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.

 

 

Two winter days in D.C.

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been coming to Washington since I was a child, since some cousins lived nearby whose father was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service.

I finally saw the inside of the White House in the year 2000 thanks to my husband, who served eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer — and even got us into the Oval Office for a quick peek.

Here’s a list of 8 semi-tourist-y things to do, there, written by a travel writer.

As usual, I was a very bad tourist so my post won’t extol all the usual sights, but some more personal pleasures.

We started our Saturday at a D.C. legend, the bookstore Politics & Prose, which is a treasure!

We could have spent hundreds of dollars and many hours there; I was researching the competition for a potential book idea and picked up a great present for Jose. I loved dropping my pile at the information desk where they laid atop it a bookmark “Customer Shopping” to make sure they didn’t get re-shelved. The staff was plentiful and helpful, and we picked up Christmas cards as well.

 

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Then I dropped into Goodwood, one of my favorite stores anywhere; picture a smaller, hipper indie version of the American chain Anthropologie, with a mix of well-priced vintage lighting, decorative accessories and furniture with great new clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories.

They had a pair of gggggggorgeous camel colored Prada knee-high boots for $165. If only they’d been my size! I scored a pair of burgundy patterned tights, another present for Jose, a black mohair sweater and a silk jacket. Splurge!

The store has been in business for 33 years, a huge accomplishment on its own. It’s on U Street NW in an neighborhood that has massively gentrified — head around the corner and a few blocks down 14th street to Ted’s Bulletin for a fun, fab lunch.

 

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We met old friends for lunch at yet another D.C. institution, Clyde’s, and settled into a deep, comfortable booth to catch up — three photographers and a writer made for plenty of good stories and industry gossip. The service was excellent, the food delicious and the cocktails perfect. The interior, filled with paintings and enormous palm trees and dark wooden blinds filtering the November sunshine, offered a calm and pretty respite from holiday crowds.

 

Georgetown

 

On Sunday I went by Metro and bus to Georgetown, an elegant and historic enclave filled with narrow townhouses and herringbone brick sidewalks. Here’s a list of 16 things to do in Georgetown — including (!) seeing the steep staircase featured in the terrifying film The Exorcist.

 

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I ate lunch, enjoyed a terrific gin & tonic, and wandered.

The best shopping? There are many great options, but check out  The Opportunity Shop at the corner of P Street and Wisconsin Avenue, with two floors crammed with consignment goods. Because D.C. is a town full of affluent and well-traveled people, the merch is amazing and prices reasonable — everything from a fuchsia silk Moroccan caftan ($85) to Asian pottery to sterling silver cutlery to Waterford crystal to prints and rugs.

Best of all, the proceeds go to support 5,000 needy children in and around the city.

 

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The area’s side streets are stunning, house after house from the early 1800s; in 1967 the neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark district and it was founded in 1751. If you love architecture as much as I do, make time to walk slowly and enjoy!

 

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I climbed steep 32d. street to Dumbarton Oaks, a stunning mansion that was once a private home and is now a small museum with an eclectic mix of pre-Columbian art and textiles, Byzantine art and textiles, ancient books and a legendarily lovely garden. Like much of D.C.’s attractions, admission is free.

I went to see a small show of paintings of women, and loved most the Degas oil of two of his relatives, two women singing to one another, on a visit to New Orleans.

It was a perfect weekend!

 

Georgetown

 

Have you been to D.C.?

 

Do you have a favorite spot there?

 

My recent reading — and yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Partly to flee the daily insanity of life in the U.S., I’ve begun reading books much more than in recent years.

On a trip to rural Ontario, I made time one afternoon to browse a local bookstore at length and spent more than $200.

 

Here are some of my recent picks:

 

A Bright, Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan, 1988

Inspired by the recent PBS series about the Vietnam war, and with its images and names fresh in my mind, I plunged into it — after finding the book in an upstate Connecticut junk store for $2.

The writing is magisterial, truly extraordinary in its depth and breadth. While extremely detailed, it’s not boring or stuffy. If this war holds any interest for you, this is a great book.

 

The Risk Pool, Richard Russo, 1989

Loved this one! Russo writes about struggling working-class towns and the people, generally men, who live in them. I enjoyed his book “Empire Falls” and had had this one on my shelf for years. A story about a deadbeat father and his son, and the town in which they live, it’s a powerful portrait of how to survive an off-again-on-again parent, and eventually thrive.

 

Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann, 1901

It turns out I share a birthday, June 6, with Thomas Mann. This is the first book of his I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The pace is slow, with little action, but a stately progression through the decades of a prosperous small-town German family in the mid 1800s.

All of which sounds really boring, right?

Not at all. Each of the characters is relatable and recognizable from spoiled, twice-divorced Antonie to her ever-questing brother Christian to the reliable head of the family, Thomas.

 

A Legacy of Spies, John leCarré, 2017

He’s a master of this genre and has been for decades. If you’ve seen the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll have the characters’ names in your head as you read this, his latest.

A career spy, retired, is brought back to account for — atone for — the very work he was expected to do without question or remorse.

 

Transit, Rachel Cusk, 2017

This novel, nominated for Canada’s Giller Prize, was a big fat “meh.” I read another of her books and found it equally…not very interesting. It’s received rapturous reviews, too.

I’ve given her work two tries. That’s enough for me.

I recently treated myself to even more books, so cued up are Reckless Daughter, a new biography of fellow Canadian, singer Joni Mitchell and Endurance, about his year in space, by astronaut Scott Kelly.

My tastes, always, skew more toward history, biography, economics and social issues than fiction, which I so often find disappointing. I don’t read sci-fi. horror, romance or much self-help and I recently bought a book written for self-employed creatives like myself, seeking inspiration — but after 33 pages of banal repetition gave up in annoyance.

This week I’m working on an outline for what I hope might become my third book of non-fiction, having found a new agent who’s expressed initial interest.

 

What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?

Who’s your “missing person”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.

But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.

The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.

A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.

They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.

Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.

One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly,  is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.

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Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.

In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.

I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.

He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.

He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.

Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.

 

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We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.

It was lovely.

I’m glad we found one another again.

 

Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?

Do they seek you out?

 

Then what happened?

A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.

This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.

It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.

Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.

It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.

It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.

From Wikipedia:

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000[30] to 3.8 million.[52] Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians,[53][54][55] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[52] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.

It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.

 

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It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.

One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.

One of the best-known songs of the era — written by fellow Canadian Neil Young — commemorates the unimaginable, the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the war:

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”

The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.

The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.

There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.

One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.

 

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And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a  “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.

Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…

My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War,  — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.

I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.

How apt.

 

Do you know much about this war?

 

Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?

 

Fleet Week (and a celebrity guest)!

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s an annual event that began in 1935 in San Diego — when active servicemen/women aboard Coast Guard, Navy and Marine vessels dock in a city and let us see what their life, and ship, is like. It’s also a reminder that Manhattan is an island, and a working harbor, its western edge lined with piers, (usually hosting gigantic cruise ships.)

Here’s a link to the 418-foot ship pictured above, of the U.S. Coast Guard.

And, if you’re in, near or visiting New York for the next week, here’s the website with all the details; it ends May 30.

It’s so cool each spring to see all the sailors fanning out across Manhattan in their pristine uniforms, some enjoying it for the first time, others on a repeated visit.

But I’d never gone aboard one of the vessels, some of them 600-foot-long warships that have patrolled the world’s most dangerous regions.

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This year — a huge thrill for me — I was invited by the Canadian consulate aboard a Canadian ship, the 181-foot HMCS Glace Bay, built in Halifax, for an event to celebrate Canada’s 150th. anniversary.

It was a brutal day of torrential rain, wind and cold, and we stood under a leaky (!) canopy on the gray metal deck. There was lovely finger food and Canadian cider, which helped.

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What an impressive crowd!

As you walked up the steep gangplank to board, a crew of white-uniformed officers stood to greet us and, when senior officers arrived, each was piped aboard with a three-tone whistle to alert us all to their presence.

There were generals, their chests ablaze with military honors. There was an FBI cyber-crime expert and the head of intelligence for the NYPD. I chatted with three Navy veterans, one a gunner, and with the aide to a Marine general and to a Canadian MP.

I’d never had the chance to speak to active servicemen; we traded notes on what it’s like to train at Quantico, (as I did some shooting there while researching my first book) and what it’s like to fend off pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

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It was deeply humbling to meet all these people whose job it is, whose vocation it is, to serve and protect us. Most of them had been in the service long enough to retire with full pension (after 20 years) but loved it so much they continue in their work.

That was a refreshing thing to hear, in an economy that’s so perilous for so many.

While Americans are more accustomed to seeing their military, and veterans in everyday life, it’s much less visible in Canada, so this really was a rare treat for me.

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Not to mention, to my surprise, a celebrity guest who came out, even on his birthday — actor and comedian Mike Myers. He lives here in New York, and moved to the States a year before I did, in 1988, from the same city of origin, Toronto. He showed me photos of his three daughters on his phone and it felt like chatting with an old friend.

That’s actually pretty Canadian.

Maybe because we come from a huge country with a small population (35.8 million) or our national innate reflex to remain modest, low-key and approachable. If he’d been cold or starchy, that would have been more of a shock than his genuine kindness to everyone he met that day.

We spoke for a while; his mom had served in the RCAF, in a role that was a family secret for decades.

I’m usually not a big celebrity geek, but he was so warm and down to earth, just another fellow Canadian proud to come out and celebrate with the rest of us.

What a fun day!

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This is journalism, not that

By Caitlin Kelly

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I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.

This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.

Guess which got the most attention?

To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.

Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.

I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.

What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.

All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.

If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!

Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.

In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”

In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.

In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.

Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 50 stories for them

It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his meticulous accounting of every dollar President Trump’s foundation made to charity. Very few, it turned out.

Here’s a story with an image of his notebooks. Pretty old-school stuff. But it did the job.

As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.

That’s real journalism.

The pleasure of using old things

By Caitlin Kelly

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I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.

If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.

Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)

And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.

Not me!

I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.

Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.

New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.

The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.

The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.

I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)

The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.

I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.

I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.

This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.

A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.

Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.

We enjoyed a long and lively conversation and she very generously gave me an extra ticket to the Winter Antiques Fair, which is also on at the same time, which I attended last year, (and where I bought a black and white photo by Finnish legend Pentti Samallahti. The image we now own is in the 6th row down, 2nd from the left. I’m dying to own the third one from the left in that row!)

desk-01

Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.

Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.

We’re only passing through.

In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.