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It's J-Day: Former LA Times' Bill Lobdell and Newsweek's Michael Hastings On The Story That Broke Their Hearts

In Media on August 27, 2009 at 8:21 am
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Any journalist working on emotionally harrowing stories — war, corruption, violence, death, poverty — faces a specific and deeply personal challenge. In order to witness this material, which can be terrifying, confusing and anxiety-provoking to us as well as those we cover, we have to be present, both physically and emotionally. As a result, many of us later suffer PTSD or secondary trauma, the price of admission to these searing stories, as James Rainey wrote recently in The Los Angeles Times. That can bring anxiety, depression, nightmares or insomnia.

A new feature film, The Bang-Bang Club, recently finished shooting in South Africa. The name was given to a group of  young news photographers that included one who still shoots for The New York Times, Joao Silva, and South African photographer Kevin Carter. Carter is best-known, to some of us, as the photographer who captured an image of a tiny, emaciated Sudanese child lying on the ground, a vulture waiting mere feet away. The image won the 1994 Pultizer Prize. Two months later, at 33, Carter committed suicide.

I experienced secondary trauma while writing my own book, during which I spent two years interviewing, and writing about, women and girls. some of whom had experienced gun-related violence, including a woman shot point-blank in her California driveway while her husband was shot and killed beside her during a robbery, women who’d shot and killed, women who’d been shot themselves, women whose husbands and sons had committed suicide. Sometimes this was just exhausting and overwhelming.

The Dart Center is a terrific resource for helping journalists deal with this issue; last week’s J-Day featured medical author Maryn McKenna, whose new book about MRSA required much wearying, important reporting. She’ll be one of their fellows this fall at Columbia University, a sort of post-traumatic de-briefing.

I asked two brave, respected journalists whose work I admire to talk about this difficult issue. I met Bill Lobdell when we both participated in a religion writing fellowship at The Poynter Institute. I was stunned by the story he told us then, which later became his book, and never forgot it. I did not know Michael Hastings before coming to T/S but his raw, passionate candor here is also generous and extraordinary.

William Lobdell, former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, author of “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.”

Michael Hastings, fellow T/S contributor, former Newsweek Baghdad correspondent, whose 2008 book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story,” is about his fiancee’s murder.

Tell us a little about how and why you chose journalism.

Michael: I’ll start with a cliché—from about the age of 12 I knew I wanted to write. (Or join the Marines, win a congressional medal of honor, and run for president.) As a teenager, I discovered guys like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and had a serious Beat literature phase. I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances. That didn’t work out so well. I wrote a column at my school paper, called “Fear and Loathing at LCC.” (Lower Canada College, the name of the high school I attended in Montreal.) Then I moved to Burlington, Vermont, where I went to a Catholic school. I was promptly banned from writing for the school newspaper there. The principal was a rather large man named Brother Roger. He didn’t take kindly to an essay where I compared him, perhaps unfavorably, to Jabba the Hutt.

Anyway, after bouncing around at a few colleges, I ended up at New York University. During my last semester, I got an unpaid internship at Newsweek International. I probably was the only one who applied, as the work at first was primarily on Friday and Saturday nights. But I’d been chastened enough by life at that point to realize that I’d managed to get my foot in the door, so to speak, and I wasn’t going take it out. So I more or less lived at the Newsweek offices, and the internship turned to a full time position. I guess I was 22 at the time. I loved it, and I learned how to write an edit there…. I never refused an assignment or anything an editor asked me to do, which helped my cause.. But after about three years, I started asking to be sent to Iraq. By that time, America was already suffering from its first bout of Iraq fatigue—circa 2005. It wasn’t a hot story. Not many people were banging down the door to go. So my bosses finally sent me in August 2005. Six months or so later, the civil war broke out, and all of sudden, Iraq was a really big story again.. I was named the magazine’s Baghdad correspondent a few months after that. That meant I was now going to move to Baghdad permanently

William: I went to Stanford and the University of California, Irvine and majored in political science. As my senior year approached, I still didn’t have a clue what I’d do for a living upon graduation. A mentor gave me some obvious advice that had eluded me: find what you love and get a job in that field. Well, I loved reading newspapers and magazines. I was a news junkie. I thought, maybe I could be a reporter. I went to the college newspaper and the minute I walked into that newsroom, I was hooked.

My career path began traditionally—an internship at the Los Angeles Times and then a job at a small daily in Fullerton. But then it took a turn. I became editor and later president of a local magazine chain. After that seven-year detour, I returned to daily journalism as editor of the Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. I eventually oversaw the LA Times’ community news division before becoming a Times reporter. I spent eight years on the religion beat and two more years as a city editor. I left the paper last year and am running two Internet-based businesses: http://www.newportmesadailyvoice.com and http://www.greersoc.com. I also wrote a critically acclaimed memoir of my experiences on the religion beat called “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.”

A little background on this story and how you came to cover it:
Michael: The permanent move to Baghdad had a pretty immediate impact on my personal life. I’d fallen in love with a girl named Andi Parhamovich, who I’d met in New York. She was a publicist for Air America, the radio station. We’d been seeing each other, very seriously, for over a year. We were doing what young couples do when they think they’ve found the one—looking at engagement rings and the like. We were talking about moving in together in New York when I got the Baghdad post. Literally, there was a week when we had started to look at apartments, and the next day I found out I’d be living in Baghdad, for at least a year. This, to put it mildly, caused some strain on our relationship—lots of drama and arguments and threats to break up. But we decided that we would stay together and try to make it work.

Then Andi decided that she wanted to go overseas as well. She’d always wanted to do it, and now seemed like as good a time as any. So she took a position at an American NGO in Baghdad, and joined me there in the fall. We were both living in the Green Zone. We tried to see each other a few times a week. In December, Andi switched jobs, and her new compound was out in the Red Zone (i.e. not the Green Zone.) It was harder for us to see each other, but we still did, and kept in touch all the time by instant messaging and texts. We were planning in February to take a vacation to Paris—I had the reservations at the Four Seasons and everything—where I was supposed to propose. That never happened. Three weeks after she took this new job, she was killed in an ambush, along with three of her security guards.

William: I had a born-again experience at age 28 and noticed that religion in the mainstream media, particularly on both coasts, was often treated as a freak show. The coverage didn’t reflect the dramatic (and often touching) stories I was seeing in my faith community and others. I began to think my calling was to be a religion writer.

After years of prayer, I landed the job at the LA Times. I thought God had answered my prayers. And for the first few years, the job was a dream. I wrote some great stories, impressed my bosses and deepened my faith. But then came the Catholic sex scandal. I covered that story for six years, and it deeply troubled me on many levels.

It also made me realize I had a knack for investigative reporting, and on my beat, unfortunately, there was no shortage of scandal. I developed a national reputation for this, and the stories kept coming. The hypocrisy and bad behavior put dents in my faith. I tried to shore up my faith by collecting evidence that showed Christianity was true. But the facts I gathered pointed me away from God. After four years of struggle, I realized I had become an atheist.

I asked off the religion beat, not because I had lost my faith but because I was becoming cynical and burned out.

What made you want to write a book about this?
Michael: I didn’t want to write this book—I think needed is a better word. I was completely shattered when I learned what happened to Andi. Angry, so upset, shocked. And these last two sentences are severe understatements. I had this overwhelming urge to scream at the world—pay attention motherfuckers, this is what this war is about, you will not forget Andi. She’s not just going to be one more statistic, one more AP headline. I knew I owed it to her to write it—I knew she would want me to write it, as she loved it when I would write letters to her and even write short stories where she was the main character. (Cheesy, true, but cheese is at least fifty percent of modern love.) And I knew I was fortunate enough to have a platform to make sure she wasn’t forgotten. <

So to make sense of what happened, on the most basic level, I started finding out about her killing and writing it down within the first 24 to 72 hours. I instinctively knew that the days following her death would be the best window to actually figure out what really went down. There was so much violence in Iraq at that time that things would just get lost, unsolved, unanswered. I was there in Baghdad and the people at her organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), were still talking to me. I interviewed an eyewitness to the killing. I had access to government officials. I had a sense that if I waited to try to figure out what happened, some kind of cover up, or the typical covering-your-ass behavior would eventually take place by her organization, NDI. Turns out, I was right—NDI basically started covering their ass pretty soon after that in fairly unseemly ways.

But that stuff is all the bullshit back story. What I held onto, and what I knew, was that it was either write or die for me. I felt I owed it to Andi’s memory, to her family, to her friends, to bring her the attention she deserved. I also didn’t really give a fuck anymore, so I knew I could be much more honest in my reporting and writing on Iraq than people who still care about their journalism careers could be. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to describe the emotions of loss how they really felt, not how we rationalize them later. I wanted readers to feel uncomfortable when they read it. A girl died, after all, brutally, while trying to do her part to fix our mistakes in Iraq — a war that will be seen as one the most catastrophically bad foreign policy decisions that our country has ever made. (A decision helped along by thoughtful cheerleaders in the media and weak politicians.) I felt we’d had enough of pundits and allegedly objective journalism. Look what that had got us. The trauma had freed me up to write something that would bring the reader much closer to the truth of the war than what had been out there. If I waited, I would lose the chance to describe the essence of war—that is, it’s emotional, unhinged, angry, shitty, exciting, almost always pretty stupid, and devastating. As Ernie Pyle said, a few months before he was killed by sniper: “Fuck my shit,” he said, “That’s what war is, fuck my shit.”

William: I waited a year to go public, even with most of my friends, because I wanted my feelings to settle. Once I knew this wasn’t just a passing phase, I asked my editor at the LA Times if he’d be interested in a story about how I lost my faith on the religion beat. He agreed. When the story ran on the front page, I received nearly 3,000 e-mails from readers—more than 99% of them positive in their own way. It touched a nerve. Readers, the majority of them Christian, said they loved that someone talked so openly about his struggles with faith and doubt. They also liked that I exposed how damaging hypocrisy can be to a believer.

From the essay, I had a couple of agents contact me about expanding it into a book. Once I got together a book proposal, it was sold in 10 days.

What was the hardest part of living through it? And then, of writing it — commodifying something painful and personal into a book.

Michael: I’d never experienced violent or sudden loss. It’s something one can’t prepare for, and it’s difficult for those who haven’t experienced it to really understand how life-changing it can be. So losing Andi was the hardest part, the most horrible thing that has ever happened in my life. And I get into this in the book, but I of course felt my own guilt for being over there, for Andi being over there. Writing it was the only relief. The book is what kept me going.

I didn’t really consider the questions of commodification until after the fact. I tried to focus on the positives. The proceeds of the book could start the Andi Foundation, which they have, and we’ve been able to already do great things there, another way to keep Andi’s memory alive. We’ve even made amends with NDI, and have established an annual fellowship with them in her name. They’ve still never admitted their massive failure, but no point in holding a grudge. My goal was also to make Andi a part of the history of the war and, I’m quite proud of the fact that the book has been published around the world; it has been excerpted in many more countries, so Andi’s story really has reached hundreds of thousands of more people. I felt fortunate that a publisher was giving me the chance to share her story, and my story. Most war dead are lucky if they get a writeup in the local paper.

There are negatives, of course. But they’re nothing compared to the actual positive things that publishing the book accomplish. But it’s not like this is some uplifting story. A thousand books aren’t going to get her back, nothing is. It it’s a horrible situation, mind-numbingly horrible, but you try to do what you can. You desperately search for silver linings, lemonade from lemons, whatever you can grasp onto to help deal with the pain, to give her death meaning.

There’s a great quote by Wallace Stegner, talking to students in a writing workshop: “If you spill your guts on the floor,” he told his students, “Don’t be surprised if people step on them.” The bread and butter of journalism is the pain and misery of others. So I find it funny that when a person writes about their own pain and misery, others in the media are quick to level the charge of exploitation. Sort of ridiculous, really. I guarantee I cared more, put more effort, put more time, in writing about Andi than most journos do when they whip off pieces about death and destruction and trauma in an afternoon, without much care. Especially when it comes to Iraq, where you had all these supposedly top journalists cheering the war on, all these media types, who all have blood on their hands, who got us into the mess, and then who’ve written books about the mess they got us in, columns about what they got us in — even written plays! — and yet they still do this tsk-tsking: “Well, that’s just not appropriate to write like that! It makes us uncomfortable! It’s controversial!” It was sadly amusing.

I knew I would have to do publicity, but I didn’t really mind that. Talking about Andi publicly, getting more people to remember her, to learn about the war, was something that I wanted. It was another relief, perhaps therapeutic. It was emotionally draining, and you’d get a few really obnoxious questions, but again, it was bringing attention to an issue, the war and its true human cost, that we so easily try to forget and ignore.

It’s funny, before this happened, I would wonder why victims’ relatives and loved ones would often seem so willing to speak to the press. I’d interviewed many people right after horrible events, and there was a part of me that was always a little suspicious. Why are they talking? But after Andi was killed, I gained an understanding of why we speak out. Because it gives meaning to the loss. It shows that someone out there cares. Most people who lose a loved one get comfort from expressions of condolences, no matter how cliché, when someone, even a stranger, says “I’m sorry for your loss”, when the church is packed with mourners, when emails come in expressing sympathy. That really means something to the one who is grieving. Media attention works in the same kind of way on the grieving process; it’s comforting, meaningful, to feel that someone, maybe even the world, cares.

William: As a journalist, it’s drilled into you to never write about yourself. Report the story, don’t be the story. In a memoir, you are the story. It was hard to get over that. On a more personal level, for a memoir to work, it has to be honest. And it was very painful and difficult to write about my shortcomings and failures. That said, it was also very freeing.

What advice would you offer a fellow journalist/writer going through so devastating a loss and trying to write about it?

Michael: If you feel the need to write it, write it. Damn the consequences. You know the reasons you’re writing it, so don’t let the nay-sayers or fear of criticism stop you.

William: Pain is where the good stories can be found. Also, writing about it helps make sense of what you went through. That’s why I originally wrote the essay for the LA Times. I wanted to make sense of what happened to me and the research and writing helped.

What feedback (not reviews, from readers) have you had? How, if at all, has this affected you?

Michael: One of the most important things are all the emails I’ve received from people who have been touched by the book. It made writing it worthwhile. The most powerful moment after the book was published was at a book signing in Andi’s hometown of Perry, Ohio. Her family, and hundreds of members of the community came out to show their support. That meant everything to me. But always, I knew the most important readers were Andi’s mother and father. Both of them have read the book, both trusted me to write it, and I hope it’s helped in some small way to ease their pain, if such a thing is even possible. They’re really amazing people.

William: The e-mails and phone calls tend to fall into three categories: 1) people trying to re-convert me. 2) long-time atheists congratulating me (or wondering why it took me so long to come to such an obvious conclusion); and 3) people thanking me for writing something that is close to what they are going through.

The feedback has been nice because it shows people read my story the way I intended to write it. They got it.

Would you tackle another very difficult story like this? If not, why not?

Michael: God, I really hope that nothing like this every happens to me again. The circumstances were somewhat horribly unique. But that’s the problem with tragedy; it would be great if there was some kind of immunization to it, that if it hit once, you’d never get it again. Yes, I would like to see a tragedy vaccine. Life says that’s not going to be discovered anytime soon though.

But I think folks who write are cursed. It can be great curse sometimes, an affliction at other times. Writing is the way I make sense of the world. So I’m not afraid to write something intensely personal, if I feel compelled to do so. As for other difficult stories about death and loss and heartbreak, I’ve been tackling them, and will continue to tackle them.

They’re the most important stories to tell.

William: That’s a good question. I probably go after another story like this because I learned a lot about myself.

This is the final installment — for now — in the J-Day series, If you’d like more, please email tips, ideas, comments. suggestions. I’d love to hear from you!

  1. Caitlin, thanks for this. Simply devastating.
    Best,
    Eileen

  2. Thank you for the J-Day series Caitlin. Meeting the journalists through your interviews has been pretty incredible. I know that men and women who are cops, medics, teachers, social workers, and military confront trauma daily. The writers and photographers who bring these stories back to our kitchen tables invest so much of themselves.
    Tom Medlicott

  3. Thank you so much for the J-Day series, Caitlin. It’s really been illuminating for me as a young reporter, and my fingers are crossed that you’ll start it up again sometime.

  4. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I hope we can have more of these conversations about what we do and why and how. I am saddened by the loss of such terrific voices from our newsrooms as these two writers.

  5. […] late August, 2009, I ran this post here, which includes an interview with Michael about his first book. An excerpt from that post: […]

  6. […] This post is now a bit of journalism history — in it I interviewed the late Michael Hastings, who was killed in a fiery car crash in Los Angeles in June 2013. This post is an interview with two terrific male journalists about the reporting that broke their he… […]

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