Last Men in Aleppo

By Caitlin Kelly

If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about the White Helmets — a volunteer group that races to the scene of attacks in Syria — it’s a must.

It won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2017; Sundance (for those not into film) is considered the U.S.’s most prestigious annual film festival.

I saw it last night.

But it’s not an easy 104 minutes, and I found myself crying this morning as I thought through all the images and sounds it contains:

— a father weeping as his six-year-old son is pulled, dead, from beneath the rubble

— the terrifying sight and sound of a rainfall of incoming bombs

— a car on fire with two civilians in it

— the hammering of an excavator trying to unearth the latest victims

— the challenge of not having enough body bags for all the corpses and body parts they encounter

— the men trying to decide — by looking at a foot they found — whether it’s one of their friends.

It is a searing and unsparing look at daily life in hell.

You can buy it here for $14.99.

And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.

It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.

Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.

Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.

With hope.

That’s reporting.

Here’s a brief video clip of Fayyad — who was twice imprisoned and tortured — discussing why he made the film.

To bear witness.

As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.

But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.

Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.

My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.

I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.

I urge you to see it!

 

 

Journalism: a statement of principle

By Caitlin Kelly

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My husband’s team Pulitzer prize…

 

Some of you might be readers of The New York Times, a newspaper some consider the best of the U.S. press, and my husband’s former employer of 31 years. I also write for them, freelance, several times a year.

The paper now has a new publisher, a member of the same family that bought it in 1896.

He, A.G. Sulzberger, wrote this:

The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

I’m not an apologist for the biases, errors and omissions made by thousands of fellow journalists. There’s much that still needs tremendous improvement, including hiring, training and retaining many more non-white and female voices and viewpoints.

But as someone who’s been chasing facts for decades — and reporting everything from 9/11 breaking news to investigative medical reporting to covering a Royal Tour — I believe deeply and passionately that smart, tough, responsible journalism is needed now more than ever.

Winner of a National Magazine Award in Canada, I’m immensely proud of the work many of us do and I know why many of us still do it, even in an industry roiled with change and uncertainty.

(Here’s my website, which contains some of my work.)

Within its ranks are new and impassioned calls for greater transparency about what we cover, when and why.

 

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The New York Times newsroom

 

At its best, journalism’s role includes:

— Explaining a complex world to an audience who may lack the time, education, training, experience — or curiosity — to gasp the implications of public policies that affect them, whether a local school budget or commitment to billions of dollars in tax cuts.

— Explaining scientific advances, (and de-bunking falsehoods),  that help audiences stay healthy, whether the environment, public health issues, (now that Trump has fired his entire HIV/AIDS council) or personal health.

— Holding the powerful accountable for their actions. In an era of stunning plutocracy and lax corporate governance, it’s essential for business journalists to uncover and explain to us all the implications of key business decisions, whether shutting a plant and throwing thousands out of work or striking a deal with local, regional or federal governments.

— Examining the actions of elected officials at every level and how they’re spending taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

— Seeking out and telling the stories of the poor, marginalized and under-funded who lack ready access to the noisy and powerful machinery of public relations and lobbyists.

— Sharing the successes (and failures) of NGOs and social service groups as they work to relieve struggle, locally and globally.

— Reporting on every form of culture, from ‘zines to opera, because the arts remain an important part of life, and employ millions of creatives.

 

Yes, many journalists do see the world from a left-leaning lens, with the underlying belief that — in the industry cliche — it’s still, ideally, our essential role to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

If you’re firmly persuaded that we all wake up each morning determined to spread lies and create “fake news”, there’s likely little I could say to dissuade you.

I will say that most of the journalists I know, no matter their age or place of residence, are people whose primary goal is a shared one: to tell compelling stories to as many people as often as possible.

Truthful ones.

Ones backed by provable, checked facts.

And, if you want to better understand what we do and why we do it (and how much we think about trying to do it better! you might consider following news from the Neiman Lab, the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter, to name only three sites dedicated to smart coverage of the issues working journalists still care about.

And this very long, very detailed story  by James Risen on The Intercept, about long and protracted battles between the White House and The New York Times, (and internal editorial battles most readers have no idea about) is an absolute must-read to understand the incredible pressures some reporters face to suppress the truth.

 

 

Avoid a predator — read “Dirty John”

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

This is a must-read for any woman dating people she doesn’t know well or hasn’t met through people she completely trusts.

If she’s easily prone to being quickly wooed, beware!

It’s a new six-part series, and podcast, from the L.A. Times, by Christopher Gofford, and took more than a year to report.

It’s the true story of a multiply divorced California woman, a financially successful interior designer — desperately lonely — who was targeted by John Meehan, a con man.

It’s terrifying, compelling and an essential read to understand that:

— such men exist

— such men seek out victims and select them carefully

— such men groom their victims, love-bombing them with gifts and cards and “kindness”

— failing to ask why they’re so “kind” to someone they barely know is imprudent

— such men quickly insinuate themselves into their victims’ lives

— such men are sociopathic and vicious when exposed

— such men are professional liars and who, really, will others believe — them or you?

 

I know this because I’ve also been a victim of one.

 

In December 1997 I met a charming, handsome, intelligent man who — within a few weeks of meeting me — brought a pot of home-made soup to my door, bought me gifts and told me repeatedly how much he loved me.

He pretended to be a successful lawyer, a partner in a three-person downtown New York City law firm, complete with engraved stationery, business cards and other “evidence” of his false identity; in Chicago (where his exploits made front page of the Chicago Tribune) he’d posed as a doctor, using a business card with impressive initials that anyone who knows medicine would instantly know was fake.

He kept proposing marriage, sending dozens of emails and cards attesting to his immediate attraction and devotion, as did John Meehan, a standard MO for con men. (I found this weird and excessive, not romantic.)

It took me longer than it should have — (lonely and insecure = vulnerable) — to flee his clutches, at which point, like Meehan, he began threatening me and my family. Not with physical harm, as Meehan did, but in my case called my local district attorney to lie about me; as someone who lives in the U.S. as a resident alien (i.e. not a citizen) he knew this could make my solo life difficult. And knew, even irrationally, I feared that.

I was terrified by his screaming phone calls, and stayed at a friend’s home for a few days.

As did Meehan’s victim, I hired a detective, a former NYPD policeman, who quickly discovered and told me the sordid truth.

By that point, the guy had stolen and opened my mail, activated my new credit card and used it, forging my signature — all felonies.

The police and district attorney all laughed in my face. It was “only fraud” they said.

“No harm done,” they said.

Because “my” con man was careful to steal only a certain amount from each of his many victims, the banks didn’t care — it’s a cost of doing business to them.

Because the amounts were small enough, (typically $1,000 or less), the credit card companies also wouldn’t chase him and prosecute — and the costs of this fraud is built into our interest rates.

Because the women he victimized were so embarrassed and ashamed or police disbelieved them or DAs wouldn’t take on their cases, he was rarely arrested, prosecuted and convicted.

Because the women he chose to steal from should have known better, should have asked tougher questions, should have dumped him fast, their friends and family — like mine —  were furious at our stupidity and gullibility.

These men (and women!) lie for a living.

Like Meehan, the man I was victimized by is now dead. Thank God.

A book I highly recommend to every girl and woman is The Gift of Fear, written by a security expert, with a one page checklist of warning signs. It clearly explains how the way women are socialized to be “nice” and compliant can endanger us.

 

I urge everyone to read this series or listen to the podcast — and share it with women you know and care about.

 

It’s highly instructive and shows how to spot the warning signs of a similar predator.

If you recognize them, please flee, fast.

They’re out there.

Kim Wall, talented young journalist, found dead in Copenhagen waters

By Caitlin Kelly

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Columbia Journalism School

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare — to head off reporting what appears to be a cool, fun story  —- and end up dead.

From The New York Times:

The Copenhagen police announced on Wednesday that a torso found this week in local waters was that of Kim Wall, a Swedish freelance journalist who disappeared after boarding a Danish inventor’s submarine.

The announcement, which followed DNA tests of samples from the torso, turned what had started as a missing-persons case into what Christian Jensen, editor in chief of Politiken, Denmark’s largest daily, called “the most spectacular murder case in Danish history.”

The inventor, Peter Madsen, 46, has been held on preliminary charges of involuntary manslaughter. It is not yet known how Ms. Wall, 30, died, nor how or why her body was dismembered.

Her torso — missing its arms, legs and head — was found by a cyclist on the edge of Amager Island on Monday afternoon,

Kim Wall, a talented 30-year-old freelancer, educated at prestigious and demanding schools like Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Journalism School and the London School of Economics, headed out aboard a submarine with Danish inventor Peter Madsen.

Like many ambitious journalists, she decided to do the reporting first — and sell the story (one always hopes!) later, i.e. “on spec.”

Full-time freelancers like Kim, (and me), work with no institutional protection, often with no danger training or back-up.

We hope to, and must, quickly sell our stories — as she did to The New York Times and other publications.

I didn’t know Kim, nor had I read her work, but her death — her appalling, terrifying end while at work — is hitting my tribe, journalists, and especially bold women like her who venture alone into funky places alone around the world, very hard.

Freelance work, de facto, can require a sort of bravery, initiative and decisiveness that’s unique to our industry:

No one sits around waiting for the day’s assignment from a boss.

No one revises a press release and hits “send” and calls it journalism.

No one has a paycheck, nor even a guaranteed sale, let alone a well-paid one.

We work alone, often without the witness or putative aid and protection of a fixer, translator or photographer.

Those who, like Kim often did, work overseas, must cover their own expenses and arrange all their own travel and accommodations.

And, as this story did, it demands that we trust others, often with our safety and our lives.

You gin up a great idea, and, sometimes without a definite assignment, (i.e. a sale, income, let alone your travel costs repaid, and an editor invested intellectually and financially in what we produce) — and go.

Like Kim, I’ve gone to a few places to report a story that others told me not to. Nothing as truly scary as a war zone or natural disaster, but — like her — working alone with or around men I had never met before.

At 25, I jumped into a truck with a French driver I’d never met, 10 years my senior, and traveled with him, sleeping in the truck cab every night, for eight days, from Perpignan to Istanbul.

There were no cellphone then, no GPS to track our location, no Internet.

It was — as Kim’s decision to board that damned submarine — a decision I made, eagerly, on a common and basic calculation in our field:

 

adventure + exclusivity + access + firsthand reporting = terrific  (saleable) story

 

And, for many women I know, like one who ventures repeatedly into a nation riddled with vicious crime, I made a bet.

Like female freelancers who cover war and conflict zones, places where women are often raped and slaughtered.

The same bet I made when I traveled alone, also at 25, into a small Sicilian town to report on a complex topic, not speaking a word of Italian, relying on men I had never met for translation and lodging and transportation.

The same bet I made when I walked, at dusk, into Brixton, then a no-go area of London, to interview a male squatter.

In every case, thank God, I got my story, and came home.

Safe — and alive.

We bet, each of us, every time, that we will return unharmed.

 

Tonight at 7pm there is a candlelight vigil being held at Columbia Journalism School, in upper Manhattan, in Kim’s honor.

 

What we survive, but rarely discuss

By Caitlin Kelly

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Comfort in a box…

We all survive something:

An abusive parent, relative, teacher or partner.

Your parents’ bitter divorce.

Estrangement.

Mental illness, yours and/or others’.

Chronic illness.

War.

Natural disasters.

Un(der)employment.

Poverty.

Racism.

Sexual assault.

I’ve gotten through seven of these.

It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!

As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.

I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.

I later wrote a book that focused on gun  violence by and against women, in some measure, and it left me with secondary trauma. In both instances, the stories were essential for the larger world to understand what people face, and surmount.

One of the challenges of surviving…just about anything…is when you carry shame, self-doubt and humiliation around that which you suffered and surmounted.

Here’s a powerful essay (from a site I’ve also written for), Rewire:

I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.

That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.

Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.

That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.

It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.

I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.

Then I knew and understood.

Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.

I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.

What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.

He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.

Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.

For decades, journalism,  has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.

No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.

Three great cop shows — all European!

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’m not, per se, a huge fan of cop shows, (although I enjoyed, and miss, NYPD Blue.)

But three shows have really caught my attention: Wallander (the Swedish version), The Tunnel and Inspector Lewis.

There are two versions of Wallander, the Swedish one (with English subtitles), filmed in the small southern coastal town of Ystad, and the English one, with Kenneth Branagh. For a variety of reasons, I prefer the Swedish.

I love the craggy, grumpy Wallander (pronounced Vall – AN -der), played by Krister Henriksson, who always looks like he could use 10 more hours of sleep, some coffee and a shave. He supervises two young detectives, Pontus and Isabelle, and their relationships form an interesting backdrop to the storylines.

I love the moody gray, blue and black palette of each 90-minute episode, which feels — to a North American viewer accustomed to 30 or 60-minute shows punctured with ads — luxurious and immersive, like a movie.

I love seeing Sweden’s gorgeous landscapes and beaches, and I like the way they say “Tack!” like a gunshot (Thanks, or please) into their cellphones.

I sat riveted every Sunday evening to see The Tunnel, a BBC production that is — a first — bilingual, half in French, half in English. It’s also the first time that officials allowed anyone to film inside the undersea tunnel that runs between England and France.

I missed the first episode, but it begins with the discovery of a woman’s severed body, half on the English side of the tunnel and half on the French side.

Ah, les rosbifs“, sigh the young French female detectives as the grizzled English cops arrive, as they now, resentfully, have to work together to solve a bi-national crime.

I saw no North American press coverage of this amazing show, and think Clemence Poesy is astounding as Elise Wasserman, the pale, taciturn blond who leads the French investigation. Her leonine face seemed to be make-up free, her hair always un-brushed, focused laser-narrow on her work.

Her British counterpart, Karl Roebuck, is a tough old thing who has multiple children with multiple women — and can’t keep his trousers zipped. He’s used to charming his way through most situations, a tactic Elise (even tougher) is utterly immune to.

The storyline is complex , with a surprise twist at the end.

It’s violent, of course, at times but emotionally compelling, and I found myself deeply involved with the two key characters.  This 10-episode series also had a very distinctive aesthetic — pale, washed-out, everyone wearing blue, black, green or brown.

The scene switches constantly from England to France, from one culture and language and procedural style to another. (As someone who’s lived in both countries, and speaks French, I loved this element of it.)

Inspector Lewis, (simply called Lewis in the UK) is so English!

Set in and around the gorgeous city of Oxford, and on the university campus, its three major characters are as likely to head to the pub for a pint as to gather at a murder scene.

I haven’t yet been to Oxford, (or Ystad), so I enjoy seeing the gorgeous scenery and the creamy stone buildings of the university. There are endless little digs at class difference and a wry perspective on the insularity of academic life.

Like Wallander, Morse plays a somewhat avuncular role with his younger sidekick, and it’s interesting to watch that relationship.

These shows allowed me to enjoy visiting Europe each week, without a long flight or jet lag.

Do you have a favorite police show?

 

 

Why journalism still matters — go see “Spotlight”

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Their clothes are drab, cheap, poorly- fitting.

All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.

Their work takes months.

Why on earth would this make a compelling film?

I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.

The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.

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The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.

The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure,  (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.

The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.

But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

It takes patience.

It takes persistence.

It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.

It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.

Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.

Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.

The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)

The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.

That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.

It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”

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Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?

Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)

I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.

I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!

I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.

It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.

I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.

When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.

I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.

If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!

 

Are reporters vultures — or just doing their job?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:

Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?

The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.

No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.

I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid  — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.

It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.

I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.

The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.

That no other reporter would have.

It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.

I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.

When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.

Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.

Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.

Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.

Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.

Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.

One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.

We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.

So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.

When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.

At our best, to speak truth to power.

That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.

Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.

I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.

But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.

I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.

I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.

Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:

— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.

Here’s what I don’t want:

— Drama, emotion, speculation, guessing, uninformed opinion.

What do you think of reporters’ behavior?

Do you watch or listen to the news?

What do you find missing — or most valuable?

A question of trust

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

We can’t survive without it.

I’m writing this from a friend’s home in Dublin, where we arrived last night from New York.

This week, five broken-hearted sets of Dublin parents will fly to California to collect the bodies of their young adult children, all of whom died when an apartment balcony they were standing on suddenly fell in Berkeley; all five of them were visiting on work visas. A sixth, who lived locally, also died, and seven other students were injured.

It is, of course, front-page news in today’s Irish Times.

I’m a nervous flyer. I love to travel and have been to 39 countries so far; this is my fifth visit to Ireland. But every time I step into an aircraft, I’m fighting anxiety, no matter how annoyed this makes me. When, which is inevitable, we hit turbulence, it’s a battle for me to stay calm — to trust the pillots’ skill and experience, the careful work of the mechanics who maintain aircraft and the plane itself, built to withstand much stronger forces than I’d like to experience.

I've lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings
I’ve lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

It’s all based on trust.

Yet, every day, our trust — in authority, in material safety, in the food and drink we consume — is tested:

An enormous recall of Takata-made airbags, whose explosion have killed 3 people and injured 139

— The bridge crossing the Hudson River where I live is so old (now being re-built), it’s been called the “hold your breath” bridge for years

— Those recently killed on a Chinese ferry and the young students lost on a Korean ship

— The disappearance of MH 370 and the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a deranged young pilot who had, somehow, passed multiple medical tests

— Recalls of contaminated food and drink, like the Blue Bell ice cream that killed three people and put seven others into the hospital.

Everything we touch, every interaction, relies on our ability to trust one another to some degree:

That the elevator will ride smoothly and safely; that the meal we order won’t be prepared by contaminated hands; that our surgeon is sober, skilled and well-trained; that our mechanic isn’t lying when he tells us our vehicle needs extensive, expensive repairs.

Friendship relies on honesty and loyalty. So does a healthy marriage; if you can’t trust your own partner or spouse, who can you rely on? Which is why adultery is such a devastating blow — you choose your own family and it falls to pieces.

Teachers trust their students to do the work and not plagiarize or cheat. Students trust their teachers to be fair, smart, helpful and wise. Both of them have to trust in the authority of a system that more often privileges test scores or tuition fees over the needs of either group.

And yet we also bring a widely disparate set of hopes and expectations to the table. Some students lie. Some teachers are incompetent. Some surgeons gown up while drunk or high. Nurses can’t or won’t rat them out — risking patients’ lives. (As someone who’s had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, it’s an issue I’ve had to consider personally.)

Anyone looking for love, certainly when dating people they don’t know well through mutual friends or family, takes a risk.

I spent a few months in 1998 being wooed fervently by a charming, witty man I met through a personal ad. He kept proposing marriage to me — until the day he opened my mail, activated my credit card, forged signature and started using my cards — i.e. committing multiple felonies. When I confronted him, his three little words shifted from “I love you” to a chilling, well-practiced “It’s not provable.”

That certainly shifted my notions of who looks, sounds and is trustworthy. It also deeply shook my confidence in my own choices about what signals of trustworthiness are real and which are not.

The New York Times newsroom...without trust in its product, we would have no readers
The New York Times newsroom…without trust in its product, we would have no readers

As a career journalist, my entire reputation relies on my editors’ trust in me: to vet the sources I use for their veracity and authority, to meet my deadlines, to produce excellent work, to report accurately, to quote and attribute my sources properly.

When other writers screw up — and it happens a lot — all of us cringe and know we’ve lost even more of the public’s little trust in us.

The law is a blunt instrument when redressing broken trust — no amount of financial compensation will bring back a broken marriage, a dead child, a ruined career.

When, where and how much and in whom should we place our trust?

That’s the question I have yet to answer to my satisfaction.

You?

Being rich and being happy don’t always go together

By Caitlin Kelly

Would you be happy shopping all day?
Would you be happy shopping all day?

It’s a world so many people desperately aspire to, the one where you finally have, literally, millions or billions of dollars, where your car(s) and homes are costly and many — and your worries, one assumes, become small and few.

Like the couple who rent out their Paris apartment part-time as they jet between it and their other six homes worldwide. I sat in it recently and admired a lovely framed graphic on one wall, thinking it looked a lot like the enormous posters all over the Metro for the largest show by Sonia Delaunay in decades.

It was a Delaunay.

Here’s a sobering recent reminder of how toxic that world can be for some, a New York man who murdered his father, after being raised in a life of privilege and power.

From The New York Times:

They were alike in many ways, Thomas Strong Gilbert Sr. and the son to whom he gave his name and who, prosecutors say, would eventually kill him.

Graduates of elite boarding schools and Princeton University, the two men were handsome, gifted athletes who — on the surface at least — seemed to be navigating the exclusive glide path of wealth, social position and success that has long defined life inside America’s upper crust.

All this exploded, however, when, the police said, Thomas S. Gilbert Jr., 30, marched into his parents’ apartment this month and shot his father in the head — after asking his mother to run out and get him a sandwich and a soda.

The attack shocked not only those who knew the Gilberts but also many more who live in their rarefied and intertwined world of hedge funds, private clubs and opulent homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons.

The Times received 500 emails commenting on that story, many of whom — perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not for an upscale publication — expressed pity for the alleged killer.

I know someone whose partner recently became a millionaire after a decade of intense effort. He built his entire company from scratch, both of them sacrificing mightily to do so. But he hasn’t slowed down a bit and his partner is not, as I hoped, now lounging in hard-won luxury.

When more is never enough...
When more is never enough…

If you can handle a searing glimpse into the folkways of the wealthy — and have a strong stomach — you must read the Patrick Melrose novels. Written by Edward St. Aubyn, from an aristocratic English family, they reveal what lies behind some intimidatingly elegant and polished facades.

For years, people kept telling me these were astonishing books.

How good could they really be?

Amazing.

Gasp-inducing.

And, for some of us, far too close for comfort.

Here’s a bit from a long and fascinating interview with him from The New Yorker:

The irony in the title of St. Aubyn’s third Melrose novel, “Some Hope,” published in 1994, points both to a career-long interest in the idea of psychological deliverance and to a desire not to be mistaken for an artless writer. To read the novels is to watch a high intelligence outsmart cliché (or, to use a more Melrosian word, vulgarity), and so protect his protagonist’s literary distinction. Similarly, St. Aubyn has been careful to protect his own life from the dull tarnish of remembrance-and-release; it would pain him if readers mistook a twenty-year literary project for a therapeutic one. “What he wanted was a very pure success,” Oliver James, an old friend of St. Aubyn’s, and a clinical psychologist, told me.

But the awkward fact is that writing saved St. Aubyn’s life. Years of psychoanalysis, and the controlled fiction that followed, deferred the threat of suicide. St. Aubyn describes Patrick as an alter ego, though there are some differences. Patrick ends up with a day job—he’s a barrister—which St. Aubyn, with a seeming shrug of privileged incomprehension, barely makes convincing. More important, Patrick has no experience of therapy, beyond a group meeting or two in rehab. Instead, he ruminates, and makes sour, studied jokes. The novels enact, and describe, therapeutic progress, but St. Aubyn, led by a literary taste for compression, and by the desire to create “vivid and intense and non-boring” fiction, left out much of the process that helped him survive to midlife.

I read the Melrose novels finally a year or so ago.

It felt as though my own life had been X-rayed and thrown up onto a large white lightbox.

The cashmere and jewels and lovely homes. The literary and cultural references. The shrugging assumption that everyone lives a life of privilege and ease — or should.

Or could if they just did things right.

Oh, but you’re struggling?

To some ears, it’s a foreign language. They try to understand a few words, but it doesn’t really register and just isn’t very interesting.

Other Melrose-isms rang true:

The sycophants and hangers-on, skilled in the art of flattery.

Those slickly determined to displace children in the eyes of their own parents, able to remain so much more amusing and so much less demanding than flesh and blood.

The ability to find almost everything in the world worthy of intense interest, except your own children.

The missed holidays and birthdays and celebrations.

There are, of course, many people with a lot of money who have terrific relationships with their families.

But there are also some unimaginable darknesses behind the glittering veneer and the-stuff-we-all-want-so-badly — the Benchleys and Goyard handbags, the Dassault Falcons waiting on the tarmac at Teterborough.

I recently met a couple a decade older than I; she, smooth and assured, he a tenured professor secure in his stature.

We talked about my family and, she, probing far more deeply and quickly than I was used to, elicited far more of my candor than usual — and, later, that would leave me feeling regretful and queasy.

It’s not a fun tale in some respects.

And then he asked:

“Have you read the Patrick Melrose novels?”

I had.

“I could barely get through two of them,” he said.

Indeed.