The tribe meets — what journalism is really about

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Cathaleen Curtis church

St. Mary’s Episcopal church, Arlington, Virginia, where the memorial service was held for Wallace McNamee, his childhood church.

Photo by Cathaleen Curtis, director of photography, the Buffalo News.

 

I’ve been a journalist since my first year at University of Toronto, and published in national magazines and newspapers since my third year there.

It’s my life — if you’re curious, here’s some of my work.

It’s a life that makes intellectual, physical and emotional demands specific to the business.

We, at our best, share a clear (rarely explicitly discussed) set of values that resonate for those working in nations with a free press — albeit also under the heavy hand of free-market capitalism that makes even the very best job temporary.

If you’ve worked in any form of hard news journalism especially, whether photo, video, digital, print, television or broadcast, you share with thousands of colleagues worldwide the same challenges and experiences:

— balancing the need for speed, to beat every possible competitor, with the need to be 100% accurate

— discerning the many lies and omissions and distortions fed to us by the powerful into a report that, we hope, will help our audiences better make sense of their world, whether climate change, new legislation, economic issues

— working with very few resources (low pay, no assistants or secretaries or researchers)

— entering a cut-throat world where there’s always someone younger and cheaper ready to grab our hard-won spot

— knowing your value is only as great as your last story, not the prizes, awards and fellowships you’ve also collected

— having to persuade scared, dubious, wary sources to share with us their data and images to help us tell our stories thoroughly

— sometimes working in conditions that are dangerous, or merely extremely uncomfortable (heat/rain/conflict zones/war zones/the aftermath of natural disasters)

It all creates a bond that runs deep and strong, knowing that everyone in the same room gets it.

 

We recognize it immediately in one another, members of a far-flung tribe. 

 

We tend to share characteristics: we’re self-reliant, funny, wary of draaaaaama, able to put strangers at ease quickly, brave, badasses, typically pretty humble, (because we all know someone who’s done similar work much better/sooner than we have!), willing to challenge any form of authority to get the story — and incessantly curious about the world, even after decades of examining it closely.

That can make meeting someone new, even one much younger or older, staff or freelance, editor or shooter or writer, as comfortable as meeting a familiar friend.

I’m the veteran of three major daily newspapers, the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national daily), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, and have written television news and thousands of articles for everyone from Reuters and bbc.com to Marie Claire.

And every day, like my colleagues, I now watch in dismay as our industry keeps firing people like me — people who know what we’re doing, people readers and viewers rely on.

In the past few weeks alone, Ontario towns lost 33 regional newspapers as they were closed down for good, and new owners fired the entire staff of the L.A. Weekly, a respected newspaper — instead asking its readers to offer unpaid work.

Seriously?

 

Wally by David Humer Kennerly

Wallace McNamee; photo by David Hume Kennerly

 

Last weekend, more than 200 veterans of our business, many of them white-haired, gathered in a church in Arlington, Virginia, for a memorial service for Wallace McNamee, one of American photojournalism’s greats.

If you’ve been looking at news photos, in any medium, you’ve seen his work; his, like many of them, were the eyes recording history: elections, assassinations, pop culture, war.

My husband, a career photographer and photo editor at The New York Times for 31 years, knew and worked alongside McNamee in D.C., as did many of the men and women there — some editors, some competitors, all of us gathered to share their love and respect.

Colleagues and friends arrived, as we did, from far away, former awed interns now running the nation’s largest photo agencies and choosing images for its most influential publications.

Two photographers I’d never met both told me the same thing about Wally: “I was the new kid in town. I didn’t know anything and he showed me the ropes.”

Not the typical image of the sharp-elbowed, conscience-free “journalist” you may be more accustomed to.

If you maintain the skewed, ignorant and toxic notion that “all news is fake”, I wish you’d been there in that small white church, sharing the crowded pews, to witness what, at its best, our business really is about.

 

A week in D.C…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Union Station, Amtrak station in D.C.

Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.?

I’ve been coming here since I was 12 — even though I grew up in Canada — as I had cousins living near the capital, (whose father ended up being the U.S. ambassador to several countries.)

It’s such a different city from New York!

Manhattan is a grid — avenues and streets. Dead simple!

Not D.C., with its circles (roundabouts) and hub/spoke configurations and sections like NW and streets with letters and streets with numbers…I actually got lost a bit walking only a few blocks and had to use a statue of Hahnemann as my landmark (albeit one of three statues all within the same two blocks!)

A fellow journalist on my fellowship pulled out her phone and said “I’ll use GPS” and the voice said “walk southwest” and we had no idea what southwest was.

I asked the hotel doorman instead.

And, in summer, when the temperature at midnight Saturday was still 74 degrees, walking around in the 88-degree sunshine can be exhausting.

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The scale of the city is meant to awe, and it does, certainly anywhere near the White House, The Capitol, the Library of Congress and its many monuments.

My hotel was a block from 16th street and, as I stared down its length it terminated in a building I was sure had to be a mirage.

But it wasn’t.

It was the White House.

If you’ve ever watched the (great!) Netflix series House of Cards (the American version), the cityscape will be familiar, even eerily so.

But you’ve also seen these iconic buildings in films and on television, possibly for decades. To stand in front of one, let alone walk into it, is both disorienting and amazing.

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I was there a few days after the Orlando attack; this was a memorial service outside the offices of the Campaign for Human Rights

 

It’s a city filled with men in dark blue suits, white shirts and polished black shoes, all wearing a lanyard or ID badge. The subway cars are filled with soldiers in uniform, a rare sight in other cities. The streets throng with eager young interns, many of them long-legged blondes wearing expensive clothes.

Here, you walk past places you normally only read about — The Brookings Institute or Johns Hopkins University or the National Geographic Society — (where I was lucky enough to meet with two editors and hope to do some writing for their travel magazine.)

The place vibrates with power.

It feels like everyone is either lobbying or being lobbied or about to be.

But it’s also a city filled with serious, intractable poverty.

I got onto the 54 bus heading down rapidly gentrifying 14th Street — now all cafes and bars and high-end furniture stores, (the pawnbroker now closed, the liquor stores still in business) — with a woman clearly homeless, carting all her clothes and belongings with her, even in broiling heat.

A woman with a paper cup held the door at a convenience store two blocks from my hotel (charging $259/night) and Union Station, which is one of the most beautiful, clean and well-organized train stations I’ve seen in the U.S., had many homeless as well. It’s a shocking and strange feeling to be in the center of political power, the gleaming white dome of the Capitol easily visible, and see the effects of the nation’s thin and fraying social safety net.

These are some images of my week here, the longest time I’ve ever spent in the city; (only 3 days of which were leisure, the rest spent in a financial planning fellowship with 19 other journalists.)

Enjoy!

IMG_20160618_210328574I attended the 95th annual White House News Photographers Association annual dinner, cheering for my friend Alex Wroblewski, who won Student Photographer of Year

 

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Love this shop — Goodwood — on U street at 14th. Gorgeous and affordable antiques, furniture and vintage-looking clothing and jewelry. (Sort of like a real-life Anthropologie.)

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Had lunch at the counter at this fun, enormous eatery — Ted’s Bulletin — on 14th street.

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Gorgeous, minimalist men’s and women’s clothing at Redeem on 14th Street

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The D.C. Metro is in terrible shape — slow, needing a ton of repairs, but it’s still working. The stations always make me feel like an extra in Blade Runner!

 

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This was a real thrill for  me — I met with several editors there and hope to write for National Geographic Traveler.

 

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The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress

 

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This is why I went to the Library of Congress — a powerful and moving show about the Danish journalist, photographer and social reformer who received essential political backing from Theodore Roosevelt, first as New York’s mayor, then governor — then U.S. President. Riis, an immigrant, was key to illuminating the appalling poverty in New York City during the Gilded Age (late 1890s.)

Christiane Amanpour — A Tough TV Talk Show Host? About Time!

Christiane Amanpour at the Vanity Fair celebra...
Image via Wikipedia

I never watch the Sunday morning talk shows. Terrible admission from someone who needs to be in the know.

The idea of listening to a bunch of middle-aged white guys opining gives me a migraine. Don’t we get enough of that already?

Now Christiane Amanpour, one of my idols for her passionate intelligence, is hosting a new talk show. Writes Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times:

Ms. Amanpour [has]…a range of international experience that is hard to match. More important, she has panache and a no-nonsense briskness.

She gave a somewhat lame rationale for taking over a Washington-based news show, telling viewers that she was “thrilled” to have the ABC job because “after 20 years covering the world, the story in this country is turning into one of the most fascinating.” …

But for viewers Ms. Amanpour’s outsider status comes at an opportune time. The country is sick of its elected officials, and it has never been all that keen on the Washington press corps. If Ms. Amanpour can bring some of the nerve and authority she had covering foreign affairs to a program that has until now had a clubby, old-boy focus on domestic news, she will certainly stand out. She may even be good.

I am deeply weary of smooth, clubby, old-boy journalism, a contradiction in terms if I ever heard one. It’s all about the log-rolling.

But to win so high-profile a gig as Amanpour’s means being aggressive enough to look serious, but not such a bitch no one wants you on their team. By the time you’re within reach of journalism’s coveted brass ring — the chance to rattle the largest and most powerful of cage, the Capitol, the Pentagon, the White House — your own has likely become so gilded you don’t dare jeopardize it. No one wants to be shut out of the best dinner parties, the right invitations, Davos, Aspen, TED, whatever.

Biting the hands that feed you requires a well-controlled jaw.

Which is why so much “reporting” and “analysis” is bloodless and anodyne — when it’s not fanged and clawed and insanely intemperate. Everyone is desperate to be heard, heeded, quoted, Tweeted.

How about….respected? I wish Ms. Amanpour the best of luck with her new venture. She will, no doubt, kick ass the best way possible.

Elegantly.

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Quote Of The Day From Liz Carpenter, Former Journalist, Johnson Aide, Feminist

“Charge hell with a bucket of water.”

That’s my new motto.

Liz Carpenter died this week at 89 in Austin, Texas of pneumonia.

From The New York Times:

A dedicated feminist, Ms. Carpenter was a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and joint chairwoman of ERAmerica, an organization that unsuccessfully fought for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

Before joining the White House staff, she had covered Washington as a reporter for a news service she founded with her husband, Les Carpenter.

Widely known for her caustic and sometimes bawdy wit, Ms. Carpenter was irreverent about herself and her access to power during the Johnson years in Washington. She was also one of the few White House staff members who had no qualms about giving as good as she got, no matter the source.

“Why don’t you use your head?” Mr. Johnson once bellowed at her. She bellowed back: “I’m too busy trying to use yours!”

Reported the Houston Chronicle:

Feminist Gloria Steinem also recalled Carpenter with love. “She has always been a touchstone, the kind of original, irreplaceable friend about whom one thinks in good times and bad, ‘What would Liz do?’ or ‘I wish Liz were here,’ or ‘I’m going to call Liz,’ ” Steinem said. “I don’t want to think about a world in which she’s not at the other end of the phone.”

Carpenter is a member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, chosen by the three-campus Texas Woman’s University. One of the nation’s greatest resources, for anyone interested in women’s history, is their library in Denton, where I did some research for my book on women and guns. It was astounding, and moving, to sit in a room whose stacks were entirely devoted to books by and about women.

I wish I’d met her. She sounds like feisty, fiery fun.