Neda Agha-Soltan's Death — Captured Anonymously — Wins Journalism's Prestigious Polk Award, A First For 'Citizen Journalists'

Death of Neda Agha-Soltan
Image via Wikipedia

The YouTube image was horrific and idelible — a 26-year-old woman protestor in Tehran shot and dying on the pavement. The video, of Neda Agha-Soltan was transmitted around the world from a doctor’s cameraphone to a video clip sent by e-mail with the message: “Let The World Know.”

The 37-second video became a symbol of Iranian opposition to that country’s disputed June elections.

Last week, the anonymous video won a George Polk Award, given for outstanding achievement in journalism.

Reports The New York Times:

The panel that administers the George Polk Awards, based at Long Island University, said it wanted to acknowledge the role of ordinary citizens in disseminating images and news, especially in times of tumult when professional reporters face restrictions, as they do in Iran. The university said it had never bestowed an award on an anonymous work before.

“It became such an important news element in and of itself,” said John Darnton, the curator of the Polk awards and a former reporter and editor for The New York Times.

The award in a new category, videography, recognizes “the efforts of the people responsible for recording” the death of Ms. Agha-Soltan, who collapsed on the street on June 20, apparently the victim of a sniper.

A chain of people aided in getting the video to the world, illustrating how the Internet erodes many traditional borders. The doctor sent the video clip by e-mail to several acquaintances outside of Iran, hoping they would be able to bypass the country’s Internet filters by uploading it to Web sites like YouTube.

The first person to do so, according to a Web search last June, was the Iranian man in the Netherlands, who requested anonymity to protect friends and family in Iran. The uploader spoke via telephone and e-mail, and provided The New York Times a copy of the doctor’s original e-mail message. That message was sent to five other people, and two of them confirmed that they had also received it.

In a world where so much triva is sent using social media, this is a powerful and compelling reminder of its value.

The larger challenge, going forward, will be handling complex stories and making sense of their larger context. Citizen journalists can, and do, capture raw, immediate data. It leaves the rest of us to make sense of it.

Journalist Amanda Lindhout, Captive 15 Months In Somalia, Speaks Out ; Retired British Couple Still Captive There

wklindhout0222_499101gm-aAmanda Lindhout, a Canadian journalist held captive in Somalia for 15 months, spoke out this weekend for the first time — at a dinner held in Calgary in her honor by the Somali community.

Last November, Mr. Brennan and Ms. Lindhout were freed for a ransom that has been reported at anywhere from $500,000 to $1-million.

Ms. Lindhout has not spoken publicly about her ordeal beyond a statement before Christmas that thanked those who helped her.

The journalist revealed little more on Sunday about the more than 15 months she spent in captivity. Ms. Lindhout paid tribute to a Somali woman whom she said risked her life in an attempt to free her.

“Her courage is a stunning example of one human being’s instinct to protect another. She did not know me, yet she called me her sister,” she said.

“And while she was ultimately not able to save me, she did touch my life in a profound way that I will never forget.”

Ms. Lindhout remained composed throughout her speech, but wept as she watched a video put together by the Somali community thanking her for her bravery.

Several other speakers said that most of those who live in the country are without a voice and that atrocities will continue unless people follow Ms. Lindhout’s path in trying to tell their stories.

“Though Amanda has gone through an unbearable situation, she has gathered the strength to be here with us tonight,” said Mudhir Mohamed. “So in our eyes she’s a hero.”

For retired British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, there’s still no hope of release — they and their private sailboat were kidnapped off the Somali coast in October 2009.

Reports the Daily Mail:

‘We can’t wait more than this because it is becoming too expensive to hold these people. By March, they have to decide or we will be done with them.’…[said one of the kidnappers recently.]…

While sailing in the Indian Ocean close to the Seychelles, their 38ft yacht Lynn Rival was boarded by pirates brandishing machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers on October 23.

They were taken to the gang’s mother ship, a huge container carrier  –  itself hijacked  –  called Kota Wajar, and then to their lair, the city of Haradheere, 1,000 miles away on the Horn of Africa.

The Chandlers had managed to send out a distress signal, which was picked up by a nearby vessel of the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service carrying at least ten Royal Marine commandos, plus an armed helicopter.

British Somalis are fed up and ashamed, reports the BBC:

The couple’s plight has prompted a series of displays of solidarity from the UK Somali community, whose numbers were estimated at 101,000 in 2008 but which some observers believe could number as many as 250,000.

Hundreds [recently attended] a public meeting on Sunday in Camden, north London, called by community leaders in support of the couple.

Somalis in Bristol have already launched their own campaign, when a large crowd gathered to witness the unfurling of a banner in support of the couple outside the Al Baseera mosque in the city’s St Jude’s area.

Kayse Maxamed, 39, editor of the Bristol-based Somali Voice newspaper, has spoken out about the plight of the Chandlers on the radio in the US and Africa.

He believes Somalis in the UK owe a debt of gratitude to the country which has given so many of them shelter from war and violence.

“The Somali community is very angry,” he says. “We feel we have to do something.

Shop On (Size 16) Sister! British Retailer Debenhams Puts Larger Mannequins Right Where They Belong — In Their Windows

Image by zoonabar via Flickr

Curvy women, get out your wallets! An upscale British retailer, Debenhams, has decided to put size 16 mannequins in its windows — instead of the usual size 10 — acknowledging the reality that, as in the U.S., the average woman shopper is a size 14 or 16.

If I lived in the U.K., I’d vote with my legs and my pocketbook and head straight to Debenhams to thank them for their intelligence. I was furious to discover the other day, (having driven to the mall and already paid, as it demands, to park there), that women’s clothing retailer Ann Taylor no longer stocks anything larger than a size 12 in their stores.

J. Crew. has been doing that for years, relegating the pooch-y crowd, no matter the size of their pocketbooks, to their limited catalogs and on-line options. Ann Taylor was — like Talbots — one of the few national chains who get the basic fact that women of all sizes want and need well-made clothing made of lovely, elegant fabrics like wool, silk and linen, not just disposable junior-style nylon crap from H & M.

Just because a woman is bigger than designers or retailers want — and maybe she wants — doesn’t mean she can spend her time in sweats. Retailers who sell lovely clothing to women over a size 12 earn repeat sales, no matter if the woman remains a 14 or 16, or slims down to a more “acceptable” 12, 10 or 8. “In the meantime”, for those trying to lose weight, should not add the punition of finding few attractive choices for the lives women lead right now, not six or 12 or 18 months later after they’ve gotten thin(ner.)

The two Ann Taylor skirts I liked in the store were $90 each, for simple gray or black wool. Add to the insult of being shoved to the retail margins a price-point out of reach for many women in this recession and Ann Taylor’s CEO really needs to re-think this misguided decision.

All women need elegant, flattering clothes that fit — not only when they are a size that stores find flattering to their “brand image.” Women with big(ger) bums also contribute to your bottom line.

Valium, A Walker And A Midnight ER Visit

Taking a friend to the ER No. 5
Image by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} via Flickr

You know, you should really never say anything out loud that might tempt the fates.

I was up at my local community hospital 10 minutes north for my routine mammo last week, and joked with a friend working at the front desk as a volunteer about the sexy, new high-tech ER they recently unveiled. “I wonder when I’ll see it,” I laughed.


Last night at midnight, unable to move, stand or walk without excruciating  lower back pain — tried to lift something banal, too heavy — it was time to visit. Private exam rooms! Beautiful frosted glass at the check-in desk, staff who, (I hate to say I love a hospital but I do really like this hospital) always introduce themselves to you by name. It was nice as a hospital can be, and once more made me deeply grateful my partner has good insurance and had been able to keep the job that provides it.

Now I’m doped to the gills so will try to keep posting, as lucidly and often as my fuzzy little brain allows.

I have to travel to Connecticut tomorrow for a New York Times assignment with a firm and fixed deadline, and a paycheck we need.

Maybe I’ll take my walker. That’s my kind of reporting…

Have You Re-Visited Your Childhood Home? What If It's Gone?

Mexico APTNice Wall Street Journal piece ran this weekend about re-visiting your childhood home(s).

It’s a poignant thing, often clouded with nostalgia. For some, it’s simply impossible.

My sweetie, who grew up in Santa Fe, was a Baptist minister’s son. His Dad’s church and their adjacent home were both torn down to make way for the city’s Georgia O’Keefe Museum, opened in 1997. He has often reminisced about riding his bike alone as a little boy through Santa Fe’s streets, so I was eager to see where he grew up. But it’s gone.

When we visited the museum, he stood at the north end of one room there: “This used to be my bedroom,” he said. How odd that hundreds of people, possibly thousands by now, have stood  — having no idea that this space once housed a family and a congregation — where he once slept in his little boy pajamas and dreamed his young dreams.

Only the apricot tree, the one his mom made jam from, still stands in the museum’s tiny courtyard. His parents are long-dead, so the memories of that home now reside in his head and those of his two older sisters.

The old three-story brownstone apartment building at 3432 Peel Street in Montreal where I lived with my mom — where I came home night, alone, at the age of 12 to find that we had been robbed — is long-gone. The white brick house in Toronto, on a busy corner where I lived while in high school, is still there. I wave to it each time I go north.

I went back, in May 2005, to the apartment building in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, where my mom and I lived when I was 14.  I used to walk up a short, steep hill to my school, where I spent too much of my day staring out the windows at two distant volcanos, one per tall, narrow window.

In that building, my bedroom window looked directly into a next-door field full of cows. Surely, by 2005, it had changed. Surely, by then there was some flashy high-rise or a new house or…

Nope, still a field full of cows. The photo with this post shows our Cuernavaca building; we lived on the third floor.

What a soothing pleasure that was to find a spot from my childhood so unchanged. The nearby waterfall, Salto San Anton, was of course still there — and now three pottery candle-holders from a store on that street sit on my terrace wall every summer, a tangible reminder of one former home now gracing my current one.

Have you gone back in search of a childhood home? What did you find?

Fashion Advice From A 13-Year-Old?

Front (Sixth Avenue) entrance of Spring 2009 N...
New York Fashion Week. Image via Wikipedia

Of course you’ve heard of Tavi Gevinson, darling!

How many tweens have their own Wikipedia entry already — for blogging about fashion since they were 11? Not to mention she’s a muse (before puberty?) for Rodarte, one of the edgier fashion labels out there.

She appeared, of  course, at New York Fashion Week, which just ended, her hair (why, dear?) dyed an odd shade of pale blue-gray, the color of hypothermic skin. She lives in a Chicago suburb, but has been profiled in major publications from the Los Angeles Times to Vogue.

But, hey, her blog gets 1.5 million hits a month. Nice work if you can get it!

Honey, Where's The Electricity, Or The Running Water, Or The Indoor Toilet? The Joys Of Winter Camping

Snowy Newsham Park 12
Image by comedy_nose via Flickr

Here’s a fun story by my friend Greg Breining, an outdoor writer in Minnesota, from today’s New York Times, about shacking up in a cabin — but “forgetting” to tell his wife how primitive it was.

I once spent a long weekend in a New Hampshire cabin so remote we had to cross-country ski in, with all our belongings and food in huge packs on our backs. The only water was snow we melted; the only heat from a woodstove, the only illumination from propane lamps.

And, yes, an outhouse. Brrrrrrr! It was amazing fun and Greg beautifully captures why.

I Am Olympic'ed Out! No More Whiners (Hello, Plushenko) Or On-Podium Air Guitar (Yes, Shaun White)

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 26:  Shaun White ...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m done. One more week to go. Feh.

No more Bob Costas — nestled so deep into that plush armchair of his he looks like Pee Wee Herman, no more weepy/fist-pumping athletes (it’s binary, kids, you will win or you will lose,) no more tight close-ups of athletes and their coaches indulging in last-minute whatevers.

I’ve loved what I’ve seen. As someone who’s competed at the national level and who knows a few Olympians, (and one who missed making his team by one spot), I get it. I deeply value and believe in the challenge, joy, pain and tremendous focus it takes to achieve Olympic-level athletic excellence. Today’s Wall Street Journal profiles a bob-sledder who lost his home due to the financial strain of getting to the 2010 Games.

The hype, the lack of helpful commentary or insight on most of it, is leaving me disengaged and bored right now.

If I have to watch 14 men skate their 5-minute programs [or however long it is] how about something as basic as — what music did they choose? How hard would it be to sub-title it or announce at the beginning what each of them has chosen to skate to? I recognized some of the warhorses, the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ and the much-beloved Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. But stuff like that is much more relatable and interesting to me, and I bet to thousands of other non figure-skaters, than “OMG, he blew the triple salchow!” muttered for the umpteenth time by Scott Hamilton.

I found the Lycasek-Plushenko drama tedious and rude. The American won. He beat a gold medalist without a quadruple jump. Get over it! Pardon the mixed metaphor, but this is inside baseball, endless petty bickering over points of style and content that very, very few spectators even give a damn about.

Nor was I impressed by Shaun White playing air guitar on the podium. Ho-hum, another gold medal. Rude. You’re 24, dude, not 14.

So, tonight, it’s back to Netflix for me. What about you?

BBC Radio Looks At Women At War Worldwide

A female Swedish soldier participates in joint...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

I’ve spent the week listening to a powerful BBC radio series on “Women At War”. One of them focused on the issue of sexual assault on American female soldiers:

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who sits on the Military Personnel Subcommittee, successfully lobbied last year for the development of a Sexual Assault Database to encourage accountability within the Armed Forces.

“There are plenty of phone calls that come into my office of alleged assault of women by our military men,” she says.

“They are heartbreaking. Some women don’t want to go public with it, some have gone public with it and they’ve been drilled out of the military.

“I’m told that the statistics are that once you have been raped in the military you are most likely to be raped over and over.”

She says that not enough prosecutions are happening and that while the Pentagon is taking it more seriously, big changes still need to be made.

“Why is it that when a woman alleges rape, the outcome shows that the man who supposedly did this was demoted or moved to another unit? I want to know why this is happening!”

Other women in the series include a former girl soldier in Eritrea and a female combat soldier in the Israeli army.

Taxes, More Taxes and Even More Taxes — Are You Angry, Too?

Paper money, extreme macro
Image by kevindooley via Flickr

I recently got some official mail from New York State, demanding I fill out the paperwork for a new commuter tax. Time for another tax!

Excuse me?

I commute, as one of the nation’s self-employed — now about one-third of American workers — from my bedroom to my living room desk. It takes about 15 seconds, tops. I will be heading into Manhattan, 25 miles south of me, visible from my street, Monday to interview someone for my book, because face to face interviews are always the best.

I do not commute into the city, but go in about once a week for business or pleasure or both. I should be taxed for this?

Why do I need to pay another (*^%#@!! tax?

I get why people are furious, and why a man torched his house and flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin. His actions were insane, but his rage was not. His sense of impotence is deeply and widely felt.

There are six people lined up for any job open right now. Thousands of Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure, living in their vehicles, terrified of the next hammer blow of an economy — and a government — rewarding Wall Street with billions while the rest of us stand there feeling like morons for doing the right thing, paying our taxes over and over and over to governments that give us very little back. Two wars. Bank bailouts. Job creation that doesn’t touch us or anyone, anywhere, we know.

When you work for yourself, paying taxes feels deeply, viscerally personal. That money doesn’t neatly and invisibly evaporate from your paychecks, with maybe a fat refund awaiting you. As if!

We’re expected to pay our taxes quarterly, in anticipation of the rest of the year’s income — as if we know, in this recession, what that will be — in docile agreement. We get zero help when our clients disappear, (I lost one third of my income last year when The New York Times shut down a regional section I wrote for every month), when banks refuse to extend us credit to run the businesses we have spent years building, when credit card companies game the system by jacking up their rates before new laws restrict them from further rapacity.

I know I am not alone right now in this crap economy, scrapping harder than ever for my income, in feeling like a punch-drunk fighter on the ropes, looking through puffy, bloodied eyes for my cut-man. In vain.

I interviewed a 44-year-old local businessman yesterday who runs a store his great-great grandfather founded in 1904. “I’ve never ever ever seen it this bad,” he said. He is surviving, and gracious about it. But, increasingly, I bet others will not be.

The self-employed also pay 15% for the pleasure of not having a boss, or insured earnings (no unemployment checks for us — no matter how badly the economy tanks) or benefits, no paid sick days or holidays or vacations. That’s our money going into FICA, paying full freight for our Social Security.

Every time I write a check to the Federal Treasury, I want to enclose a note: Don’t waste it! Stop two absurd wars! Pass a health care bill!

I grew up in Canada, where taxes are high but the finest and most competitive college in the nation, my alma mater the University of Toronto, charges about $5,000 a year tuition right now. No, that is not missing a zero. Where every single resident of ever single province has access to excellent, free health care, cradle to grave.

Canadians are taxed up the wazoo, even paying tax on stamps. But you see, every single day, where that money goes and its benefits.

I understand the fury and the frustration. I feel it. Millions of us do.