Middle East and Africa. It was only a few weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Her first book, Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam (1997), a collection of profiles and interviews with Islamic leaders around the world, was published. Then she returned to newspapers in 1997 as deputy foreign editor in Washington for Knight Ridder newspapers.
Again, she landed amid plans for another confrontation between the United States and Iraq. By the time she was departing Knight Ridder, Davis had published her second book, Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance and Despair in the Middle East (2003). It was another attempt to get behind the headlines and, this time, tell the story of suicide bombers in the region.
Opportunity knocked again in 2003, when Michèle DuBach, a former colleague at NPR who had moved to RFE, asked Davis to join the management team. Davis would be able to focus on the regions of the world in which she had developed her journalistic expertise.
“Joyce brings an expertise in Islam, strong journalism ethics and standards, and a love of coaching and working with people,” says Dubach.
Davis has no problem reconciling her focus on global affairs while the struggle at home remains unresolved – poverty, crime, an undereducated and less than healthy Black population in many parts of New Orleans.
“There’s enough of us to be concerned about it all,” says Davis. “What we have come to find out is even someone in a cave in Afghanistan can reach out and touch you in the Bronx or Brooklyn. Why should our own humanity be limited to any particular locality?”
As Davis rattles off her assessment of various issues confronting the world, she responds to a question about what is missing most in the American dialogue on the Middle East:
“Sometimes, actual truth,” she says. “We’re all enraged at what happened Sept. 11. It was a despicable act. But there were reasons, and we didn’t want to know the reasons. Without looking squarely in the eye of what’s causing this kind of hatred, we cannot stop it. You have a better chance of dealing with your enemies if you know them. People in the Islamic world know us very well. They have studied at our colleges and learned our culture. We do not know them. This is the central issue of the day. And here, at least, I can make a difference.”
Reginald Stuart is an award-winning journalist based in Silver Spring, Md., who currently serves as a corporate recruiter for Knight Ridder.
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated May/Jun 2005
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