Reporter Issam Ahmed Talks Urban Deer Hunting, John Lennon AI Covers and Climate Change — FannBoy Friday

"It seems like maybe 10 years ago, we'd experience one or two massive climate events and then we'd have a breather, and [it would be] a while before something like that happened again. And now I feel it's just been a succession of one thing after the next."

Reporter Issam Ahmed Talks Urban Deer Hunting, John Lennon AI Covers and Climate Change — FannBoy Friday
Issam Ahmed's beats have taken him everywhere from remote whale vessels to Pakistan at the height of the Taliban insurgency.

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

Issam Ahmed is a reporter who covers health, science and the environment for Agence France-Presse, the world's oldest news agency. Prior to that, he was the Christian Science Monitor's Pakistan correspondent during the height of the Taliban insurgency. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Observer and New Statesman, among other outlets.

Issam and I met the night I landed in Pakistan back in 2008, as I talked about in episode 5 of Rifelion’s "King of The World" podcast. He’s one of those really special friends that has been there for me in more ways than I could possibly name, so I am delighted to have him as our first journalist guest. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Shahjehan: What's a major story that you've been following this year? And then what's something a little less well- known that interests you?

Issam: A major story I've been following this year has been climate [change] and its multiplying impacts on the extreme weather. It seems like maybe 10 years ago, we'd experience one or two massive events and then we'd have a breather, and [it would be] several months or a year [or two later] before something like that happened again. And now I feel it's just been a succession of one thing after the next. You're in Boston and I'm in D.C. and we had cataclysmic smoke in the early part of the summer, which is coming down from the Canadian wildfires. And since then [there have been climate events in] eastern Canada, western Canada and Hawaii. And that's just in the sort of area that my office would look at. But we've seen similar things in Greece, just this confluence of all these events, and obviously climate is a big driver. There are human factors as well, especially when you talk about something like Hawaii. And the things that have been supercharging that — the hotter, drier conditions … It's just been a big year for climate in general.

We have this major climate litigation starting up now. Those kids in Montana won a big case against the state because of constitutional claims about the way that the state is very fossil fuel–friendly, and [the state] not factoring in that their constitution guarantees a safe and healthful environment. [In] Florida, we're just seeing another hurricane emerging right now. 

For me, a personal favorite [story] that I've looked at this year has been this intersection between AI and music (it's slightly out of my beat, but I did it because I'm interested, like, I love The Beatles). And it's really cool because, whether you love 'em or hate 'em, you have [anonymous creators] out there creating these really high fidelity imitation works where they could, for example, bring people back to life like John Lennon, or de-age people's voices. [Paul] McCartney then took this on himself and said, “I'm gonna do something with this, with the dead band members.” There have also been these imitations out for The Weeknd and Drake, and I think Universal got really mad about it .

It's really interesting and I think we're at the start of something cool. The technology is still in its infancy and it's like we're in the GeoCities phase for [AI music compared to where the Internet is now]. The people who are making good AI imitation music right now are hobbyists who have a deep technical knowledge of how to do AI voice training — and that's not easy. These people have in-depth knowledge of music editing software. And they probably have someone who's a pretty good singer in the first place, who can sing like John Lennon before they even apply the AI filter onto it, and I think we're just at the cusp [of what can be done with the technology].

The software GarageBand made multilayered music accessible to the masses in the early 2000s, and I think we're about to see that happen with AI. So that's really cool. Or you know how in the 1990s, auto-tune was this magic studio tool and now anyone can do it? I think we're about to see the same thing … You're going to be able to sing and make [yourself] sound like [your] favorite singer, but where is that going to take us? And is it fair that you can just rip off someone's likeness? Can you rip off someone's voice [and is it a tribute if you're trying to monetize it]? So we're going to see a lot of litigation. All these factors will come in; people will probably be more lenient if it's a tribute and you're not trying to make money off of it.

Shahjehan: What do you remember from publishing your first major story or first big byline?

Issam: One of my first major stories that I [sometimes] think about is when I was back in Pakistan and writing for the Christian Science Monitor. This was at a time when Pakistan was really in the global news because of the war on terror. And I did an investigative piece about Pakistani journalists who were being placed inside the US. They were [acting as] foreign correspondents in America on essentially state money, and that relationship wasn't being revealed. And it was about soft image building and about improving the relations of the two countries. When that story broke, it was my first major experience on Twitter/X of [getting] massive traction and replies for days. It's a nice feeling and you like to recreate it.

[Another] big story … was covering the Bin Laden raid in its immediate aftermath. It was an interesting time … you had these kids the next day who were selling pieces of the Black Hawk helicopter, like for 50 rupees, just a bit of cabling here or there. It was surreal just to be part of that history.

Shahjehan: How has journalism changed since you started?

Issam: I was very lucky to come into a newspaper called the Christian Science Monitor quite early on, while they still had freelancer budgets. Perhaps they still have something of that, but for people who want to get a start as a foreign correspondent, the freelance budget is not what it was. And frankly, I don't know how many people are out there … I feel like the volume is not what it once was. And even in the last eight or nine months, I think we've seen the digital news landscape really narrow down in this country.

For me, I'm lucky that I'm with AFP and I have been now for the past 11 years. The fact is it's quasi-governmental, and what that does is shield us to some extent from mass job cuts and so on. So we're in a good place that way. But … the industry has waxed and waned, so I think we're in a little bit of a down spot right now. 

For example, nobody cares about [Pakistan]. When I was there, that was the hot spot. You'll barely get any coverage; you'll barely hear anything out of that [now]. And, [you and I] both have Pakistani heritage and we're just not gonna see it in the news in the same way. It will creep up … when something massive happens — of course there are political issues going on right now — some of that will filter through, but the level of interest isn't once where it was.

Shahjehan: Maybe for someone who knows nothing about how a journalist does what they do, what's your daily routine?

Issam: As a science journalist, I have quite a broad beat, which is unlike some of my U.S. colleagues. I end up covering health, the environment, space. It's really fun to have such a broad bucket of things to look at. You can sometimes feel like our competitors — like AP or Reuters or some of the U.S. media outlets — [are] more specialized, so they can sometimes jump on stuff quicker than us. So we have to differentiate what we do a little bit. 

On a typical day, I'll plan out my week by reviewing what the major studies are in the big journals, like Science and Cell Press and that kind of thing, because we get those under embargo and can see what's coming up. And we'll see what's going on with the space calendar. We'll have an idea of what major drugs are in their pipeline and where they are, or major announcements from the administration. For example, they [recently] announced they were targeting 10 drugs for negotiation on Medicare. We keep track of this sort of calendar item. And apart from that, what's more fun than the calendar items generally are your own ideas. So you're constantly thinking “how can I add value? How can I come up with something, which is my own idea, which I can go and report and make a fun, interesting story?” And … those ideas just come to you through conversations, through immersing yourself in the news media landscape.

Last year, I wanted to do something on right whales. There's 300 of them left. So I [planned] out a trip — let's go to a research vessel and see these whales and write something about them and the conservation issues; what does the outlook look like for them? Or [for another example], D.C. is currently overrun with deer (and I'm sure it's the same case up in New England). In the absence of [deer’s] predators, is there an ecological story to be told? They're eating up people's gardens! They're actually threatening the viability of the national park within Washington, D.C.

You want to tell stories in a fun, engaging way. I also came across an urban deer hunter. He's a guy from Virginia and he literally has a crossbow, and according to Virginia law, he can go up to people and knock on their doors and ask if he can hunt in their garden. And they usually say yes. So I hung out with him for a bit and talked to him and heard his stories about what it's like to hunt deer in an urban environment with a bow and arrow or crossbow. He obviously sells their meat, [but] the sort of reactions he gets … that's the more fun side [of journalism]. That's the more interesting side, when you come up with a fun idea that you want to pursue and report on.

Shahjehan: What are important skills you think that you have that you've developed over time and are crucial for your job?

Issam: Speed and accuracy. You have to be able to ingest a lot of information quickly … PR people are coming at you all the time with a lot of low quality information. But now and then, they'll be stuck, which is more interesting. You're presented with this firehose of information, and you have to become good at judging what is and isn’t worth your time. And if something seems to be worth your time and you get into it, you have to be able to know that you can get out of it if you need to; is something worth the hassle? For example, “X” might be a complicated story, but if I spend time on “X,” will the output and traction be worth it? And [on top of that], in wire journalism, speed is key. You have to write a million miles an hour, and you have to write good, clean copy.

You get it over time, and you get it over experience and age. I remember being in my mid 20s and just [being] in awe of people who could do this better, but you'll get there.

Shahjehan: Who are some Muslim-identifying journalists that you admire?

Issam: I would say Mehdi Hassan is an interesting guy. He's a gifted polemicist and he's enjoyable to watch … There are a lot of unsung people who are in the wires and whose names you might not know readily. There's a guy called Umar Farooq … he's just such a good journalist. Sometimes these people in print … they’re not necessarily going to become a household name, but I can admire the journeyman because I'm a kind of a journeyman myself. I have a friend, Madiha Tahir, who's in New York. And she and another person, Mahvish Ahmad, started a really cool left wing [zine] a few years ago called Tanqeed, and they're both really gifted writers, but then they shifted into academia. 

I think we do pretty well [at] AFP in terms of lifting up people who are from that background. You'll find a lot of people of North African and Arab heritage purely because of the fact that we are French.

Please follow Issam Ahmed on social media here. And you can listen to our full conversation below, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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