former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

Tweets can be verbal shrapnel in war zones

In Blog, Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

I know, I know. Journalism is the first draft of history. But even first drafts will profit from a little scrutiny. Which is one of the conclusions I drew after listening to Folkenflik’s thoughtful piece on covering the conflict in Gaza.

His story made the point that anyone who ventures into reporting on Mideast politics is likely to get criticized, with every nuance and word choice scrutinized for bias.

That’s unfair, if unavoidable. But reporters are adults, and provided they have responsible editors to support them when the charges of bias are not justified, the attacks are part of the job.

But there’s a new wrinkle, and this one is more troubling. Journalists are tweeting from war zones and protests in real time. That’s a recipe for disaster. Not because what they tweet will not be the truth, but because the recounting of what you see and hear is far different from tweeting what happened to you as it happens, and your gut feelings about it.

So CNN likely was right to reassign a reporter who tweeted that Israelis who harassed her while she was observing their cheers when missiles were lobbed at Gaza were “scum.” That’s not reporting, that’s what you tell your mother and spouse in private emails. And although she later apologized and said her term only applied to the people harassing her, the damage had been done. Tweets can be verbal shrapnel, and they can easily leave holes in reporter’s reputation for objectivity.

If anyone wants to know how you cover conflicts in which you are immersed and possibly injured, I refer you to former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor. Taylor, who is profiled in my book, reported from South Africa in times of great violence and riots, before the country’s transition from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He managed to be shot in a black township, to be beaten up by an angry white mob, and to be kidnapped by Angolan rebels.

And yet not once, in all that coverage, did Taylor lose his professional demeanor, or his interest in seeing the world from the point of view of others. For example, in a story for the Post, He described the Angolan soldier, Mateus, as “an obliging eager-to-please true believer.” That’s quite remarkable since Mateus was one of the gunmen who had riddled his car with bullets and then took him captive.

If I were an editor or head of network news, I’d issue an order to all reporters in conflict zones: Don’t tweet. Great reporting happened before twitter was invented, and the first draft of history doesn’t have to appear the minute after it happens.


Will Journalists Be Reduced To “Gigs?”

In Blog on July 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

On Sunday afternoons in the summer, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association hosts terrific classical music concerts. The concerts are free, and they spotlight musicians with impressive resumes – schooled at the best conservatories in the country, performances at major music festivals, concert tours abroad, and awards.
In most cases, what the musicians don’t have is a full-time job playing with an orchestra. Instead, they play whenever they can, filling their time with as many performance dates as possible. Some teach. Others hold “day” jobs far from the concert stage.

It’s certainly possible that some musicians have wide-ranging skills and interests that lead them away from music and that they appreciate these part-time opportunities to play. But others, surely, had hoped that their years of preparation and talent would earn them a decent, dependable living.

Classical orchestras have seen hard times. So has journalism. I worry that, after the hemorrhaging of thousands of journalism jobs over the past two decades, many journalists with the passion to report now find themselves in the same place as many gifted musicians.

The “stars” of the profession, particularly the exceptionally facile writers, or those with the right connections or the luck to find the best internships, may be able to land a coveted job in journalism. But thousands more who aspire to a career in news will be reduced to free-lancing.

Indeed, a few years ago, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, speculated whether in the future, journalists would ply their craft in a series of “gigs” – short-term engagements with news outlets. News gathering may well be on the way of the profession of itinerant, albeit highly skilled, practitioners, whose passion prompts them to forgo economic stability.

They may blog, serve as a contributing editor for an online publication, write the occasional magazine piece. Some journalists may get themselves to conflict zones across the globe, hoping to be the eyes and ears of a major newspaper or broadcast outlet. Even major newspapers have drastically cut back on foreign correspondents, leaving the field to underpaid free-lancers, who are lucky if they can get nonprofit support for some of their expenses.

This is a tragedy for individuals with dreams and talent and nowhere to fully use their skills. But it is a terrible loss for the country. Journalism, which should be a staple of every community, may no longer viable enough to support the trained reporters we need to cover local and state governments, to hold elected officials accountable, to provide the information that informs citizens to enable them to participate in their democracy.

We should be a nation that can have classical orchestras in nearly every community. But we cannot be a nation that gives journalists no better job prospects than concert violinists.

Media Coverage of the Israeli-Hamas Conflict Requires Empathy for both sides

In Blog on July 19, 2014 at 10:25 am

When I first wrote this blog, it seemed so easy to make a judgment about coverage of the the conflict between Israel and Hamas.  There is no doubt that Palestinian civilians have suffered the lion’s share of the casualties, and that fact must be a part of any coverage.  Reporters must take us into the hospitals, the makeshift morgues, and the homes of the grief-stricken.  

But an email from our family in Israel made me realize that while unharmed for the most part, Israeli civilians are living in almost paralyzing fear.  As a family member noted, the country is the size of New Jersey.  So Israelis feel very vulnerable.  This isn’t a matter of bias.  But news outlets need to ensure that the coverage is as complete as possible.  That doesn’t mean censoring reporters.  Ayman Mohyeldin is doing a superb job in Gaza.  But we need reporters  to tell us the stories of average Israelis. We need to better understand the fear that is pushing these families, even those who have long worked for peace, to support the invasion.  


I am married to a Jewish man, and his uncle and aunt, both New Yorkers, made the astounding decision in the 1960s to pull up stakes and move to Israel. I am very fond of my extended Israeli family, living on two kibbutzim in the country. Whenever there is renewed conflict, I worry about their safety. But I found it disturbing when a Jewish colleague of mine recently commented that the media was terrifically biased in reporting on the current troubles between Israel and Hamas.

She thought the TV coverage was unbalanced and favored Hamas. I disagree. TV reporters were showing their viewers the facts as they experienced them. Their coverage was not about assessing blame. The media have reported on the impacts of the conflict in both countries.

As Hamas rockets landed deeper and deeper into Israeli territory, the networks have shown Israelis running for their lives as sirens went off, seeking shelter, visibly anxious and afraid. But the truth is far more Palestinian civilians have died in this war than Israelis. This is a tribute to the effectiveness of Israel’s defense system.

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Writing a book is hard enough; selling a book is next to impossible

In Blog on July 18, 2014 at 10:00 pm

For years, I dreamed about writing a book. I had some reason to think I was capable of it. In 1990, my husband, after all, wrote a book that landed him on network news shows and on a mini book tour. CBS paid for us to stay in a swanky hotel in New York City – me, Richard and our then two-year-old daughter. His book deserved the acclaim. Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War against Child Abuse was the culmination of years of work as a journalist covering the plight of foster children and the tragic predicaments of families whose poverty was confused with neglect, losing their children to a flawed and often inhumane system.

After years of thinking about writing a book, I did. It was terrifically exciting. I am a former journalist, and although I left that profession years ago, I’ve always been deeply attached to reporters and reporting. In my work as a public interest lobbyist based in Washington, D.C., I often was a news source to reporters, many of whom I admired. It was alarming to see what was becoming of the profession, as newspapers and broadcast outlets shed jobs, and readers went to the Internet for free opinions, and newspapers were giving their product away online. (Later, newspapers got smart and establish pay walls to protect their content.

I wanted to write about the crisis and the profession through the lens of personal experience. I found terrific subjects to profile. I was able to do long-form interviews with two MacArthur genius award recipients – David Simon, best known for his HBO series, The Wire, and Chuck Lewis, who left CBS 60 Minutes in 1990 to do a new kind of nonprofit journalism.

I was able to explore the high points of journalism in the 1980s and 1990s when newsrooms were flush, and reporters were encouraged to go big and deep. The people I interviewed who had left the profession were among its best and brightest. Paul Taylor had covered the transition in South Africa from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He’d been beaten by a white mob, shot in a black township, and kidnapped by Angolan rebels. Yet he relished that beat as the high point of his career. It inspired him to leave journalism to form a nonprofit dedicated to improving democracy in the U.S. Joan Connell had written movingly about the role of religion in people’s lives, had been a pioneer in online journalism, and after a long and successful career, became what she termed a “journo-bureaucrat,” helping young journalists, particularly those who were oversees on a free-lance basis, cover wars and other disasters while taking care of their own mental health.

I also told the stories of sexism and racism in the newsroom through the eyes of reporters who had experienced it
I was able to get the perspectives of Atlantic editor James Fallows and award-winning investigative reporter Jim Steele to help me make sense of this transition period in journalism, and to understand how the profession might be able to survive in the 21st century.

The individuals I profiled in my book had such terrific and memorable stories, I felt privileged to be interviewing them. Likewise, I assumed that the distinguished journalists who had valuable insights would draw readers. This, I thought, will be a book worth reading, not because of me but because of these gifted people who had been so generous with their time, their thoughts and their life stories.

My husband’s agent was willing to take me on. She helped me develop a book proposal. She made the rounds, but there was not much interest from publishers, who were not sure the book would attract a large enough audience. I was obsessed with getting a bona fide publisher, and searched every angle. I remember one chilly fall day, after a very long day at work, forcing myself to attend the convention of the American Library Association. I had invested $25 in a day pass, with the idea of browsing the aisles of publishers and possibly finding one who might be willing to take a chance on me. That’s how I found McFarland and Company, a publisher primarily of textbooks, based in a small town in North Carolina.

My agent approached them, and they offered me a contract. No advance, but a significant share of the royalties. I did not care about earning much money from the book. But I hoped that it would get some attention.

McFarland was terrific to work with. It took about two years to research and write the 85,000-word manuscript. I rewrote each chapter about 12 times, checked and rechecked my facts. My husband was a great editor, suggesting revisions, asking questions.

My daughter was my proofreader, did my index and was an all-round scold when it came to formatting and having the correct citations. She was terrific, although I often wanted to wring her neck for being so scrupulous.

The week after Christmas in 2011, I remember mailing the manuscript to the publisher. I was so nervous my hand trembled as we made the final copy and addressed the envelope. This was my baby, this was the ship that carried my dream.

McFarland editors made few changes and asked for two minor deletions. We had wanted to call the book Bye-lines, but the editors suggested Out of the News. I loved the cover they chose – an old-fashioned typewriter. I was amazed at how big my name looked.

Six months later, when my husband and I were in Europe on vacation, the book arrived. My daughter emailed us. I was overwhelmed. The book was real. No one could take this away from me. I’d become a nonfiction author!

I remain enormously grateful for the experience. My work colleagues organized a wonderful book party for me, and some of the subjects of my book attended. They were pleased, and bought extra copies for their parents! The following year, the Society of Professional Journalists honored the book with a national award for excellence. Winning that award was one of the high points of my life.

Along the way, I have received great reviews, wonderful coverage in the alumni magazine of Point Park University, where I earned my graduate degree in journalism, and from the Association of Opinion Journalists.

But I learned something very important about being a nonfiction author. Writing a book is hard. Selling a book is next to impossible. I did not expect my book to do as well as my husband’s book did. But I did not realize how hard it was to sell any books, particularly when your publisher does not sell books in book stores and sets a price that seemed awfully high to me. My book was a paperback, but its price-tag equalled the textbooks that students must buy because professors have assigned them. I also did not realize how much publishing has changed. Book stores are closing down, and it’s difficult for new authors to compete in a world where a few authors command all the attention and most of the dollars of readers.

I will never regret writing this book. But the pain of checking my stats on Amazon or getting my twice yearly reports from my publisher is an acute reminder of just how cruel a business publishing can be. Amazon does sales rankings among 8 million books on the market! Writing a bestseller has the same odds as winning the lottery.

You would think I would learn from this experience. But I’m writing a second book with the working title, Catholic Women Confront Their Church. I hope it will catch on with the public, but my eyes are wide open.

Lose the Mercedes: This riches to rags tale is about entitlement, not empathy

In Blog on July 13, 2014 at 3:27 pm

It’s often been said that a story that gets a lot of media attention is a story about something your editor talks about at a cocktail party.  Journalists, since they achieved a certain level of pay and status, have been largely interested in what occupies the minds and hearts of people like them – white, educated, upper middle class.

So it’s no surprise that the mainstream media in Washington DC would be so taken by Darlene Cunha’s op-ed about her journey from riches to rags.  Here was a cautionary tale they could understand, a story about someone in their crowd.

The piece first ran online at The Washington Post, then was published in the Outlook section of the Sunday Post. Cunha also got a very sympathetic interview on NPR.  In her op-ed, Cunha writes of the events that landed her in a “dreary” church applying for federal nutritional assistance.

I’m not quite sure what Cunha’s point was.  It seemed mostly a vehicle for talking about herself and her unfairly deserved plight, and how awful it felt when people reacted to the sight of her, a white woman driving a Mercedes, applying for government help. She seems to imply that poverty should not be considered a moral failing, and lamenting that it harmed her self-esteem.  She wasn’t going to let that happen again.

I agree with Cunha that in this country we tend to punish the poor.  But the people we punish are not like her, for the most part.  They start out without access to decent housing or education, often struggle in families for generations that have experienced underemployment and discrimination.

And I didn’t detect any empathy for all the other people sitting on hard chairs filling out pages of paperwork.  What we their lives like?  What options did they have?  She was knocked off kilter by an unintended pregnancy, the birth of premature of twins, a job loss, and the housing meltdown of 2008.

But it appears that she still had health insurance, so her woes did not appear to include medical bills that can bankrupt a family of modest means.  And she and her spouse had some options, most importantly, the education to navigate the forms and bureaucracy, to know about tax allowances for short sales of homes that are underwater, the skills to get new jobs.

Instead of showing empathy for others, her empathy was for herself.  Cunha heartily defends their Mercedes, paid in full, as the one “comfort” they could cling to in hard times.  And she argues, it wouldn’t make any sense for her partner to trade it in for a “crappier” used car that they would have to make payments on.  Of course, they could have sold the Mercedes and used the proceeds to buy a decent used car, or even gotten along with one car, — they owned two — but these options didn’t seem to have been on the table.  It was clear that she felt entitled to that Mercedes, and she offers it up as a sign of triumph.  The couple kept the car through all their hard times.

I make these comments not to condemn the author of the piece, but to point out the conclusion that she didn’t make.  She had all the advantages that her race, class and education could provide. Yet she landed in a precarious place, dependent on government help.  And, for her, poverty turned out to be merely a bit of a detour in a prosperous life.  By 2012, the couple was recovering, and now has enough income for her to afford to go to graduate school.

How much harder it is for the working poor, who lack of all these advantages, and have no Mercedes they can cling to in hard times.


A compelling story, but was it journalism?

In Blog on July 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Is there a sale on news print? The Washington Post has been running very long stories lately. Stories that go for pages and pages. I think sometimes think this is a sign that the paper is committed to in-depth journalism, but sometimes I wonder if the length reflects, at least in part, a dearth of good editors.
On Sunday June 28, the Post ran “The Man in the House.” It began on the front page and extended for two more nearly full pages of the print edition of the paper.
The story was well written. It had a strong narrative arc, and it deftly related the struggle of one local family to get mental health care for a loved one who refuses to take his medication and refuses hospitalization. It elicited more than 900 comments, many from people who had been diagnosed with mental illness, or were related to someone who had. It was compelling, and very, very sad. It reminded me of what was the existential question in my newsroom in the 1980s: Are you a reporter or a writer? The author is certainly is a talented writer. But was this story journalism?
I don’t think so. The story was not anchored with enough solid factual reporting to earn the reader’s trust that this account was true. And the story failed to provide enough context. It describes the problem as one of laws that make it too difficult for mentally ill people to be involuntarily committed, without acknowledging that there is a delicate balance between respecting the rights of the mentally ill and finding ways to effectively treat them. The piece gives very short shrift to the notion that laws were changed because terrible injustices had been done to individuals wrongfully committed for years to institutions, the victims of abuse and neglect. It may be good and effective storytelling to link this saga to the epidemic of mass killings by deranged and violent individuals, making its tone more ominous as the man’s mental state continues to deteriorate. But it oversimplifies both the cause of this epidemic of violence – many would blame the easy availability of guns for these recent mass murders — and implies that mental illness invariably explodes into violence.
The namelessness of the piece was really disturbing. Even though aspects of the story already were part of the public record – the man’s father had testified about his plight at a public hearing – the family was afforded complete anonymity. It seems the decision to keep the family’s name secret served the author’s narrative structure as much as it honored their privacy.
What makes me think that this was not just sensitivity on the part of the Post is that no one is on the record in the story. People are only identified by their occupation. So we get the comments of a psychiatrist or a lawyer or a neighbor, or hearing witnesses, but no names. We are given a domestic drama without anchor in facts. The reader is essentially told: “Trust us. This is true.”
Worse, the narrative is told as a series of days pass. It begins at Day 730 and ends with day 896. Unless the reporter followed the family for days on end, it is difficult to perceive what is reconstructed from the family’s recollections and what the reporter actually witnessed. If there were more details, one could better trust this reportorial decision.
And while the Post raises questions about the wisdom of public policy that makes it so difficult to involuntarily commit someone to a mental institution, it offers little context.
The print story does include a short “sidebar” with the history of mental health treatment in the U.S., but that is hardly sufficient. How many families are struggling with the same problem in Maryland and the U.S.? Are there are other states that have less restrictive laws? How does Europe handle this problem? Is anyone in Congress proposing legislation to address the Supreme Court decision that made involuntary commitment so difficult? And while the reporter mentions in passing the abuses at mental institutions that prompted the relaxation of the laws about involuntary commitment, the story does not address the larger problem, a lack of resources for treatment. Follow-up outpatient care in the community that was supposed to support the mentally ill and their families never materialized. Instead, the mentally ill were released from institutions that were more like prisons into communities totally unprepared to address their needs. It’s not simply a matter of laws that are too lax about involuntary commitment, it’s about a mental health system that has failed for decades. Interestingly, the comments to the story raised many of these issues.
Other reporters have found ways to write stories like this and done it brilliantly while remaining faithful to the reader by supplying facts. Madeleine Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her feature writing, accomplished this feat in 1987 when she wrote “The Disturbance” for The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine. Blais’ reporting, even after all these years, feels true and moving. She profiled a Miami family dealing with a schizophrenic sister who had been homeless for years. But because her dialogue, sometimes reconstructed, is grounded in details and facts, the reader can believe. And this family bravely went on the record with their story.
Note to Post editors: If you’re going to encourage more of this style of reporting, learn from the best. Blais’ book, The Heart Is An Instrument, includes terrific examples of long-form writing that also is excellent reporting. And it’s easily available. Heck, I bought my copy on Amazon.