These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.
The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.
But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.
— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza
— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africa
— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)
— The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS
— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria
— The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses
I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.
On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.
Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.
But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.
After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.
I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.
As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.
On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?
On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.
I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.
They “humanize” the victims, she said.
Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!
And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?
I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.
Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.
I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.
I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.
Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.
Reality was quite enough, thanks!
The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.
We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.
She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:
I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.
By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.
We’ve sifted out the worst.
We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.
What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?
“No act of terror can match the strength or the character of our country,” Mr. Obama told a crowd that included family members of those slain and other invited guests in the cavernous underground hall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. “Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today,” he added, “nothing can ever break us. Nothing can change who we are as Americans.”
The president’s remarks highlighted a somber ceremony at the new institution marking the worst foreign attack on American soil, one that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of fear, war, determination and clashes of values while redefining America’s place in the world. Surrounded by the wreckage of that day, deep underneath the ground where two planes felled the twin towers, the president and the other guests vowed never to forget.
Objects big and small from the greatest terrorist attack on American soil now make up a museum dedicated to that tragedy and the 2,983 people who perished. It is one of America’s largest and most ambitious memorial museums, almost entirely subterranean and erected in the graveyard of Osama bin Laden’s victims.
Construction worker Frank Silecchia found a crossbeam in the rubble that resembled a cross. It became a key exhibit at the new museum.
A police officer found Genni Gambale’s red wallet on the roof of a Marriott hotel, a few blocks south of the Trade Center, days after the attacks. In the wallet were a scorched American Express Corporate card, a $115 coupon for Lenscrafters, a Brooklyn Public Library card, pennies, nickels, dimes.
Now under thick Plexiglass, the wallet tells of a life cut short. Gambale was one of many trapped on the upper floors after American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. She was 27.
I asked a friend if he is going to visit, and his response was swift and furious.
“No! They’re charging $24. The monuments in Washington are free. I think it’s obscene to charge money for this.”
(It is free to family members of 9/11 victims, and $18 for seniors.)
I doubt I’ll go, but for additional reasons beyond a very high ticket price. I try to avoid even driving past the site of the former World Trade Center; I find the area frightening, depressing and filled with terrible memories, both visual and olfactory.
For many weeks after the towers fell, you could smell them many long blocks north, like some evil, dark wraith twisting between the skyscrapers. It was oily, chemical, acrid — and unforgettable.
There was no escaping it.
If you were in or near lower Manhattan (or D.C.) the day of those attacks, you likely have no appetite at all to relive the terror, doubt, confusion, grief and sorrow we all experienced.
That morning, I was in Maryland on a journalism fellowship, while my husband Jose, (then a boyfriend about to move, that very day, into my suburban apartment), sat in Brooklyn with all his possessions packed into boxes.
Instead, he heard the distinctive roar of an F-15 fighter jet overhead, a sound he knows, and knew we were at war.
He helped The New York Times to win the Pulitzer Prize that year for photo editing of those awful images. This was no “it’s only a movie” moment.
Instead he ran into a local drugstore, handed off the rolls of film from Times’ photographers — ash-covered from the collapsed towers, traumatized, running as fast they could — to develop it as quickly as possible then transmitting it to the Times’ midtown newsroom from the computer in his otherwise-empty apartment.
I reported the DNA testing of remains story, and it ran in newspapers and magazines in New Zealand, Britain and France. I also interviewed a volunteer morgue worker for Glamour, a women’s magazine.
The details were impossibly grotesque and I cried a lot.
We recently lost — we being the global community of journalists — two women who made profound differences in the lives of their many grateful editors, colleagues and readers.
Too often, journalism appears to be a business dominated by men: publishers, editors-in-chief, front-page bylines.
Talented, brave women also shape much of what we see, hear and feel.
One, shot dead while sitting in a car in Afghanistan, was Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a news photographer from Germany; in the car with her, also shot (but recovering) is Associated Press veteran correspondent, and Canadian, Kathy Gannon.
The other, Heather Robertson, is a Canadian journalist who led a life-changing lawsuit against Canadian publishers who, in a land grab, decided to “re-purpose” thousands of articles and earn handsome profits from them — without bothering to share those profits with the writers who had actually created them and their economic value.
Two lawsuits took decades to move through the Canadian courts, but they gave many writers fantastic windfalls; I got two five-figure payouts thanks to her work, which allowed me to breathe more easily in lean times, which every freelancer faces at some point.
“Heather was a Canadian nationalist and a feminist,” says her friend and fellow writer, Elaine Dewar. “Her voice was clear, honest and rigorous in a way that was uncommon at the time.”
She embodied her grandfather’s crusading convictions outside of her writing life, too. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she co-founded both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Her biggest coup, though, came in the 1990s when she became the lead plaintiff in two lawsuits against the country’s largest media corporations, including The Globe and Mail, over the electronic rights of freelance journalists. (Ms. Dewar remembers that Ms. Robertson was smart enough to be afraid of the responsibility and brave enough to ignore her doubts.) The eventual settlement of more than $11-million remunerated many freelancers for lost income and established that publishers could not simply re-purpose a writer’s work on databases or the Internet without credit or payment.
She was long accustomed to the field, and to the dangers getting to it, and back to it. She wrote an essay, ‘Emotions Speak Through Images,’ for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, in which she wrote of her compassion for civilians she met in Bosnia, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere. She said she wanted to ‘understand the situation through their eyes’ during an American raid on a house in Baghdad in 2004. But she was also struck by the youth of the American Marines, ‘just out of school, young boys.’
In a passage, she described how after the 2003 invasion of Iraq she slipped across the border from Kuwait into Basra by hiding inside a Kuwaiti fire brigade truck, then joined up with her A.P. colleagues.
“I remember watching a fierce battle around the city’s university. Shells started to land nearby, and most journalists left the scene,” she wrote. “I had just put on my bulletproof vest when another shell landed so close to me that it injured three of my colleagues. I escaped with bruises and was able to drive them to safety in our Jeep, even though it was also hit, and two of its four tires were flat. One of my colleagues, a Lebanese cameraman, had shrapnel close to his heart and was immediately operated on by a British Army doctor in a makeshift tent. We were flown out to Kuwait for further treatment. Three days later I returned to Iraq in a rented Jeep from Kuwait.”
I honestly don’t think that the AP could have covered that war without her influence. Our entire staff was raised in her image. I’m sure that even now, when they go out the door with their cameras they ask themselves “What would Anja do?” I think maybe every AP photographer has asked themselves that at one point…
“She was one of the best people I’ve ever known. I was so lucky to have known and worked with her. I’m just one of countless people all over the world to have loved Anja. We are all totally devastated,” Guttenfelder said.
LO: I didn’t know that NPR had a therapist on retainer. At what point, do you know that there’s a therapist if you need one? Is it part of a basic benefits package for conflict journalists?
KM: A colleague recommended Mark Brayne. Mark is very involved with the Dart Center. He’s part of a group of people who really advocate for this kind of thing at news organizations. I don’t really know if it’s part of NPR’s orientation or benefits package because back when I joined the company things were different than they are now.
At work, therapy was always this kind of thing that you wanted to do in complete confidentiality because you never want to be seen as weak at a news organization. I’ve tried to make it something that we talk about a little bit more—not who goes to see whom or when they go—but that it’s available and we should all consider using it when we need it.
Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who I interviewed, talked about this a bit. Newsrooms are insanely competitive places. You don’t want anyone to sniff weakness because then they’ll come for your job. Doing this piece was a big risk and that’s definitely one of the reasons.
The other thing is when you cover these horrible situations, you feel like a schmuck saying “poor me,” when the people around you have it so much worse than you, where there’s hundreds of thousands of refugees and people are dying violent deaths every day. That’s something you have to get over. Feinstein talks about this with his clients. He asks, “If you have a broken leg, but the guy next to you has broken leg, should you not fix your broken leg?” The truth is, we have to be well enough to tell people’s stories. And if you’re not well in the head, you’re not going to be able to do it. We have to stop feeling guilty about talking about our problems.
Reporting on the larger world often begins with local reporting on cops and courts, where most journalists have never been before. Drug abuse, murder, sexual assault, rape — we cover it, talk to survivors of it, photograph it, write about it or broadcast its images. We may sit for days or weeks or months in a courtroom, listening to horrific details.
In the 1980s, while working at The Globe and Mail, I was sent into a Toronto courtroom to cover for the justice reporter for a few days. It might only have been a day, but every detail is as fresh to me as it was then. They wheeled in the blood-streaked freezer into which the accused shoved his victim, minus his limbs.
We called it, with typical black humor, the roast beef murder.
Then there were the parents who had pimped their own children to a circle of their friends.
Stupidly, I’d had no idea what nightmares swirled around us.
While working, briefly, for the Canadian Press, my Sunday evening shift included writing up every fatality that occurred in the province of Ontario that weekend: car crashes, drownings, you name it. I started to dread my job and its perky nickname “Fats”.
One evening I asked a fellow reporter, a woman whose husband was a cop, if this ever bothered her, all those dead bodies and grieving families. “It’s just numbers,” said Judy.
Those who cover war see and smell dead bodies. They learn to distinguish the specific deep thudding of a Blackhawk helicopter or the sound of an incoming mortar, to survive the choking stink of tear gas and strap on their Kevlar vest before starting their day.
Friends of mine have covered war, famine, rape, the aftermath of floods and hurricanes.
One, a colleague more than a personal friend, war reporter Michael Hastings, only 33, died in a fiery crash in L.A. recently, to the shock and dismay of the journalism community.
Interviews with friends as well as the coroner’s report suggest that Hastings’ mental health was deteriorating. As a young man, he’d abused drugs and alcohol and received a possible diagnosis of manic depression. Now, after a long period of sobriety, he had recently begun smoking pot to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder — the product of years of covering combat.
My husband covered the worst prison riot in U.S. history, photographing the dead while he was still a college student.
Those covering the mayhem in Egypt and Syria are staring into the abyss every day.
To write my first book, about American women and guns, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens about firearms in their lives, including women who had been shot, who had shot and killed, whose children and husbands had been killed or committed suicide.
I had a few weeks of insomnia and nightmares, and only a friend working in the prison system recognized it as secondary trauma.
I knew things were getting a little nuts when one of my sources, who had been shot point-blank in her home then pursued and shot her assailant, sent me a photo of his body lying in her front yard, and I asked Jose to preview it for me to see if I could handle it.
“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s just a dead guy in the mud.”
This is not a healthy reaction.
Last week, at a journalism conference, I met a tall, thin, beautiful television anchor who is hungry to do something different. “I’ve seen too much,” she told me. “Bodies without heads…all the things we see, but viewers do not.”
This is what consumers of media rarely know or remember — that before you hear it on the radio or see it on the television news or read about it on-line or in print, people have first listened to and watched visions of pure hell.
The final product is, no matter how horrific to you, sanitized and scrutinized, argued over ferociously in news meetings as to whether it’s legal, ethical or moral to show you all of it. If so, how much?
He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.
It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.
I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.
I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.
I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.
For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.
I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.
I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!
The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!
I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.
I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.
I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!
Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?
Michael Hastings, a 33-year-old reporter for Buzzfeed whose Rolling Stone report on comments made by aides to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal ended McChrystal’s career, died early Tuesday in an explosive one-car crash in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Video of the crash scene posted to YouTube shows an extremely fiery aftermath of the fatal wreck, with Hastings’ car burning furiously at 625 N. Highland Ave. The car burns on the median strip outside the office of psychic Madam Mazale.
I knew Michael a little because we were both, in 2009, blogging for True/Slant, a paid site with some 300 members. He was smart, generous, a good guy with a promising career.
When a terrific journalist, especially one so young, is killed, the tribe mourns. For all the cynicism about “the media” and how crappy we can be in our work, when it is good, we salute it and celebrate it, at least amongst ourselves. We are all hungry, all the time, for inspiration to be our best selves, to produce our best work.
In late August, 2009, I ran this post here, which includes an interview with Michael about his first book. An excerpt from that post:
Tell us a little about how and why you chose journalism.
I’ll start with a cliché—from about the age of 12 I knew I wanted to write. (Or join the Marines, win a congressional medal of honor, and run for president.) As a teenager, I discovered guys like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and had a serious Beat literature phase. I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances. That didn’t work out so well. I wrote a column at my school paper, called “Fear and Loathing at LCC.” (Lower Canada College, the name of the high school I attended in Montreal.) Then I moved to Burlington, Vermont, where I went to a Catholic school. I was promptly banned from writing for the school newspaper there. The principal was a rather large man named Brother Roger. He didn’t take kindly to an essay where I compared him, perhaps unfavorably, to Jabba the Hutt.
Anyway, after bouncing around at a few colleges, I ended up at New York University. During my last semester, I got an unpaid internship at Newsweek International. I probably was the only one who applied, as the work at first was primarily on Friday and Saturday nights. But I’d been chastened enough by life at that point to realize that I’d managed to get my foot in the door, so to speak, and I wasn’t going take it out. So I more or less lived at the Newsweek offices, and the internship turned to a full time position. I guess I was 22 at the time. I loved it, and I learned how to write an edit there…. I never refused an assignment or anything an editor asked me to do, which helped my cause.. But after about three years, I started asking to be sent to Iraq. By that time, America was already suffering from its first bout of Iraq fatigue—circa 2005. It wasn’t a hot story. Not many people were banging down the door to go. So my bosses finally sent me in August 2005. Six months or so later, the civil war broke out, and all of sudden, Iraq was a really big story again.. I was named the magazine’s Baghdad correspondent a few months after that. That meant I was now going to move to Baghdad permanently…
Here, he talks about writing his first book. about the death of his girlfriend Andi, in Iraq:
What was the hardest part of living through it? And then, of writing it — commodifying something painful and personal into a book.
I’d never experienced violent or sudden loss. It’s something one can’t prepare for, and it’s difficult for those who haven’t experienced it to really understand how life-changing it can be. So losing Andi was the hardest part, the most horrible thing that has ever happened in my life. And I get into this in the book, but I of course felt my own guilt for being over there, for Andi being over there. Writing it was the only relief. The book is what kept me going.
I didn’t really consider the questions of commodification until after the fact. I tried to focus on the positives. The proceeds of the book could start the Andi Foundation, which they have, and we’ve been able to already do great things there, another way to keep Andi’s memory alive. We’ve even made amends with NDI, and have established an annual fellowship with them in her name. They’ve still never admitted their massive failure, but no point in holding a grudge. My goal was also to make Andi a part of the history of the war and, I’m quite proud of the fact that the book has been published around the world; it has been excerpted in many more countries, so Andi’s story really has reached hundreds of thousands of more people. I felt fortunate that a publisher was giving me the chance to share her story, and my story. Most war dead are lucky if they get a writeup in the local paper.
There are negatives, of course. But they’re nothing compared to the actual positive things that publishing the book accomplish. But it’s not like this is some uplifting story. A thousand books aren’t going to get her back, nothing is. It it’s a horrible situation, mind-numbingly horrible, but you try to do what you can. You desperately search for silver linings, lemonade from lemons, whatever you can grasp onto to help deal with the pain, to give her death meaning.
There’s a great quote by Wallace Stegner, talking to students in a writing workshop: “If you spill your guts on the floor,” he told his students, “Don’t be surprised if people step on them.” The bread and butter of journalism is the pain and misery of others. So I find it funny that when a person writes about their own pain and misery, others in the media are quick to level the charge of exploitation. Sort of ridiculous, really.
Hastings, who was 33, was described by many of his colleagues as an unfailingly bright and hard-charging reporter who wrote stories that mattered. Most recently, he wrote about politics for the news website BuzzFeed, where the top editor said colleagues were devastated by the loss.
“Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians,” said Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief.
Smith said he learned of the death from a family member.
Authorities said there was a car crash early Tuesday in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles that killed a man, but coroner’s officials could not confirm whether Hastings was the victim.
Hastings won a 2010 George Polk Award for magazine reporting for his Rolling Stone cover story “The Runaway General.”
His story was credited with ending Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career after it revealed the military’s candid criticisms of the Obama administration.
One wise friend, with decades of media experience at the highest levels, in D.C. and elsewhere, asked me the question — was this really an accident?
A bright, tough, ambitious journalist dies alone in a fiery one-car crash?
It’s easy to forget — or not even really understand — that while soldiers are killed, or maimed and traumatized by fighting in war, so are journalists, photographers, videographers and their fixers and interpreters. You can’t phone in war photos, so those shooting with a camera are often as much in the line of fire, as much in harm’s way as the soldiers they are with.
It is a small and tightly-knit community of men and women war journalists who move from one conflict zone to the next, their helmets and Kevlar flak jackets ever at the ready.
SOON after landing a job at a Manhattan law firm nearly 20 years ago, Sara Horowitz was shocked to discover that it planned to treat her not as an employee, but as an independent contractor.
“I saw right away that something wasn’t kosher,” Ms. Horowitz recalls. Her status meant no health coverage, no pension plan, no paid vacation — nothing but a paycheck. She realized that she was part of a trend in whichAmerican employers relied increasingly on independent contractors, temporary workers, contract employees and freelancers to cut costs….
Ms. Horowitz’s grandfather was a vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and her father was a labor lawyer. So it was perhaps not surprising that she responded to her rising outrage by deciding to organize a union…The Freelancers Union, with its oxymoronic name, is a motley collection of workers in the fast-evolving freelance economy — whether lawyers, software developers, graphic artists, accountants, consultants, nannies, writers, editors, Web site designers or sellers on Etsy.
I’m not a member of the FU (Hmmmm, nice abbreviation!), but I applaud her efforts.
Turns out that 87 percent of her members earn less than $50,000 — 29 percent of them make less than $25,000 a year.
God knows, freelancers/temps/contract workers need all the help we can get.
Certainty is a constant drive for the brain. We saw this with Hurricane Sandy. The feeling of uncertainty feels like pain, when you can’t predict when the lights will come back on and you’re holding multiple possible futures in your head. That turns out to be cognitively exhausting. And the more we can predict the future, the more rewarded we feel. The less we can predict the future, the more threatened we feel. As soon as any ambiguity arises in even a very simple activity, we get a threat response. So we are driven to create certainty.
I get up every day with no idea where my income is going to arrive from in three months from now. I usually work three months ahead — i.e. with enough income lined up to count on that my basic bills will get paid in that time and it buys me time to go line up the next batch. I live by the salesman’s motto: ABC — Always Be Closing.
Which means not just having coffee, sending emails, taking meetings or chatting to potential clients, but closing the deal — agreeing to a set fee, terms and deadline. Working retail, which I did for 27 months selling clothing in a mall, was extraordinarily helpful to me in this respect. I used to be too scared to ask for the sale. Not any more!
Now I’m much better at sussing out the tire-kickers and time-wasters.
Here are some of the many issues that face freelancers:
— How much will they pay me?
— Is this a lot less (or more) than that they are paying others at my level of skill and experience? (Networking and joining an industry-focused freelance group is essential to determine this.)
— Do I have a contract, and one with terms acceptable to me? If not, how much of it can I negotiate?
— When will I get paid? Some companies are playing truly nasty games — like 90 days after submission. Three months!? I work on 30 days, after which I start sending emails and phone calls.
–How many times will I need to sue in small claims court or hire a lawyer to write a threatening letter on my behalf? (Did it, it worked, from Kansas City to Vancouver.)
— How will I meet my monthly financial commitments when payment arrives late (or not at all?) A line of credit and low-interest credit cards, plus whatever savings you can scrape together.
— Who is the point person who will make sure, internally, that I do get paid? (Both my editors quit one company recently, leaving my payment much more vulnerable. Luckily, it did arrive and within six weeks.)
— When and how can I ask for a higher rate?
— What is the lowest fee I’ll accept, and why am I bottom-feeding?
— How soon can I fire this PITA client?
— Where can I find my next 5,10, 15 new clients?
—Which conferences, events and meetings are really worth investing my hard-won time and money in to meet collegial veterans and learn important new skills?
I grew up in a family where no one had a paycheck. My father made documentary and feature films and television news series. My stepmother wrote television drama. So whatever we earned was whatever our skill, talent and tough negotiation won for us.
Nothing was guaranteed. Just like “real” jobs — which you can (and many do) lose overnight with no warning at all.
I hate the stress of not knowing my annual income will be. I know what I hope to earn, but will I make it? The joy/terror of freelance work is that it’s all up to me.
But, having been summarily canned from a few well-paid jobs and having been badly bullied at a few as well, I know how stressful that is, too.
The New York Times’ new public editor’s last column praised the paper’s reporters and photographers for climbing stairs in the dark to find and interview and photograph victims of Hurricane Sandy:
That’s just one example among many in which Times reporters went to extraordinary lengths to get the stories of ordinary people’s suffering. I was equally struck by Cara Buckley’s and Michael Wilson’s’s front-page article about life without power in New York’s public housing projects.
It included this passage: “As light drained from the skies above the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn on Thursday, Sharlyn Marin, 18, huffed her way up 140 steps to visit her godmother, Judith Rodriguez, on the 10th floor. Blind and in a wheelchair, Ms. Rodriguez, 62, relied on Ms. Marin as her sole conduit to the outside world.”
Such articles, involving shoe-leather reporting at its best, are not easy to get. The only way to get those scenes is to be there — in this case, to climb the stairs in a dark and dangerous housing project.
Ms. Buckley told me about her experience in an e-mail: “It’s actually a 14-story building, and the photographer, Ruth Fremson, and I went to the top twice and then worked our way down. No matter the time of day, the stairways were pitch black, windowless and without power.”
That’s their job.
These days, the expression “shoe leather” journalism seems unfamiliar to many reporters, especially those who came into the field assuming that Google has the answer to everything. Instead it means leaving the cozy, familiar newsroom and building and neighborhood. It means walking/climbing/hiking — doing whatever is necessary on foot (and by plane/car/bus/donkey/boat) — to get on-scene to witness and report the gritty details of a story.
It demands guts, street smarts, preparation — knowing what to wear and what to carry, finding and hiring fixers and drivers and interpreters.
Great reporters tells us what the air smells like, what the baby was eating, the color of the walls and the size of the windows. They capture tone, light, anecdote, vernacular, nuance. They bring us into that place and make us feel what those in that place are feeling, whether joy or terror. They smell the blood, sometimes even slipping in it.
They do not phone it in. They do not Google it or look at a Google map to see what the devastation looks like or watch it on TV or read it out of someone else’s story.
Great reporting on tough stories like this one mean getting, literally, down and dirty, joining the story where and when it’s happening. It means that reporters and photographers will indeed also end up hungry, thirsty, tired, sore and worn out — like the people whose lives they’re there to describe to readers many miles away, safe and warm and dry.
Great journalism is fueled by compassion. Not every story requires it, obviously, but when reporting on war, poverty, violence, crime, natural disaster or medical mishap, a reporter unwilling to live it firsthand is only going to report a dessicated, sanitized version of the facts.
My husband and I have both done this sort of reporting work, I as a writer and he as a photographer. In winter, he spent six weeks covering the end of the Bosnian war. He had to sleep in an unheated metal cargo container and his Christmas meal was a small packet of dried soup. He and the reporter and their interpreter, their car car stuck, were towed out of a snowbank at dusk because Jose had thought to pack a carabiner in his luggage.
I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood after a head-on collision, and — nauseated and terrified — walked toward the vehicle to see what make and model it was. I’ve walked across frozen fields, climbed muddy embankments, knelt on dirty floors. I flew to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto on a medical investigative story, and watched the women I interviewed shake and cry as they related their misery to me. It was exhausting and emotionally draining for all of us.