Journalists, (Believe It Or Not), Have Feelings Too, says A New Documentary

News Reporter
Image by besfort z via Flickr

Journalists have feelings too. That’s the message of a new 36-minute documentary discussed today in the Los Angeles Times.

The film, “Breaking News, Breaking Down” focuses on the toll that reporting dark or terrifying stories can take on the men and women who gather that material, who pride themselves on doing whatever it takes to get it, toughing it out, and crying, if and when they do, much later and alone.

I’ve lived through this, as have many writers, photographers and cameramen I know. War, 9/11, poverty, crime. Hard stories exact a price. The Dart Center is there to help.

I’ll be blogging about this in an upcoming J-Day.

Journalism? It's a Tribal Thing

Image by Okinawa Soba via Flickr

This is the first in an ongoing series, every Thursday for the next six weeks, maybe more, of essays and interviews about news journalism, and why and how some of us do it. I’ll also offer original interviews with J-veterans whose work I admire, writers and photojournalists. If it’s Thursday – it’s J-Day…

Make no mistake. We’re a tribe. Whatever the ritual scars or initiation rites, becoming a respected, recognized news journalist — regardless of your medium or tools of transmission — can be as difficult and arcane as hunting and killing a wild boar or surviving many long hours alone in a dark, forbidding place. It does not happen, nor should it happen, overnight. If it does, beware. It is quite probably unearned. And the tribe knows it.

The tribe, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or nationality, has time-honored rituals, the shared and inevitable scars we’ve acquired and sometimes discuss over a beer in Berlin or at a conference in Boston or at a presser in Brooklyn or Doha. The breathtaking self-assurance of some, that so often spills over into arrogance, hides the truth we all really know. Every one of us will err, whether it shows up in the paper’s corrections box or remains a private and unresolved matter of conscience. Within this industry, at almost any level of the game, there’s daily doubt and fear, confusion and pain — and, sometimes, great, shared joy when we’ve done it well.

This includes:

Missing a deadline, getting someone’s name wrong (or several), getting the name of the company you’re covering wrong, losing your press credential, “forgetting” to turn in your official credential(s) after you’re canned or quit because you can’t bear to lose it, making (up) a new one, missing the bus or train or plane that will get you to the place you need(ed) to be to cover the story, not having enough money to get the next one.  Standing in 100 degree heat and humidity, or a driving rain or a hurricane, to get to the right details or source. Losing your pen, your notebook, your tape recorder and/or tapes, losing your camera or laptop. Spilling coffee all over your notebook so you can’t read your notes. Getting caught in rain or snow so you can’t write in your notebook because the paper’s wet and you don’t have a tape recorder. Getting back from an interview with not enough notes and you can’t make anything up and you can’t bear calling people back and re-interviewing them because they’ll realize how incompetent you’ve just been.

Misunderstanding a foreign-language word or phrase, translating it, and mis-quoting. Having 10 minutes to file. Filing for all five editions. Filing from the newsroom because your boss is too cheap to get you there while every single competitor is on-site for the story and about to kick your ass. Writing a review in 20 minutes and dictating it over the phone because you have no time to actually write it down. Doing a stakeout, being scared to pee for hours — and being scared to drink anything because then you”ll really have to pee — and possibly missing the exact moment you’ve been waiting 15 hours for. Continue reading “Journalism? It's a Tribal Thing”

What Does a Miracle Sound Like? She Knows

Ornamental Cherry Tree In Full Bloom, Washingt...
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When Toronto sound designer Jane Tattersall, considered Canada’s best, needed to illustrate a scene of a tree in bloom, considered a magical event in one film, she had to think of a way to make the sound of a miracle.

“I used a beautiful ring-off of a bell, not the strike but the end of it, and a gentle whoosh of air. It was both natural and unnatural. That is, not synthetic, but still not realistic. An organic miracle.”

Jane works on a wide range of films and television projects. If you’ve watched the popular series “The Tudors”, you’ve heard the many different sound of horses’ hooves she recorded herself north of Toronto. A quiet, calm, thoughtful woman, she travels the world with her microphone, capturing everything from the sound of nightingales to the noise of a car’s handbrake. She’s a gentle obsessive — with an entire wall and case of trophies and awards for her and her company’s work.

Please check out my story about her in the Leisure & Arts page of today’s Wall Street Journal.

A Loaded Subject: Guns, and What to Do About Them

Smith & Wession M&P Victory model revolver.
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There are few subjects more divisive in the U.S. than the millions of guns owned privately — they’re found in about 30 percent of American homes — and how to quell or reduce the annual toll this exacts, about 30,000 deaths a year, 55 percent of those suicide.

There are millions of people whose firearms will never injure or kill anyone, and others whose gun or guns, sometimes without their knowledge or permission, will cause mayhem and havoc, whether stolen, re-sold to a criminal, used in the commission of another crime. Given the incredibly wide range of experiences Americans have of guns — your child is shot in a drive-by, your husband commits suicide, your daughter thrives in her 4H shooting program, your son attends college on an NCAA riflery scholarship, your family relies for meat on the deer or game you shoot, you’ve only seen one on a cop’s hip or in a movie — it can feel as though any sort of productive dialogue on reducing suicide and homicide is futile. Some hunters wonder why this is their problem. Traumatized victims of urban gun violence wonder why it’s not.

On Monday, I visited a Manhattan apartment where I met about 20 men and women who support the work of the president and CEO of the Brady Campaign, Paul Helmke, who spoke to them about what he’s doing, the challenges he faces and the progress he feels the group has made. Continue reading “A Loaded Subject: Guns, and What to Do About Them”

Two Women, Not Feeling Well, Manage to Kill 58 People. Talk About Sick.

Flight 3407
Image by cra1843 via Flickr

Today’s newspapers, where I live near New York City, carry two awful stories echoing an ugly avoidable theme — a local woman driving a vehicle full of small children and a professional flying a commercial aircraft filled with 50 paying passengers, both doing so after telling others they were feeling ill but handling the job anyway. In both instances, those inside the vehicle and those aboard the plane were killed; only one five-year-old boy, the driver’s son, survived. In both instances, the passengers, naturally, assumed complete trust in the prudence, competence and sense of responsibility of the two in charge of transporting them — both women. The car’s driver was 36, the co-pilot 24.

Their passengers were wrong and they died for it.

The driver of the minivan, Diane Schuler, called her brother to say she wasn’t feeling well, and faced a long drive south from a camping trip. He offered to drive north, a good hour’s’ distance, to come and get her. Stay put, he suggested. She did not. She had three young nieces, his daughters, and her own two children with her. At 1:30 that day, she drove the van the wrong way into the northbound lane of the narrow, busy Taconic State Parkway, drove 1.7 miles, and crashed head-on into another vehicle, a Chevy Trailblazer, killing the three men inside and the children, her two-year-old daughter and her three nieces, ages 9,7 and 5.  The ramp she mistook for an entrance is clearly marked with signs saying Do Not Enter. A police officer quoted in the Times said “She seemed a little disoriented” when she called her brother.

Rebecca L. Shaw, the young and poorly-paid co-pilot of Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo that crashed on Feb. 12 wanted to call in sick,  but didn’t. “If I call in sick now, I’ve got to put myself in a hotel until I feel better,” a transcript now released reveals her saying, coughing and sneezing while in the cockpit during that flight. On her annual gross pay of $15,800, a night’s hotel stay was an expense she wanted to avoid. That crash killed 50 people.

Other than better judgment, could anything have prevented this?

Rape in South Africa, Where Little Girls and Lesbians Are Targets of Choice

CIA map of South Africa
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Today, BBC World News, a radio show I listen to every morning for an hour, will focus again on this horrifying issue, one the BBC has been following for years. In 2002, they posted the news that one in four South African girls under the age of 16 had been raped. Now, a survey of 1,730 men conducted by the Medical Research Council there finds that 25 percent of men say they’ve raped, and half of them have done it more than once.

In addition to child and adult rape, consider the phenomenon of “corrective rape” — the idea being that a brutal sexual attack by a man, or several will “cure” lesbians of their preference for women. Eudy Simelone, one of the nation’s star athletes, a lesbian, was raped and stabbed 25 times for the crime of being gay.

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know her name or much about her story. Imagine the international outrage and horror if we heard of the raping and stabbing of openly lesbian athletes like  tennis legends Billie Jean King, Aurelie Mauresmo or Martina Navratilova, Canadian hockey player Nancy Drolet, German cyclist Judith Arndt, American mountain biker Missy Giove or Carol Blazejowski, a former basketball star now the general manager of the New Jersey Liberty of the WNBA.

Sociopaths Make Lousy Husbands. Ask Mary Jo Buttafuoco

NASA Landsat satellite image of Long Island an...
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A Long Island housewife and mother of two, days before her 15th. wedding anniversary, Mary Jo Buttafuoco — as many Americans know and just as many might be happy to forget — answered the door to her home on May 19, 1992. Standing on the doorstep was 17-year-old Amy Fisher, who shot her in the head. Amy was her husband’s girlfriend, and their weird and sordid story dominated headlines for years and became the basis for three television movies.

Buttafuoco has now published a book, ghostwritten by Julie McCarron, about “why I stayed, what I learned and what millions of people involved with sociopaths need to know.” The cover photo shows a good-looking blond in a lacy tank-top, thick hair cascading over her shoulders, her long nails French manicured, sitting on a white shabby-chic sofa. She looks determined, sadder but wiser. The back cover image is truly horrifying — her shaved skull and the tiny entry wound of the .25 cartridge now permanently lodged in her skull.

If you’re in or near Manhattan July 29, she’s speaking at Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway at 82d Street and will chat with a therapist about how to recognize the warning signs of a sociopath.

Whatever your feelings about the sad, sordid mess, her story is worth a read, because: Continue reading “Sociopaths Make Lousy Husbands. Ask Mary Jo Buttafuoco”

Dinner With 19 Strangers in Astoria. Yum!

Winsor McCay sketching Gertie the Dinosaur at ...
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So the whole idea is pretty funky.

Go to someone’s backyard in Astoria, Queens, (one of the five boroughs of New York City), and eat a meal chosen and prepared by two women you don’t know with 19 people you’ve never met. This is New York, where the style tribes mark their territories with psychic razor wire. Going to a party where you know no one, even in your best mood and wearing your prettiest dress, can send you home in misery as everyone eyes you with disdain for showing up in the wrong clothes/haircut/industry/attitude. So you have to be a little bit brave.

I drove in *&^$#@ circles for 30 minutes around Queens’ barren industrial precincts, running out of gas, trying to read my five-borough atlas at the red lights, wondering if I should just give up and just go home, before I finally found the place. Down a long, really narrow alley and into a postage-stamp cement backyard were 19 strangers gathered for a Saturday evening dinner party. A jam-jar of rose, a piece of homemade tomato tart and a fun woman in an emerald-green wrap jersey top helped calm me down. I was 45 minutes late, but the sun was just setting and the meal had not yet begun. It felt cosy and welcoming, the circular black metal staircase to their second-floor apartment reminding me of Montreal. Continue reading “Dinner With 19 Strangers in Astoria. Yum!”

Why I Read The Obits and You Should Too

The gravestone of Col. John Hart in the North ...
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Morbid? Not really. Deeply curious, ever seeking wisdom about what makes up a life, whenever it ends, I read obituaries. They’re the profiles written past deadline.

As someone forever seduced by others’ stories — whether covering Queen Elizabeth or interviewing convicted felons — I read the obituaries. Not just the official ones, which, if you read The New York Times, are almost always about men.  I also read many of the paid ones, the ones in a font so small it’s almost illegible. That’s where the heart-breaking stories appear.

The Globe and Mail, one of the papers for whom I’ve been a reporter, runs a regular column called Lives Lived, obits written by friends, family or colleagues, often about civilians, non-celebrities,  the kind of people we all take for granted and know only as a high-school teacher or next door neighbor. I find these tributes lovely, and often deeply moving in their detail. Here’s one about a woman whose husband ran a taxi company. More than anything, more so than taxes, death is the ultimate democracy.

Today there are two women, 47 and 48, whose death notices in The New York Times, my local paper, hit me hard.

Rebecca Lipkin, a fellow journo I never met but who clearly had a kick-ass career as a broadcast journalist and news producer for WABC, ABC World News Tonight and ABC Nightline, worked in the U.S. and London, where she died at 48 of breast cancer. She was not married and had no kids. She could be me. She could one of the many  ambitious, driven, talented women I know and have met along the way of my journalism career who perhaps kept postponing love or domesticity for the surer gains of work, who consider airports and international carriers the equivalent of the family minivan, whose life is spent chasing the next great story and making sure it’s told well.

Rynn Williams, 47, a poet, and mother of three, died at her home in Brooklyn “of accidental causes.” She could be any one of us. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, with 121,599 who died this way in 2006. (The top four, in order: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease.)

I read obits because so many strangers fascinate me. I read obits because I want to hear what others say about them and how they are remembered by those who knew and loved them best, not just those wealthy, powerful or famous enough to have a reporter call up and formally interview their colleagues or family. My favorite paid obit, so far, was of an older woman who died in Florida, clearly a woman of means who had not worked. “She’d shake the ice for anyone,” her family wrote. I can’t forget this detail, of a woman who so loved to entertain that a cocktail shaker helped define her sense of generosity and fun. I wish I’d known her. So often, I read an obit of a non-famous, non-wealthy person I’ve never heard of and think: “Wish I’d met you. What a cool life. How loved you were!”

Below Rynn Williams’ obit today is that of Molly Wolff, 89 who died only three months after her husband, Louis. “During the last years of his life, she never left his side, singing to him and holding his hand late into the night.”

That’s great writing, the kind of telling detail every would-be journo needs to read and remember. That’s a woman to celebrate.

What would your obit say about you? What would you want it to say? Who would you most like to write it?

The Government Wants You To Get Married

A contemporary white wedding cake decorated wi...
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I saw the huge color poster recently at Grand Central Station, the Manhattan hub for millions of daily train commuters from suburban Connecticut and New York, pushing the federal government’s assertion — radical! — that getting and staying married is a great idea. Given how many of those commuters already have a spouse/kids/mortgage/college payments, this seemed an odd location to send that message. Even with a tanking real estate market, it’s still tough to find a decent house anywhere within commuting distance of GCT for less than $400,000, with an additional $12,000 a year in taxes.

So, my guess is that few readers of this advertisement for connubial bliss are actually single in suburbia, certainly those still pining for their first wedding ring. Most can’t afford the northern ‘burbs, or it’s just too lonely and boring out there in picket-fenceville. Those suburbanites already divorced-with-kids aren’t likely in a big rush back to the altar.  And those whose marriages are already in trouble will just have to make nice for a while, because, in this market, that shared marital asset isn’t going to sell any time soon.

Even odder, turns out, is who sent and paid for that message. The website for, complete with cool turquoise graphics and a faux-1960s look, is that of the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, with an Oklahoma City address. What’s really behind it is the federal government, the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, who want more Americans, ages 18 to 30 especially, to get and stay married. Marriage, it’s assumed,  keeps them off the welfare rolls. Continue reading “The Government Wants You To Get Married”