It was our second interview with Zafer Gencsoy, and we’d biked the 40 kilometers from Gerze to Sinop to be there. We were in the middle of investigating a piece on a controversy over a proposed power plant in the region, and Zafer was the head of the project. Since our first interview, Chris and I had picked up new leads from protestors of the power plant, and we had a list of questions we wanted answers to. We were excited.
One hour before the meeting, Chris and I powwowed. We wanted to hit Zafer with tough questions on the environment; we wanted to ask him about the about the Forest Ministry’s concerns of acid rain on the local ecosystem, on the destruction of nearby fish breeding grounds, and the harm to a nature reserve that lay less than 25 kilometers from the plant site.
But Chris and I were also excited because Zafer was about to buy us a dinner at a four star hotel. And that was awesome, considering that we’d mostly been eating sandwiches and rice.
Chris and I smelled each of our shirts to decide which reeked less, and mounted our bikes to pedal over to the hotel. Zafer met us in the lobby, casually dressed in khaki shorts and a polo, and we piled in an elevator to the roof. The three of us were the restaurant’s only customers, and we sat on a balcony overlooking a sunset on the Black Sea. The tablecloths were white and seemed to shine with cleanliness. I was already digging the luxury.
The three of us started to talk about everything except the power plant. We talked about his daughter, about our schooling, about Turkish culture. Zafer was charming, interesting, and felt open. I liked him.
The first thing he ordered us was a round Efes Pilsen, Turkey’s premier beer. It was appropriate, considering that the company he worked for owned the brand. I accepted it hesitantly; we were working. But one sip in, the beer was so delicious and refreshing that I sipped it with ease. Then came plate after plate of delicious fish and meats.
Talk rolled easily as we ate. Zafer ate little; Chris and I went all in. We stuck in our first question as he was ordering us a second round of beer, about how he planned to overcome tension surrounding the power plant. His answer started with “You’re right, I didn’t completely answer that question last time,” before he gave us an intelligent and lucid account of what we wanted to know. It disarmed me. Zafer moved us on to another topic of conversation.
Halfway through the second beer, which I drank a little too fast for a business meeting, I was getting slightly buzzed. It had been almost three weeks since we had really drunk anything. 95% Muslim, Turkey is not a hard drinking country.
Chris and I placed a few more questions. They were easy ones. I knew what I really had to ask- questions about poisoned groundwater, destroyed fish breeding grounds, and acid rain– but I could not bring myself to do it. I was comfortable, and enjoying the conversation. To ask what I needed to ask would have been a full scale confrontation, and I just didn’t have the heart.
In that moment, I failed as a reporter. I wouldn’t realize it until after we’d left. The evening continued, but after those weak follow up questions, neither Chris nor I ponied up and leaned in. We’d gotten bought out, appeased, by a few plates of rich food and beer.
Had I had the heart for conflict, it might have been an ideal time for it. Zafer was basically stuck with us, after all. But I didn’t, I got scared for some reason. We were so disarmed we could barely remember what we’d come to ask. But more importantly, I clung too much to comfort. The story undoubtedly suffered because of it.
A reporter thrives in conflict. It is at the heart of his stories, and good stories are filled with facts that most do not give easily. To lean in, to stay cool and level-headed as the tension builds and you watch an interviewee sweat — that is a powerful skill. It’s one I haven’t fully developed yet, and last week I learned its cost.
But most importantly, we fell for luxury and charm at a time that we needed to keep a target at arm’s length. Allies are not built in the companies that are being attacked. It’s a mistake that Chris and I have agreed to never repeat.
We have to be wary. That is not the last time we will be showered with gifts of luxury.