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Posts Tagged ‘news’

The horror, the horror

In behavior, Crime, journalism, life, news, photography, war on August 31, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you know Joseph Conrad’s work,“Heart of Darkness”, published in 1902?

These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.

The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.

But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.

These include:

— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza

— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africaphoto(48)

— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)

– The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS

— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria

– The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses

Yet another American multi-national moving into another country in order to save on corporate taxes

There are risks to those who cover these stories, beyond the need to wear Kevlar body armor in Iraq or head-to-toe coverings when working around Ebola. There is also PTSD and secondary trauma for journalists and their editors and compassion fatigue for viewers and listeners.

I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.

Or not.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, in Burnt Norton, in 1935: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

magnolia

The world is, obviously, filled with beauty and grace and joy, with people who get up every morning and give their best to those around them.

But, really, my dears, this wears me down.

Then what?

Tune out? Become more politically active? Stop caring? Care more? Write a letter to the editor? Blog it? Blog it again…and again…and again…?

Write a check to a charity?
Rant to others on social media?

Or just…not care?

How about you? How do you respond — if at all — to the world’s madness and brutality?

 

Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

In art, behavior, blogging, business, Crime, culture, design, film, journalism, Media, news, photography, politics, television, war, work on August 4, 2014 at 12:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.

Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.

I agree.

Something soothing and lovely instead!

Something soothing and lovely instead!

But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.

After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.

I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.

As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.

On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?

On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.

I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.

They “humanize” the victims, she said.

Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!

And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?

I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.

Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.

I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.

I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.

Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.

Reality was quite enough, thanks!

The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.

We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.

Her husband, writer Nathan Deuel, wrote a book about what it was like to watch her go off and report, leaving him and their infant daughter to do so.

She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:

I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.

We’ve sifted out the worst.

We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.

What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?

When and why?

What do you think?

 

 

On being (truly) honest about our feelings

In behavior, books, Crime, Health, journalism, life, love, Media, photography, television, work on April 2, 2014 at 12:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!

They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?

As the 125-year-old IHT dies, what’s in your media diet?

In business, History, journalism, Media, news, travel on October 15, 2013 at 12:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Tonight marks the end of a 125-year-old newspaper, The International Herald Tribune.

Français : International Herald Tribune, rue d...

Français : International Herald Tribune, rue des Graviers, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As of tomorrow, it becomes the International New York Times:

Founded on October 4, 1887, by New York Herald publisher Gordon Bennett, the newspaper aimed to provide American expats living in Paris with news from home, from stock prices to the latest baseball scores.

Under several owners and different names, it became a link to home for the rising number of Americans traveling abroad, suspending publication only once for the Nazi occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944.

It also became a symbol of US expatriates, with actress Jean Seberg playing an American who sells the paper on the streets of Paris in Jean-Luc Godard’s influential 1960 New Wave film “Breathless.”

It settled on its current name in 1967, after the New York Times and Washington Post took stakes in the paper following the collapse of the New York Herald Tribune.

It expanded globally and is now printed at 38 sites and distributed in more than 160 countries, with a circulation of about 226,000 in 2011.

Few news consumers today even read a newspaper in its printed version and journalists are feeling that pinch; in 2008, 24,000 of us lost our jobs and many of us never found another.

Here’s the NYT’s media columnist David Carr on how narrowly many of us now listen or read:

Data from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on trends in news consumption released last year suggests people are assembling along separate media streams where they find mostly what they want to hear, and little else.

Fully 78 percent of Sean Hannity’s audience on Fox News identified as conservative, with most of the rest of the audience identifying as moderate and just 5 present as liberal. Over on MSNBC, conservatives make up just 7 percent of Rachel Maddow’s audience.

It isn’t just politicians that are feeding their bases, it is the media outlets, as well. The village common — you know, that place where we all meet to discuss our problems, relying on the same set of facts — has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, surrounded by the huge gated communities of like minds who never venture into the great beyond. …Another layer of self-reinforcing messages may be having an impact.

As Eli Pariser described in “The Filter Bubble,” search companies rely on algorithms to predict what users want to see based on past clicks, meaning that users are moved farther away from information streams that don’t fit their ideological bent….The skillful custodians of search can produce what Mr. Pariser describes as “personal ecosystems of information.”

To take that one step further, think of your Facebook feed or your Twitter account, if you have either. When you pick people to follow, do you select from all over the map, or mostly from among those whose views
on culture and politics tend to align with your own? Thought so.

I read The New York Times daily; the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times on weekends. I watch almost no television talk shows — I find endless argumentation, punditry, opinionating and spin a waste of my time.

I’d rather (and do) read a really smart, incisive, insightful book — like the three studies of the American economy I recently read: The Price of Inequality by Paul Stiglitz; The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti and The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs.

When I want to try and understand a complex issue, and I often do, I don’t want partisan BS. I want as many useful, quantifiable, objective facts and data points as possible. Yes, I want some analysis and context. But I don’t want a worldview tilted so far to the right or left that I feel misled.

The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series)

The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read, and enjoy WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan, even though her politics differ from mine. She’s just damn smart.

I sometimes read The Guardian (more to the left than I am), and admire its righteous zeal. I listen to National Public Radio and the BBC (both leaning left, I realize) and sometimes watch BBC News. But only on BBC do I hear “news” about corners of the U.S. long before any mainstream media lumber over.

English: Newspaper Rack outside Newsagents, Po...

English: Newspaper Rack outside Newsagents, Porchester Road Newspapers are available in numerous different languages here. English language papers include USA Today and International Herald Tribune. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What media sources do you rely on for your understanding of the world?

Radio, television, blogs, newspapers (online? in print?), magazines, books?

Do you consume media from beyond your nation’s borders? What and why?

One woman’s life reporting on Syria — for $70 per story

In behavior, journalism, Media, news, photography, politics, travel, women, work on July 18, 2013 at 12:12 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Bastion of the Citadel of Aleppo, Syr...

English: Bastion of the Citadel of Aleppo, Syria Français : Bastion de la citadelle d’Alep, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This story, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is going viral among my journalist/writer/foreign correspondent friends.

It is written by Francesca Borri, an Italian woman who has been reporting from Syria as a freelancer:

People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s
exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the
stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just
the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today
is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even
Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in
Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the
Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their
power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline
piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am
answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”

….

But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors
see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places
like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for
example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress
on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per
night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than
minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance—it’s
almost $1,000 a month—but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator.
You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that
$70 a piece pushes you to save on everything…But they buy your
article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball
handmade by a Pakistani child.

With new communication technologies there is this temptation to
believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive
logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your
magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason
to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and
for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership.
Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they
are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They
want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an
eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who
say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.”

Many kinds of reporting, especially war reporting, (and photography and video and audio) — must be done firsthand.

It can’t be done, contrary to the fantasies of some journalism students who have to be shoved out of their classrooms into the world to talk to real people face to face, by Googling everything!

It’s often terrifying and exhausting. It often leaves the journalists (and their fixers and translators) who do it with PTSD; the terrific Dart Center helps them heal after such work.

Great reporting, of the sort Borri is doing and describing, is damn dangerous. It killed legendary American reporter Marie Colvin. It killed legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died — of all things — of an asthma attack in reaction to the dander of the horses he needed to ride to get into Syria.

The photographer with him, Tyler Hicks, as soldiers expect to do and reporters do not, carried his dead body back to civilization.

We cannot, must not ever accept, only the official/sanitized/biased reports offered up by the military or rebels or the government or corporate flacks.

Everyone, everywhere has an agenda.

The reporter’s primary job is to witness, describe, analyze, explain. They/we are more essential than ever in a world of spin , sound bites and soi-disant journalists who “publish” their point of view without an ounce of training or ethics.

But risking your life for $70 a story? It’s a fucking obscenity. Her editors and publishers should be ashamed of their cheapness — I bet they blow that much money each week on their morning espressos.

I do admire her spirit and her dedication.

Would you do it?

What do you think of her choice?

Journalist or activist — who speaks (more) truth to power?

In behavior, blogging, books, journalism, Media, news, politics on July 4, 2013 at 3:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The ongoing firestorm surrounding the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden to activist/journalist Glen Greenwald prompted New York Times media columnist David Carr this week to ask the question — who should we (most) believe?:

In a refracted media world where information comes from everywhere, the line between two “isms” — journalism and activism — is becoming difficult to discern. As American news media have pulled back from international coverage, nongovernmental organizations have filled in the gaps with on-the-scene reports and Web sites. State houses have lost reporters who used to provide accountability, so citizens have turned to digital enterprises, some of which have partisan agendas.

The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden.

Sometimes, a writer’s motives or leanings emerge between the lines over time, but you need only to read a few sentences of Mr. Greenwald’s blog to know exactly where he stands. Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights.

He is also a journalist.

In some countries, the question is less pressing, perhaps, but in the United States, “objectivity” is professionally expected, and demanded, of anyone who purports to be a news journalist.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 — an organization ferociously guarding its reputation. Every freelancer who writes for the Times is sent a long and detailed ethics code we’re all expected to abide by; this includes not accepting free trips, writing about people we know personally or covering a firm or product in which we have a financial interest.

The word “journalist” is, though has many different variations, sort of like the word “antique” — someone who rewrites press releases and hits “publish” or who trills about mascara and shoes is, in some eyes, as much a journalist  as someone with the respect and stature of Pulitzer Prize winners, like Katherine Boo or the late David Halberstam.

One of the reasons this matters more now is that many younger readers don’t look to standard media outlets, like newspapers, radio or television, to find out what’s happening in the world.

They only want to know what’s happening in their world, or to their friends or political allies.

Now some bloggers are doing what journalists traditionally have done — bearing witness firsthand — like this one, whose powerful account of the violence against women in Tahrir Square in Cairo is deeply depressing, but essential to know.

English: Tahrir Square, with the Egyptian Muse...

English: Tahrir Square, with the Egyptian Museum on left, circa 1940s Cairo (over 70 years ago). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s both a journalist, (by reporting this) and an activist; Opantish is a group fighting sexual assault on women:

Yesterday, June 30th, some friends and I joined a march
from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsy’s
departure and also rejecting military rule. The atmosphere was largely
festive, with singing, chanting, banners and flags. After we joined
other marches congregating at the palace we stood around drinking iced
coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after
days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be
violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with
Opantish, which was operating that evening.

Like many, I was stunned by how Tahrir and the surrounding streets
were carpeted by people protesting, mostly chanting against Morsy. I had
not seen so many people out around Tahrir before, not in the 18 days
that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters
frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian
flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.

The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting
out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I
don’t understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to
this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and
downtown are areas where it is particularly ok to harass women. I don’t
know if geographic locations develop  certain reputations, and therefore
bring this behavior out in people.

I started my shift with Opantish at around 7 30 last night. We did
not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of
cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir.

I’ve been making my living as a journalist since university, and have been a reporter for three major dailies, The Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, in Canada and the New York Daily News, the U.S.’s sixth-largest daily. In those jobs, I was expected to be fair to both sides, giving, whenever possible, both versions of whatever story I was covering. Although some stories — like this one about mobs of men attacking and raping women — really don’t have a defensible or rational “other side” to seek and share.

A Dutch female journalist was raped by five men, in return for trying to do her job. Should she, as some comments suggest here at Jezebel, an American feminist website, not have gone to Tahrir Square at all?

New York Daily News front page on August 9

New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The one place I can take the gloves off, intellectually speaking, is in my books — and I have. In them, I’m able to ferociously and unapologetically state my personal opinion, and advocate for or against anything I want.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” includes interviews with 104 men, women and teens, some who love guns and others traumatized by their use. A few critics cringed at my graphic descriptions of what a bullet does when it hits flesh.

My second book — published this month in China — describes my experience, and that of many others nationwide, working for low wages in a store, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” I took my employer to the woodshed in its final chapter, fed up with terrible pay and escalating demands, rude customers and an ongoing lack of corporate support for front-line workers everywhere, not just our suburban New York mall.

I later received dozens of private emails, from retail workers past and present, thanking me for speaking out, telling the ugly truths behind the bright lights and costly ad campaigns. I was glad to be able to tell their stories.

Someone has to.

Where are you getting your information about the world?

Are you out there actively fighting for or against a cause — and writing about it?

Who — if anyone — do you believe?

No can do — sorry!

In behavior, business, journalism, Media, news, work on April 7, 2013 at 12:04 am

I never used to say no.

When you work freelance, you memorize the phrase “No problem!” when asked to tackle something you’ve never done in your life but pays. If you say no to everything outside your comfort zone, you’ll starve. Nor will you grow your skills and client list.

So when an editor suddenly emailed me with a 24-hour turnaround — to profile Bruce Heyman, nominated as the U.S.’s new ambassador to Canada — I said O.K. The money was awful, $600 for 1,200 words. But I figured I could do it within five or six hours, and keep my usual rate of $100+/hour.

But, within two hours of starting work on it, I called the editor, (a former colleague in Canada,) and said: “Nope. Not going to happen. Sorry.”

Why?

— I called Goldman Sachs, where Heyman works. I emailed and called several PR people there, using sources shared by a Wall Street reporter who’s a friend of a friend, explaining my urgent deadline. I could tell this was not a priority. The PR woman called me back at 5:00 p.m. that day – a mere eight hours after my initial call.

– The one live person I got at Goldman in PR kept saying “I don’t know him. I just got off a plane from Brazil.” Chill, dude.

English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New...

English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New Jersey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– I started Googling Heyman. He likes to drink green tea. That was about the extent of it. Not a good sign.

— I started calling the University of Chicago to reach former White House staffer David Axelrod, since Heyman is a big Obama fundraiser. After five mis-directed calls, I was told that the university has no public relations department (!?). I was told  they’ve never heard of him or the policy institute there he is supposed to be heading.

Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting ...

Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting in the Oval Office, May 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– I started looking at the names of his fellow Chicago-area fundraisers. Billionaires, every one. Would they take a call from some Canadian wire service freelancer? As if.

I weighed the stress and bullshit of chasing all these people all day long — for $600 for a story no one I know in the States would read. Not worth it.

The editor was grateful I let her know right away.

Have you ever ditched a paying gig, and quickly?

How did it turn out?

Does journalism still matter to you?

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, news, politics, US on August 20, 2012 at 3:05 am
Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg

Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg (Photo credit: Jeremy Franklin)

Do you care about facts?

Context?

Objective truth?

As someone who’s been working in journalism for 30 years, I get up every morning assuming — hoping! — there is still an audience interested in learning something smart and thoughtful about the world they didn’t know the day before.

I say “day” because minute-to-minute “news” is often, unless it’s about a death or natural disaster, wrong, biased, misinformed.

Being the first to report something doesn’t mean being the best.

I don’t use Twitter. When I read my “news feed” on Facebook, I don’t substitute my friends’ opinions, videos and pet photos for an understanding of the world.

But many people now do. For them this is news, traditional media be damned.

Thanks to the Internet, to blogs like this and news that reifies hardened political views, too many people now turn to an echo chamber, listening and reading only those people whose shared vision of the world and its challenges — poverty, reproductive rights, defense, education, health care — comforts, soothes and reassures them that their worldview is right!

What we’re gaining — in a feeling of connectedness and community — we’re also losing by ignoring or shutting out the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, perhaps violently. If you live in the U.S. and read the liberal New York Times, it’s worth also reading the opinion and editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to see a totally different view of the same issues.

Just because you lean wayyyyyy to the left, or right, doesn’t mean your opinion is accurate because it’s shared by those who shout your tune the loudest.

No matter how much you may disagree, if you refuse to examine and consider other viewpoints, how can you learn how other people think? With a Presidential election here in a few months, it’s certainly going to play out at the ballot box.

You can’t just cover your ears and shout lalalalalalalalalalalala and hope to have a clue what’s going out there.

I read a variety of media, and try to include British and Canadian sources as often as possible. If I were less lazy, I’d also read Spanish and French media. Nor do I assume that any journalist, or media outlet, has some exclusive claim to the truth. I know better!

When it comes to “truth”, there are many different versions.

Here’s a short video interview from the Guardian newspaper with American journalist Carl Bernstein about the issue; he was one of the two Washington Post reporters whose exhaustive, dogged investigative work on former President Richard Nixon led to his resignation.

In his view, the scourge of our era is this closed-eyes/closed-ears attitude. Our unwillingness to listen to one another in order to gain some sort of consensus.

Do you seek out views other than your own?

What female jocks learn — and Olympic athletes know

In behavior, life, news, sports, women, work on July 28, 2012 at 12:02 am

As millions of us tune into the Olympics today in London, Mariel Zagunis, a saber fencer from Beaverton, Oregon, who won the U.S.’s first gold medal in fencing since 1904 in 2004 was chosen to lead the 529 American athletes into the opening ceremonies. Her parents, Kathy and Robert, were rowers, who met when they competed in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

FedZag6

FedZag6 (Photo credit: Kashmera)

When I moved to New York, and was eager for a new athletic challenge, I trained with a two-time Olympian, saber fencer Steve Mormando, and was nationally ranked in the mid 1990s in that sport for four years.

Fencing rocks!

Competing in sports, especially when you’re aiming for the top, teaches many powerful lessons, some of them of special value to women, in whom unshakable confidence and physical aggression can be seen as ugly, “unfeminine” or worse.

Some of the lessons saber fencing competition taught me:

– Saber (one of three weapons used in the sport), requires aggression and a sort of boldness that’s totally unfamiliar to many girls and women in real life. If you hesitate or pause, you can easily lose to the opponent prepared to start the attack. Go!

– In saber, you “pull distance” and create space between you and your opponent by withdrawing backwards down the strip and extending your blade. This buys you time, and safe space, in which to make a smarter or more strategic move. I’ve often slowed down in life when it looked like I should speed up or jump in quick. Fencing taught me the value of doing the opposite.

– Anger is wasted energy. I hate losing! But stressing out when I did lose, which is inevitable in sports, as in life, only messed with my focus and concentration. Move on.

– Pain will happen. Keep going. I was once hit, hard, early in a day-long regional competition and my elbow really hurt. But I had many more opponents to face and didn’t want to just drop out. Life often throws us sudden and unexpected pain — financial, emotional, physical. Having the ability to power through it will separate you from the weaker pack.

When I fenced at nationals, the first group of American women to do so, there was no option to compete in saber at the Olympic level, let alone world competition. It was frustrating indeed to work and train so hard, traveling often and far, competing regionally and locally, but never have the chance to go for the ultimate challenge, trying for an Olympic team position.

The sport was dominated by European men, and its organizing body, The Federation International d’Escrime, decreed that saber was (of course) too dangerous for women.

Now the U.S. has Zagunis, a young woman of 27, who dominates the sport.

This year, a new sport (which I truthfully find horrifying, but that feels hypocritical, doesn’t it?) — women’s boxing — has been added to the Olympics.

As we watch and cheer and cry and shout over the next few weeks, remember all the women along the way, their efforts often initially dismissed or derided, whose hard work and tenacity break down these barriers.

What’s Queen Elizabeth really like? I spent two weeks with her

In behavior, culture, History, journalism, Media, news, women, work on June 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm
Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As millions of cheering loyal subjects (and the deeply curious) this weekend celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, some of you must wonder — what’s that life really like?

As Queen Elizabeth celebrates 60 years on the throne — and 1,000 boats are floating down the Thames today to celebrate —  here are my personal memories of an unforgettable two weeks spent chasing her.

In 1984, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took a two-week tour of Canada, from New Brunswick to Ontario to Manitoba. I was 26, a brand-new reporter at The Globe and Mail, with six months’ daily newspaper experience.

This would be front-page news every day, and the paper has five daily editions, so I would have to meet multiple deadlines for my editors in Toronto — whether I was an hour ahead or behind in time zone. No pressure!

The Queen, as you would expect, travels with a large entourage of ladies-in-waiting and equerries. Not to mention a serious and determined contingent of security. In charge on that tour was a dapper Glaswegian, in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. He was tiny but ferocious, yet managed to keep a sense of humor as he tried to keep dozens of annoying reporters and photographers at bay. One day, as we all pressed forward behind the Queen on walkabout, he walked backward, his arms outstretched toward us.

“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.

“I could use the whip,” he said. My. (I later bought him one and gave it to him as a going-away gift at our final party.)

The two weeks were an insane and exhausting blur of 14 to 16-hour days. It was also the first time the press corps — men and women of all ages from every outlet, from the CBC to Time -- was, at each event, literally penned into a very small space with cords around it.

This was also long before cellphones or the Internet and an era when the fastest possible laptop showed (!!) barely 4 sentences at a time, attached to a telephone handset with clips and took forever to download.

Not to mention trying to find a phone on deadline…I raced into a hotel lobby once and commandeered the phone in the news-stand. Another time I ran frantically to the nearest private home, banged on the door, begged for a table to write on and a phone from which to transmit, in the middle of which the man of the house (a judge) came home and wondered why a crazed blond stranger had taken over his phone line and kitchen table.

Or the house at which I banged on the door and promptly fell flat on my face as they opened it.

Good times!

Every day, the Queen’s staff gave us a little printed piece of paper with the exact words to describe her clothing; not “light green” but “eau de Nil.”

The greatest challenge of covering a Royal Tour? There is no news. Cutting ribbons. Smiling. Accepting bouquets.

So every reporter at home reading my stuff was inwardly sneering at how mundane it had to be while every one of us on the tour were desperate to find a scrap of information that no one else in the huge pack, all traveling on the same buses or planes, could access. (When the Queen’s aircraft takes off, yours must leave a few minutes behind….it’s called the “purple corridor.”)

So when I reported that a government minister touched her on the back and shoulder (you never touch Her Majesty!) it made front-page news in Britain and created a huge ruckus.

Then I wrote a later story about the oddness of being feet from a reigning sovereign whose face was on the stamps and currency I’d been using since birth — and how she is really just another human being. On that one, (having said [yes] that she had visible veins in her legs, i.e. she’s human, too), I got plenty of hate mail and calls.

One man suggested I be drawn and quartered.

In Toronto’s harbor, the press corps was invited to drinks aboard Britannia, then her yacht. I still have the engraved invitation, on thick white gold-edged card: “The Master of the Household invites…”

We were all nervous and excited. The equerries were drop-dead gorgeous in their uniforms and poured very strong G & Ts. Then we were all formed into little semi-circles into which the Queen was guided to say hello. When I was introduced, she looked past me and said “Pity we haven’t had time to read the newspapers.”

As if. She had been furious with some of my work and this was the most British diss of all. “Stories? What stories?”

Her jewelry was astonishing. Her tiara…oh, yeah, those diamonds are real!

Her detective, who I met only at the final party, had remained invisible. When we met, I’d had no idea he had, of course, been there the whole time. Short, quiet, modest, James Beaton had in March 1974 saved Princess Anne from a would-be kidnapper and taken a bullet to his body for her.

Good heavens! I’d never met a real hero before.

My favorite memory of all?

Starved for any scrap of color or detail my competitors couldn’t match, I peeked into the rear seat of the parked car in which Her Majesty had been driven to an event.

There sat a small suitcase with a very large red cardboard baggage tag.

In large black block type, it simply read: The Queen.

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