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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
This late 1960s photograph shows a seated, lis...

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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: Read the rest of this entry »

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