Deborah Howell, Journalism Pioneer, Aka 'The Dragon Lady' Dead At 68

From The New York Times:

At age 34, she became city editor of The Minneapolis Star, which later became The Star Tribune after a merger. Four years later she jumped to a rival paper, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she served as managing editor and then executive editor. At The Pioneer Press, she oversaw two projects that led the paper to win the first Pulitzer Prizes in the paper’s history, in 1986 and 1988.

Ms. Howell left The Pioneer Press in 1990 to become the chief of the Washington bureau for the Newhouse newspaper chain, a post she held for 15 years. Her staff at Newhouse News Service also won a Pulitzer while she was there.

From 2005 to 2008, she was the ombudsman of The Washington Post, winning friends and admirers despite having a job that meant publicly criticizing her colleagues.

“She was great fun to be around, and she had a reputation which she relished of being a great gossip,” said Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Post. “And it was true, but she was a gossip not in the mean-spirited sense, but simply because she was wildly interested in everything and everybody, and in people’s stories.”

Ms. Howell made a point of mentoring her reporters, helping them develop into book writers and often advising them years after they no longer worked for her. Among the authors she helped were John Sandford, Chuck Logan and H. G. Bissinger.

H.G. Bissinger is better known as Buzz, author of, among other books, “Friday Night Lights”, since made into a television series and film.

Though she had asthma, she seemed anything but frail — she was loud, blunt, funny, fiercely competitive and floridly profane. The contrasting sides of her personality earned her two nicknames in the Twin Cities: Mother Mary Deborah and the Dragon Lady.

Domestic Violence A 'Pre-Existing Condition'? Nice.

National Organization for Women
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Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, in the Washington Post:

Women have far different interactions with the health-care system than men. Profit-driven insurance companies are allowed to charge women higher premiums than men because women’s reproductive health-care needs are more costly. Even women who never experience pregnancy or childbirth may pay higher premiums.

She adds:

In a half-dozen or so states, insurance companies are allowed to call domestic violence a pre-existing condition and refuse to provide any health coverage to women who are or have been abused.

Words fail me.

WaPo Style Section SmackDown As Features Editor Punches Writer

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It sounds almost too bizarre to be true, but here’s the story about a fist-fight in the Washington Post newsroom, in the Style section:

Details are sketchy, but numerous witnesses report that veteran feature editor Henry Allen punched out feature writer Manuel Roig-Franzia on Friday. The fracas took place in sight of Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli’s office. Brauchli rushed to separate the two.

It should be noted that Allen is nearly seventy, but he served in the Marines in Vietnam. He also won a Pulitzer prize in 2000 for criticism. Both apparently came into play when Allen jumped Roig-Franzia.

According to many sources, the incident began when Style editor Ned Martel assigned a semi-political story to Monica Hesse and Roig-Franzia. Playing off of an inadvertent disclosure last week that many congressmen are being investigated for ethics violations, Martel asked the two Style writers to compile a list of similar disclosures in the past. They came up with a “charticle” with a dozen examples, starting with Robert E. Lee’s Civil War battle plans for Antietam showing up wrapped around cigars.

Allen took a look and didn’t like. He started ranting about the number of mistakes he had found.

Hesse at one point asked him to send the copy back to her. She got a bit teary at the verbal beatdown.

Allen, according to sources, said: “This is total crap. It’s the second worst story I have seen in Style in 43 years.”

Roig-Franzia then wandered into the newsroom. A veteran foreign correspondent, he has been turning out political features for Style. He heard Allen’s rant and stopped by his desk.

“Oh, Henry,” he supposedly said, “don’t be such a cocks—–.”

As a veteran of three daily newspaper newsrooms, I’m not surprised by much of anything that happens in them. Anyone who’s survived a big-city newsroom has also seen the enormous egos that fill them. Add to that the insanely subjective nature of who’s considered terrific and who sucks, stories that get assigned that are so stupid you can’t believe it but you need a paycheck so you try anyway, management that prefers not to manage and an industry in meltdown…

The Washingtonian story is good, but read the comments. Even better!

Fifteen Abortions Later, Her Memoir Is Born

LONDON - MAY 20: A lady bears her stomach with...
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Can you imagine terminating, or accepting someone who did, 15 healthy pregnancies? Irene Vilar made that choice beginning as a student at Syracuse University while dating a much older professor, and her decisions are the basis for her new, and highly controversial memoir. She is now the mother of two young children.

The Washington Post writes:

That Irene Vilar embraces the role of motherhood is a grand incongruity, a mind-blower. She has just published a precariously nuanced, intellectually ambitious and unnervingly frank memoir titled “Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict.” In the book, Vilar writes about a “shameful” period in her life — before she became a mother — when she says she underwent 15 abortions in 15 years. What she now sees as her “nightmare” began with a teenage affair with a Syracuse University professor who was 34 years her senior.

The almost unimaginable claim — vetted by her publisher’s attorneys, who say they have been able to confirm all but two procedures done in now-defunct clinics — places Vilar at the outer extreme of the phenomenon of multiple abortions. It has also made her a sudden target of blogospheric vitriol and disapproval.

I haven’t yet read the book and am not sure I will. Not because I disapprove of her choice — it was legally hers to make, and ethically and morally hers to live with — but because the decision to end any pregnancy is deeply personal. There’s no doubt in my mind that Vilar chose to end the lives of 15 potential children. As much as her choice(s) may horrify many, if abortion is legal and a woman has the right to choose — the meaning of pro-choice — it leaves her free to make choices that many of us would abhor.

The First Amendment and the skills and passion of the ACLU are sacred ground for many. If the essential principle is freedom, what are its limits?

Earning $85,000 Last Year, Homeless Today

View of a house with chicken in forground
Image by DC Public Library Commons via Flickr

If you still have a job, even a crummy one you dislike, and a home — messy, crowded, expensive, too-small, needing repairs — read this Washington Post story and thank God it’s not about you, yet. It’s a great piece that really examines who we are, or think we are, when we slip terrifyingly — temporarily? — down the socioeconomic ladder.

One family’s slide from $85,000 a year to homelessness.

The Real Story Lies In The Details, Not Google Or The Pundits

A man reads a newspaper as street vendors prep...
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I blogged earlier this week about how lousy economic coverage of this recession has been because it’s been Washington-NY-focused, has relied on pundits and politicians and has largely ignored  the day to day reality of what life is like without a job, or a hope of a job or even a job interview. What are people out of work for months, or years, now eating — or not? Wearing — or not? What does it feel like to send out your 500th resume, in vain? How is affecting the daily details of life, from birthday parties and bar mitzvahs to haircuts or car maintenance? How are we all coping? Or not?

Do you care about these details? I do, desperately.

As every journalist and their editors know, it takes time (which costs money) for a reporter, or several, to travel to the best place to report a story, whether that’s 40 minutes one-way on the subway from midtown to the Bronx or Brooklyn or a 15-hour flight to the mideast and all attendant costs of staying there long enough to have any intelligent idea what’s happening below the surface. As newspapers fail and flail and fire their veterans, desperate to save money wherever they can, cutting back on every possible expense looks smart. Not investing in thoughtful, granular reporting is like choosing to fire a few rounds into your leaky little rubber boat. It’s already sinking — make it worse!

A classic reporter’s job — and ambition — is to become and to remain human wallpaper, largely invisible and inaudible, whose very wallpaper-ness allows them to quietly and unobtrusively gather the shreds and details that bring a story (back to) to life. I loathe, and so many readers are turning away in disgust from what passes  for reporting these days: cranking out fast junk, drama-queen posturing, horse-race contests to get something stupid first and then beat the story to death as long as possible. Add to this literal phoned-in work, what one commenter here called “check-list journalism.”

Only a reporter’s extraordinary sensitivity and ability to grasp, discern and capture nuance can bring us stories even worth our time and fractured attention.

This is impossible with Google, phone interviews or email — the cheapest way to get a story fast. You need to see the sweat on their upper lip, or the way they pause before they answer you and how their eyes return your gaze, or don’t or how her hands twist in agony as she tells you her tale. You need to do this over and over and over, like a physician who learns when someone isn’t telling the whole story because you have learned, through thousands of repetitions, what the whole story looks, smells and feels like. It takes time, and practice, to become a great reporter. It takes time. Then, I, your reader, am as starved for those telling details as I am for oxygen. Offer me one more pompous, lazy generality or one more ivory-tower opinion, and I’m turning the page. Now.

I still read about 30 print publications a month, and only two still seem to provide this necessary oxygen — time — to their reporters, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Here’s a NYT review of “The Good Soldiers,” a new book about the Iraq war by Post editor David Finkel whose reporting, on a small group of soldiers outside Baghdad, is defiantly micro. He describes the smell of burning trash and raw sewage, in a work the Times praised as “intimate and visceral.”

That’s what great reporting is. It’s the only kind I have time for.

You Can Read This — But One-Third Of Americans Can't

Sarina made a computer straight out of the Fli...
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While thousands of journalists who’ve lost their newspaper jobs are moving en masse to whatever medium will still pay them to produce stories, a Washington Post report finds a persistent digital divide, the results of a year-long study by the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation.

Wherever we go, we need readers. But many readers still don’t have access to the Internet.

“The report’s most sweeping finding is that there is a “broadband gap,” a “literacy gap” and a “participation gap” that falls heavily on younger, poorer and more rural Americans. “These threaten to create a two-tiered society with limited democratic possibilities for too many individuals and communities,” it says, writes Howard Kurtz.

Does this matter? What, if anything, can we do about it?

Seven Years Of Life in Baghdad — Amal Salman's Diary

The location of Baghdad within Iraq.
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When the U.S. invaded Iraq, she was 13, and she began keeping a diary, then living with her family in Karrada, a working-class district. Amal Salman has since moved with them twice, one of eight children of a widowed mother. Her oldest brother, Ali, was arrested last year after a raid on a local cafe and has been in prison for eight months so far.

Here’s some of her diary, and a story about her life since she began keeping it, written by Washington Post Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid, which ran recently. Like teens elsewhere, Amal sleeps in a bedroom filled with posters of her idols, including the soccer team Real Madrid, soccer star David Beckham and actor Brad Pitt.

Salman tells Shadid she writes at night when “the noise subsides and I hear only the frequent roar of the helicopters roaming back and forth, to which I have grown accustomed.” That’s my kind of reporting.

Her sister Fatima says she loves Dr. Phil and Oprah; says Amal, “We already have enough disasters in Iraq. Why do we need to hear about other people’s?”

It’s rare and valuable to hear from a young woman abroad, her words unmediated. I’m glad Shadid asked her, she trusted him and she agreed. That’s also my kind of reporting.

Mental Health Records for Virginia Tech Shooter Finally Found

One of the photographs of Seung-Hui Cho that h...
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They escaped the notice of two separate investigations, but the mental health records for Seung Hui Cho, who on April 16, 2007 shot and killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech, have been found. They were in the home of the former director of the university’s counseling center, and only came to light, reports today’s Washington Post thanks to pre-trial discovery for lawsuits launched by the families of several of his victims.

The Post reports:

“Lucinda Roy, a Virginia Tech English professor who encouraged Cho to get counseling, said the late and mysterious reappearance of the records adds to concern that the university has been more concerned with preserving its reputation than with providing the public with a thorough account of how Cho’s case was handled.

Roy said she had been in frequent contact with Miller about Cho’s violent writings, flat affect and disturbing behavior. “He seemed to be a caring individual and responsive to problems, even though I was very disappointed that the counseling center could not have been more proactive,” she said. “It was always puzzling to me that they couldn’t find the records and there was not a huge push to try to find them.”

Parents of his victims are understandably furious it has taken so long and wonder why.

“The words that come to mind are coverup, collusion, obstruction,” said Mike Pohle, whose son was killed in the shootings. “I’m spinning. Who knows what could be in those records? But this is just potentially more information that says: Virginia Tech, you failed to do your job.”

Pohle and Suzanne Grimes, whose son was wounded and still has a bullet in him, said the revelation might call into question the $11 million settlement that all but two families of victims signed with the university. “It just infuriates me that all of a sudden now, these records have magically appeared from a former director,” she said. “When you retire, you take the pictures off the wall. You don’t take records. It doesn’t make sense. And it raises a whole new set of questions about accountability for Virginia Tech.”

One-third of American homes contain a firearm. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 5 to 8 percent of Americans — about 14 million — are suffering from depression, which is why more than 50 percent of gun deaths are suicides, as this was after multiple murders. The correlation between mental illness, the privacy of health records and gun ownership is messy, opaque and one of the greatest challenges the U.S. faces in attempts to reduce gun-related violence and death.