Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.
But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!
Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.
I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.
So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.
I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!
Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.
I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.
Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?
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?
This story, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is going viral among my journalist/writer/foreign correspondent friends.
It is written by Francesca Borri, an Italian woman who has been reporting from Syria as a freelancer:
People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s
exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the
stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just
the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today
is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even
Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in
Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the
Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their
power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline
piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am
answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”
But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors
see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places
like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for
example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress
on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per
night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than
minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance—it’s
almost $1,000 a month—but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator.
You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that
$70 a piece pushes you to save on everything…But they buy your
article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball
handmade by a Pakistani child.
With new communication technologies there is this temptation to
believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive
logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your
magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason
to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and
for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership.
Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they
are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They
want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an
eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who
say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.”
Many kinds of reporting, especially war reporting, (and photography and video and audio) — must be done firsthand.
It can’t be done, contrary to the fantasies of some journalism students who have to be shoved out of their classrooms into the world to talk to real people face to face, by Googling everything!
The photographer with him, Tyler Hicks, as soldiers expect to do and reporters do not, carried his dead body back to civilization.
We cannot, must not ever accept, only the official/sanitized/biased reports offered up by the military or rebels or the government or corporate flacks.
Everyone, everywhere has an agenda.
The reporter’s primary job is to witness, describe, analyze, explain. They/we are more essential than ever in a world of spin , sound bites and soi-disant journalists who “publish” their point of view without an ounce of training or ethics.
But risking your life for $70 a story? It’s a fucking obscenity. Her editors and publishers should be ashamed of their cheapness — I bet they blow that much money each week on their morning espressos.
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.
To older followers of Broadside, a thank you — I loved hearing all your book recommendations!
Here are just a few of the many books I’ve read and loved, with the nationality of the author.
Most are memoir and non-fiction, with fiction listed at the bottom:
Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller. A memoir of growing up white in rural Zimbabwe with a mad mother. (British.)
When A Crocodile Eats The Sun, Peter Godwin. Another memoir of Zimbabwe, after its terrible wars, by a journalist now living in the U.S. (British.)
Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol. If you want to understand American apartheid — the stunning lack of social mobility that starts with often appallingly weak public education for the poor — read this powerful book. A classic. (American)
Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc. The best book likely written in the past 30 years about the daily life of the American poor. The writer spent the better part of a decade getting to know the women she writes about here, low-income women living in New York City. (American.)
The Creative Habit, Twlya Tharp. This legendary choreographer has tremendous drive and ambition, and her book offers many ways to tap and harness your own creativity. Life-changing book. (American.)
My War Gone By, I Loved It So, Anthony Loyd. A very dark work, this will make immediately clear the psychic costs of covering war. Not an easy read, but powerful and unforgettable. (British.)
“Are You Somebody?“, Nuala O’Faolain. An midlife female journalist talks about her life in no uncertain terms. She died of lung cancer in 2008, costing us a terrific voice. (Ireland.)
“Brown“, Richard Rodriguez. Cranky, smart, provocative, elegant. Must we view everything through the filters of race? Rodriguez told an audience at a writers’ conference he felt he was crying in the wilderness when writing this excellent book. (American.)
“No Logo“, Naomi Klein. This young writer has made the globe her niche. This fascinating book addresses the many political, economic and psychological effects of corporate control and globalization. (Canadian)
“Blown Away: American Women and Guns”,Caitlin Kelly. My first book, which examines how women and guns intersect — whether a woman is a police officer, FBI or military using it for her work or has been the victim of violence or a loved one’s suicide or a hunter. The book has 104 interviews from 29 states with women of all ages, races and income levels. Booklist called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.”
“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, Caitlin Kelly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012, this book has been compared to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed” about what it’s really like to work at a low-wage job in the United States. I worked part-time for 27 months in a suburban New York mall selling clothing and accessories for The North Face. It is being published in China in September 2012 and was nominated for the Hillman Prize, given annually to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”
“Lost Illusions“, Honoré de Balzac. This classic novel, written between 1837 and 1843, works just as well today as a guide to the symbiosis of ambition and greed binding would-be authors and their publishers. Follow the trials of Lucien, a naïve and ambitious poet. “You bite the hand that feeds you – and you can toss off an article as easily as I can smoke a cigar”, says a newspaper employee when Lucien struggles for decent pay. Plus ça change. (French)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. I love this book so much. Barbery is a professor of philosophy and a keen observer of human nature. Her story about the inhabitants of a French apartment building, and its concierge, is a wondrous work. (French)
Come, Thou Tortoise. Jessica Grant. The author is not a big name and this is her only book. I found it charming and touching, quirky without being cute or twee. (Canadian.)
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. She has written many, many books, but this one is my favorite, deeply evocative of my hometown (and hers), Toronto, and what it’s like to be a little girl. (Canadian.)
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje. Life in Toronto in the 1920s. His writing has a distinctly poetic, dreamlike quality. (Author of “The English Patient”, much better known.) (Canadian.)
The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. A fellow journalist and University of Toronto alum, he’s written a charming and touching fictional portrait of life at an overseas newspaper. This is one of my absolute favorites of recent years. (Canadian)
The Master andMargarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Loved this book! I literally could not put it down. (Russian.)
The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell. If you, as I do, love Japan, the 18th. century and deliciously descriptive writing, this is a book you’ll hate to put down. It’s a slow, gentle, lyrical book, like entering a dream. (New Zealand)
Falconer, John Cheever. One of the great American writers of the late 2th century. (American)
Triomf, Marlene van Niekerk. An astonishing book and thick as a doorstop. It’s graphic and shocking, but unforgettable portrait of a poor Afrikaaner family in the post-apartheid world of Johannesburg. (South African)
Anything written by Ray Bradbury, (American)
Anything written by Nadine Gordimer (South African)
It’s a fact easily overlooked — the news we read and hear and watch is brought to us by human beings with hearts.
Some of the stories they gather, and some of the very best in my view, are the ones we skip over because they’re dark, disturbing and deeply painful.
Journalists who gather this material often end up suffering from a condition known as “secondary trauma” which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression. It’s a form of PTSD, which soldiers experience after the violence and brutality of war. I experienced it myself after writing my first book about American women and guns, after steeping myself in reports and interviews of violence, suicide and homicide for months.
A female friend who returned from Haiti after reporting there for weeks began telling her Facebook friends she couldn’t sleep, night after night. I suggested her insomnia was quite likely the result of secondary trauma. Another female friend wrote a searing book about MRSA, the flesh-eating infection, and she too experienced the aftereffects of recounting terrible stories, receiving a Dart Center fellowship to deal with it.
Most journalists aren’t trained in any way to know that this even exists. They work in, or return to, newsrooms filled with colleagues who have no experience or understanding of the horrors they may have seen, smelled, heard or survived, and few bosses with training to recognize or handle it either.
The very compassion and empathy that leads journalists into this tough work can also leave them shattered by it.
The Dart Center is an American non-profit organization whose focus is helping journalists prepare for, and recover from, reporting stories of this nature. I admire them and the men and women who do this work.
A panel discussion is being held tonight from 6 to 8pm at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City honoring this year’s winners.
From the Dart Center website:
The New York Times received the Dart Award for “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” (John Branch, reporter; Marcus Yam, photographer; Shayla Harris, videojournalist; Josh Williams, multimedia producer.) This searing three-part investigative series tells the story of Derek Boogaard, one of the N.H.L.’s most feared “enforcers,” who died with massive brain injuries at age 28. The series reveals the consequences – physical, psychological and social – of the adulation of violence surrounding the sport.
Judges called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer” a “groundbreaking” and “exemplary piece of accountability journalism.” They praised Branch for his “masterful storytelling” and “tender objectivity,” and for focusing on “human beings, science and anguish instead of thrill, agony and defeat.” They commended the series for “taking on the sports page” and “drawing attention to sanctioned violence of fans.” Judges also recognized the far-reaching, and wide-ranging impact of the series that has made it nearly impossible for those most vested in hockey to turn a blind eye to its cruel reality and disastrous impact.
WNYC received the Dart Award for “Living 9/11,” which was presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange (Marianne McCune, reporter and producer; Emily Botein, producer; Karen Frillman, editor; Fred Mogul and Beth Fertig, reporters; Eric Leinung, Jillian Suarez, Erin Reeg, Norhan Basuni, Radio Rookies; Courtney Stein, Sanda Htyte, Radio Rookies producers; Kaari Pitkin, Radio Rookies senior producer; Chris Bannon, executive producer; Andy Lanset, original 9/11 recordings; John Ellis, composer; Paul Schneider and Jim Briggs III, mix engineers.) This hour-long documentary guides listeners through the stories of people who were deeply affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks and who are still struggling to make sense of the events. The documentary is built around a diverse range of viewpoints, capturing visceral and immediate emotional reactions to the attacks while also illuminating universal truths about 9/11’s lasting impact.
Judges called “Living 9/11” “insightful,” “hard-hitting” and “deeply sensitive,” going far beyond more conventional anniversary programs in its integration of history, science and narrative.
As we unpacked our Christmas tree ornaments this week, my sweetie, a former photographer for The New York Times, (now an editor there), pulled out a Ziploc bag and handed me a small reddish brown booklet, the length of my middle finger, crumpled and water-stained.
He found it in a ski chalet in the mountains of Bosnia, in December 1995, that had been turned into a war hospital.
Its black and white photo shows a clean-shaven man wearing a dress shirt, woolen vest and dress jacket. His name, it seems, is Sokolac Mehmedovic, born May 9, 1950. My sweetie found his identity papers, for this is what they were, lying on the floor.
Was the man dead? Fled? In that bleak, freezing, terrifying place and time, one could only guess.
The paper, a list of Serbo-Croatian words and phrases, contains normal things like Hello (Zdravo), and Please (Molim).
Cease fire (Prekid Vatre)
Don’t shoot (Ne Pucajte)
Drop Your Weapon (Spustite orujze)
He arrived in Bosnia on December 6, according to one of his battered press passes, the one issued by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Zagreb. He came with 20 power bars, long underwear and a carabiner, a light, strong metal clip used by mountain climbers.
Why would he need a carabiner?
It ended up saving his life.
His vehicle, containing a reporter and interpreter, got stuck in deep snow at dusk. Two German UNHCR peacekeepers, one named Wolfgang, a former photojournalist, towed them out — attaching their truck to the car with a cable they looped through the carabiner. My sweetie had picked it up, as an afterthought, at the checkout counter at Eastern Mountain Sports on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
A little voice had told him: “You’re going to need this.”
For a month, he was cold, wet, tired, scared. On Christmas Day, he was alone in a hotel in Tuzla.
His New York Times colleagues had packed a pile of trinkets for him, knowing how hard that being far from home in so frightening a place would be. One enclosed two packs of Marlboros, and several pairs of women’s stockings, with a card that explained: “This worked for my father in WWII. Maybe this will work for you.”
By 4pm, he hadn’t eaten all day. No one else was staying at the hotel and he found the restaurant closed. Begging the manager, he was given a piece of bread and a bowl of hot chicken soup — broth only.
That was his Christmas meal.
This week – warm, dry, employed, safe from guns and knives and rage and freezing cold — we celebrate our Christmas.
This was the question debated yesterday on “On The Media”, a weekly show on NPR — should Michael Hastings (a True/Slant writer) have told McChrystal’s story in all its gory, insubordinate detail?
The show interviewed Jamie McIntyre, a former Pentagon correspondent, who lauded Hastings for his work, but raised the larger question every reporter knows — trading off not reporting everything you see and hear (racist or stupid or off-color or sexist remarks) while covering a beat (a specialty area) in order for your sources to remain comfortable with you and confident you won’t make them look bad publicly. Then, the deal goes, they will tell you important things, maybe first, maybe even exclusively.
McIntyre called it, which it is, reporters’ “dirty little secret.”
The trade-off is short-term pain (keeping your mouth shut) for long-term gain (scoops.)
Is this a good idea? Bad idea?
For any reporter who needs access to sources, as any beat reporter does, it’s like asking if they should take notes or return calls. You can’t torch every bridge the minute you’ve crossed it. Not only will you never be able to access that source again, but you’ve scared off all your others: if s/he did it to them, why wouldn’t they do it to me as well?
Part of the drama, for journalists, is feeling annoyed that Hastings broke the rules…David Brooks slapped his wrist in The New York Times for participating in a “culture of exposure.” (So much better than the how they play inside the Beltway?):
During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.
Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.
Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.
Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.
In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.
Brooks candidly admits he couldn’t do his job without keeping mum. Most writers with any serious access know these unwritten, unspoken rules. They play by them.
Perhaps most importantly, they savage those too stupid, bold or naive to break them.
Pack journalism, which denotes the safety of traveling in numbers, also reflects another reality: like a posse of wolves, they can, and will, turn on the maverick among them and tear them to shreds for their temerity for breaking from the pack and its group behaviors.
(I lived through this, at Michael’s age, when I wrote two front-page stories about Queen Elizabeth, who I had followed on tour for two weeks, for TheGlobe and Mail. An enormous international press pack had followed her, as I had. But in both of these stories, I said and reported things that breached standard protocol — and was pilloried for it. I knew some of my competitors were getting their butts kicked hard for not reporting as I had, so it was an easy out to accuse me of lying and making some of it up. I have never felt so much professional stress, then or since.)
But in the wake of the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan commander over intemperate remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, Pentagon officials are concerned the military may recoil in fear and anger from the press.
The chill couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the Pentagon’s leadership, with skepticism about the war’s progress growing among U.S. politicians and officials in Afghanistan ahead of what is likely to be the war’s most important operation, the imminent move by thousands of U.S. forces into Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban.
“If we recoil, if we go underground, if we get defensive, it’s self-defeating,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “We need to remain as engaged as ever, if not more so because we are at a crucial point in this war.”
Freelancers, who often jump from story to story, subject to subject, freelance to job back to freelance to fellowship to book, owe allegiance only to their conscience, bank balance and career ambitions. Untethered to a beat, a set of specific editors and a publication or broadcast outlet who also wants to consistently, accurately beat the competition, freelancers are — free — to behave as they, and their editors, see fit.