Tag Archives: journalism

Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan

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Too many journalists couldn’t seem to grasp their crucial role in American democracy. Almost pathologically, they normalized the abnormal and sensationalized mundane.

These days, we can clearly see the fallout from decades of declining public trust, the result, at least partly, of so many years of the press being undermined and of undermining itself. What is that fallout? Americans no longer share a common basis of reality. That’s dangerous because American democracy, government by the people, simply can’t function this way. It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

My parents were both readers, which should come as no surprise. Mom, a homemaker, consumed a steady stream of mysteries her entire life, as least the part of it that included me. Dad worked at night, but would set aside some reading time every day, particularly on his days off. He was not much of a book reader, though. His preferred material was the newspaper. Well, newspapers. There was a flood of them coming in, the New York Post (pre-Rupert), the Daily News, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, the Telegram, the Times. Not saying that we had all of these coming in every day, but all were well represented. And if you wanted to see what he was reading, it was not hard to figure it out. Next to his living room easy chair there was always a stack. If it were books, today, we would call it a TBR. But the stack had a life of its own, and a sorting that was inexplicable. He must have read a fair bit as he kept the pile from overwhelming the room, hell, the entire apartment. I cannot say that I was a big news-reader as kid. More sports than anything. I wanted to keep up with the teams I cared about, the baseball Giants, the Yankees, and eventually the Mets.

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Margaret Sullivan – image from PBS

I was very fortunate to have been raised in an environment in which reading the news, every day, was just a normal part of living. Even though my parents were not well-educated—Mom finished high school. Dad did not.—they valued staying informed. There was no talk at home about reporters slanting stories, although I am sure they did. The news was like the water supply, presumed to be potable, and universally consumed. But there was one exception. It was not until later in life that I began to read the news with a more critical eye, but even as a kid, I could see that sportswriter Dick Young was a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch, flogging right-wing bile that had nothing to do with sports. I guess that was my first real exposure, consciously anyway, to journalistic political bias. Young was not a person who could be trusted, even though he held a very public position at a major New York newspaper. I doubt, if Dad were still with us, that he would accept what he’d be reading today as revealed truth. But back then, mostly, though, we took the news at face value.

Margaret Sullivan, a doyen of media self-reflection, has not been happy with the face value of American news reporting for quite some time. The news media, in her view (and in the view of anyone with a brain) is far too concerned with the horserace aspect of political competition, far more than they are with the actual policy substance that differentiates candidates and parties. One of the most respected journalists of her generation, having led a major regional newspaper, and having held two of the most widely read and respected writing posts in contemporary American journalism, she has had a ring-side view of this in action. She worked for thirty-two years at The Buffalo News, rising to be their top editor and a vice president. In 2012 she moved on to be the Public Editor at The New York Times, and in 2016 headed to The Washington Post as a media columnist in the high-powered Style section. She retired from that gig in August of 2022, and is currently teaching part time at Duke while working on a novel.

She won a Mirror award for her writing on Trump’s first impeachment, served on the Pulitzer Prize board, and was a director of the American Society of News Editors. She has also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous sexism, as she worked her way through her share of glass ceilings. She knows a thing or two, because she has seen a thing or two. Newsroom Confidential is not just a personal memoir of her career in the newsroom, but a look at the changes that has taken place in journalism and in our view of journalism over her career.

It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

The high point may have been the inspirational impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Nixon administration’s corruption, Watergate most particularly. It was seeing that journalism was a way to impact the world, to improve it, that moved her to pursue a career in the news. We follow her through the career travails at The Buffalo News. She tells a bit about her full dedication to work conflicting with the demands of having a family, exacerbated by having to cope with the extra resistance of gender bias in her struggle to advance her career.

But while Buffalo may have occupied the bulk of her professional life, it does not occupy a proportional piece of the book. The real meat begins with her move to The New York Times. As Public Editor, her role was to be an outsider, looking critically as the work of Times reporters. Not exactly a recipe for making friends. Most editors were not particularly receptive to criticism, constructive or not. The sexism presented straight away, as a Times obituary about a very accomplished woman opened with a description of her cooking skills. Her job was not only to write about wrongs, but to offer recommendations for improvement. It would prove a Sisyphean task. She writes about her personal conflict in taking on a Public Editor investigation into a story written by a Times mentee of hers. While it may have been an important and high-profile position, it was a very tough job at times.

One thing I learned back in my twenties is that it is not only the content of articles that merits attention. Their placement is also significant, as is the heading given to those articles. These are often provided by an editor, not the reporter, and are often misleading. Sullivan writes about the most egregious example of the Times doing this, in its treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. The paper saw Clinton as a “pre-anointed” candidate, presuming that she would win. They wanted to be seen as tough, and were very defensive about being seen as too soft on Democrats.

The Times had certainly treated the FBI’s two investigations of the 2016 presidential candidates very differently. It shouted one from the rooftops, and on Trump and Russia the paper used its quiet inside voice, playing right into the Republican candidate’s hands. With a little more than a week to go before the election, the Times published a story with the headline “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” If anyone was concerned about Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin, their fears might be put to rest by that soothing headline, though the story itself was considerably more nuanced. Even that reporting, not very damning for Trump, appeared on an inside page of the paper, a far cry from the emails coverage splashed all over the front page, day after day. We now know, of course, that Russia had set out to interfere with the election, and did so very effectively.

That sort of selective exposure was not exactly new. The Times had been aware, back when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, of a domestic spying program. They sat on the story for thirteen months, finally posting the information when the reporter who dug up the story threatened to scoop them with his book. The potential impact was considerable, as revelation of the program during the campaign might have impacted the election result. One collateral result of this was that when a later major leaker of government secrets was looking for a trustworthy outlet, the Times was bypassed, because there was no confidence that the paper would publish the material. The Washington Post and The Guardian received the materials instead.

She writes about the transition of the news business from paper to digital, the decline in readership overall, and the national decline in news outlets, noting some who railed against the change, and others who saw the future early on and climbed on board.

Sullivan’s real reporting bête noire is excessive reliance on anonymous sourcing, aka access journalism. Sure, there are instances in which getting on-the-record quotes is impossible, or even dangerous. But the over-reliance on anonymity has resulted in reporters being played for fools, being fed self-serving tidbits, often intended to dishonestly manipulate public perceptions, often aimed at using reporters as ordnance in internecine political battles, and far too frequently serving no public good. The classic example of this was Judith Miller at the Times, reporting inaccurate intel given to her by members of the Bush Administration in order to build support for a war that was already being planned.

In the digital age another piece of this is a compulsion to generate clicks. This creates an incentive for reporters to sometimes hold on to maybe-less-exciting policy stories in favor of pieces that are likely to raise a reader’s temperature. The old trope If it bleeds it leads has been translated into the age of digital journalism as favoring heat over light.

It is not really breaking news why people’s trust in journalism has declined. The news was once considered a realm in which professionals investigated and reported stories with an eye toward what was considered newsworthy. But with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine regarding broadcast news, the gates were opened for full-time partisanship in the airwaves. The concentration of media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations has diluted, if not entirely removed, local news reporting. Now, many local stations broadcast what their distant owners tell them to, including the airing of political puff pieces for favored candidates and issues, and political hit pieces for those they oppose. With so many places in the nation reduced to a single newspaper or local news channel, local news has become more and more a mouthpiece of national corporate views. And a reduction in the availability of diverse perspectives.

The rise of the internet has had a huge impact on how we receive and perceive news. But a major reason, maybe the biggest, for a loss of faith in the media is the relentless assault on mainstream media by the right. Bias in the media is hardly new, but the unceasing emotionally-charged torrent of lies from right-wing media has raised dishonesty to a new, steroidal level. Every article that portrays Republicans or their supporters in a less than flattering light is attacked as evidence of some imaginary left-wing bias. One result of this relentless attack machine is that many outlets have become reluctant to report actual facts, lest they be attacked as biased. The Times, for example, took years to finally come around to describing Donald Trump’s blatant lies as just that. Can you fully trust a paper that is so weak-kneed about reporting the facts? Even regular Times readers must wonder. And, of course, those on the right now attack any media outlet that does not totally support the GOP party line. Even where no bias is present, many, if not all, on the right claim to see unfairness because they have been told thousands of times that such bias is always present. And the right is fond of using the threat of lawsuits to harass their targets. Trump is notorious for suing the objects of his ire, not expecting to win in court, but hoping to cost the sued large sums of money in legal fees, thus intimidating them, and, he hopes, deterring them from crossing him again. At least the Times has the resources to stand up to such bullying, but there are many media outlets that do not. Thus, MSM reporting slants away from truth.

Sullivan’s experiences writing for the Times and Post are fascinating, offering a view from inside the fishbowl, of the cultures, and some of the personalities, the battles that were fought against external attackers and the internecine conflicts that occur everywhere.

If Dad were around today, I expect he would approve of the many news subscriptions my wife and I share, the Times, the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Beast, our local paper, et al. Our stacks of unread material may not accumulate next to chairs in our living room, but reside instead in a black hole of unread materials and a digital TBR of things we intend to get to. We have come to view news reporting with critical eyes, sensitive to biases that creep into (or are on full display) the text of pieces, aware of how those pieces are presented, where, when, and why. The sort of trust in the news that was extant in the middle twentieth century is gone. But that does not mean that all trust has been lost. For those willing to do the work, it is possible to discern good from bad, both in publications and reporters. But it takes a lot more effort today than it ever did. We are aware, as our parents’ generation was less likely to be, of a reporter’s bent. As the world has forced us to look closer at all sorts of informational input (think ingredient lists on food packages), we have become more discriminating consumers of news. This reporter can be relied on. That one cannot. The fracturing of the news into a galaxy of providers has made it easier than ever to choose only the news that that fits preconceived perspectives. But it is not exactly a news-flash is that it remains possible to find quality reporting. It just takes a bit of digging.

As for Sullivan’s look back at her career and the shift in public perceptions, it is revelatory, informative, and engaging. If you know anything at all about Sullivan’s writing, this will not come as a shock. The bad news? The decline in public trust of media is very real, as is the reduction in local reporting. The good news? (I believe) people are becoming more aware of bias in supposedly neutral news media. Trust in journalism can be rebuilt, but it is clear that many outlets rely on readers/watchers accepting their reporting with uncritical eyes. After you read Newsroom Confidential you will have a greater sense of what the journalistic challenges are today, both for readers and producers of news. You will not be able to say That’s news to me.

Review posted – 11/18/22

Publication date – 10/18/22

I received an ARE of Newsroom Confidential from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair and balanced review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an ePUB.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Margaret Sullivan’s FB and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Time – Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism – by Karl Vick
—–Vogue – Local Journalism Is Dying, and Margaret Sullivan Is Sounding the Alarm in Ghosting the News – by Michelle Ruiz – not for this book but a fascinating interview
—–The Problem with Jon Stewart– also from 2020 – also very good
—–PBS – Trump’s Showdown – Margaret Sullivanby Michael Kirk – from 2018 – good stuff

Items of Interest from the author
—– Sullivan pieces for the Washington Post –
—– Sullivan pieces for the New York Times
—–The Washington Post – If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto an adapted excerpt
—–Literary Hub – Veteran Reporter Margaret Sullivan’s Favorite Books About Journalism

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Journalism, Non-fiction

Parkland by Dave Cullen

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It became clear quickly that suburban kids feared violence inside their school—once in a lifetime, but horrific—and the Chicago kids feared violence getting there. At the bus stop on their porch, walking out of church. It could happen anywhere, and it did… Martin Luther King had preached six principles of nonviolence…The Parkland kids were embarking on #4: “Suffering can educate and transform.”

After the seminal Columbine shootings in 1999, Dave Cullen undertook to research the event deeply, to find out what the truth was of the shooters, their motivations, planning, and outcomes, and to dispel the many false notions that had made their way through the media like a Russian virus after the event. In a way it was a whodunit, and a whydunit. His book, Columbine, was an in-depth historical look, examining what had happened, after the fact. This included following up with many of those who survived the attack, for years after.

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Dave Cullen – image from GR

Columbine and Parkland may have been similar events, but they are very different books. This time, with his reputation as the go-to reporter on stories having to do with mass-shootings, particularly mass school-shootings, Cullen had the credentials to ask the Parkland survivors for access as they worked through it all. Four days after the shooting he called, and spoke with the entire early MFOL (March For Our Lives) group on speakerphone. The next day he was there. Cullen proceeded to cover the emerging stories in person, when possible, and by phone, on-line, and via diverse media, when not, continuing through 2018. What he has produced is a you-are-there account of the birth of a movement.

Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu described March for Our Lives as one of the most significant youth movements in living memory. “The peaceful campaign to demand safe schools and communities and the eradication of gun violence is reminiscent of other great peace movements in history,” he said. “I am in awe of these children, whose powerful message is amplified by their youthful energy and an unshakable belief that children can—no, must—improve their own futures.

One could do worse, if looking at how to begin a movement, than to pore through Cullen’s reporting, as the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pivot from the physical and emotional carnage of a brutal armed attack on their school to organizing a regional, then national call for gun sanity.

Parkland tells two stories, the personal actions of the teenagers involved and the broader view of the movement that they helped solidify. Cullen offers not only a look at some of the central people who built this movement, Emma Gonzalez, Jackie Corin, Alex Wind, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Dylan Baierlein, and others, but shows how their sudden rise to fame impacted both their movement and them, personally.

There are just so many hours in a day. In very concrete ways, committing large swaths of one’s time to political action meant that there was less time for other parts of what had been their lives. Extracurriculars was the obvious first hit. Theater, music, sports all suffered. But academic ambitions were close behind. Tough to keep up with multiple AP classes, for example, if you are stretched thin organizing a national political bus tour. And tough to maintain perfect grades when you keep getting home on the red-eye after an interview in LA or New York. Friendships suffered, or at the very least shifted. If you were one of the cool kids, but were now hanging out with the nerds, odds are you would get ditched. Of course, the upside is that you replace as friends a bunch of people of low value with people who are actually worth something. And you might imagine that, this being an adolescent-rich environment, jealousy might rear its ugly head. For example, Emma Gonzalez was transformed from just one of the kids at school to a national icon, as Emma and the other MFOL leaders were regularly having meetings with national figures and celebrities to discuss gun control. Might just make the other kids think you have gotten too big for your britches. Some of the organizers even dropped out of school to complete their studies on line. And that does not even begin to touch on PTSD, or death threats.

Hogg, in fact, was frequently not on the bus but traveling separately in a black SUV accompanied by bodyguards. If he were a politician, one of the staffers told me, the intensity of interest in him would merit 24-hour Secret Service surveillance. “We get people armed to the teeth showing up and saying, ‘Where’s David Hogg?’ ” Deitsch told me. An outfit called the Utah Gun Exchange had been following the kids on tour all summer — on what it called a pro–Second Amendment “freedom tour” — sometimes in an armored vehicle that looks like a tank with a machine-gun turret.
The NRA seems to take Hogg’s existence as an affront, having tweeted out his name and whereabouts and inciting its approximately 5 million members by perpetuating the falsehood that the Parkland kids want to roll back the Second Amendment. Hogg’s mother, Rebecca Boldrick, says that in June she received a letter in the mail that read, “Fuck with the NRA, and you’ll be DOA.”
– from Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article, David Hogg, After Parkland

What does it take to build a movement? Why did this movement catch on, and grow? Was it a propitious confluence of events, right time, right place? If Parkland had happened a year or two years earlier, would it have had the same impact? Would the MFOL movement have gained the traction it has garnered?

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The March for Our Lives rally in DC drew 800,000, the largest rally crowd in DC history – image from USA Today

The core group was blessed with a considerable concentration of talent. One element was media savvy. Just three days after the shooting, Emma’s ”We call B.S.”speech was a call to…well…arms, a call for those being victimized by our national gun fetish to stand up and demand that the adults in the nation start behaving like they are actually grown-ups, a call to legislators to act. It resonated, and went viral. Cameron came up with the #NeverAgain hashtag (although it had been notably used before) as an appropriate motif for the movement. He was also a natural performer, who had been comfortable in stage settings in front of adults since he was seven. David Hogg’s realtime video of the shooting from inside the school during the attack gained the shooting even more national coverage than it might otherwise have gotten. Jackie Corin was preternaturally adept at organizing the details of the movement, coping with scheduling, getting permissions, learning who needed to be contacted, all the office-manager-plus-organization-leader skills that are totally required but rarely available.

Less than a week after creating her Twitter account, Emma would surpass a million followers—about double that of the NRA. By the summer, Cameron would amass 400,000 followers, David twice that, and Emma at 1.6 million towered over them all.

Another element was the availability of supportive adults. This began, of course, with the parents of the organizers, but also some parents of the shooting victims. And beyond the immediate there was input from interested adults from outside the area, people able to offer not only money but media access. George Clooney got in touch, offering not only a sizeable contribution, but a connection to a high-end PR agency. State and national political people got involved as well. One particularly meaningful connection was made with the Peace Warriors in Chicago, local activists whose work in trying to fend off violence dovetailed particularly well with the Parklanders. The relatively wealthy suburban kids were worried about violence in their schools. The Peace Warriors lived in a world in which getting to and from school unharmed was the challenge. The joining of the school safety movement with an urban gun safety movement, was seminal, changing the focus of the Parklanders from school safety to gun safety. Bet you did not hear much about that in the papers.

The Peace Warriors arrived at just the right moment. They helped shape the MFOL policy agenda and the tenor of their approach. They all kept talking: by email, phone, and text. The Parkland kids peppered the Peace Warriors with questions about the six principles, and then burrowed deeper on their own. The more they learned, the more they found it was like listening to themselves—a better, wiser version of the selves they were fumbling toward. How liberating to discover Martin Luther King Jr. had already done all that work. Brilliantly. He had drawn from Gandhi, and it was amazing how well the principles stood up across time, space, and cultures.

The stages involved in the group’s growth and how the movement shifted focus makes for fascinating reading. Beginning with the initial rally, growing to larger memorials, then a rally at the state capital, then the nation’s capital, then a cross country bus tour in Summer 2018, from coverage in local news media to national, even global news coverage. Cullen gives us enough without overwhelming with too much detail on the challenges involved in the logistics of making rallies, tours, and marches happen, and the upsides and downsides of ongoing national exposure. Some of MFOLs core leaders even decided to keep away from any coverage that might focus on personal portrayals, as media stardom was seen as distracting from the group’s message.

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Emma Gonzalez is distraught while giving her “We Call B.S” speech in Fort Lauderdale days after the shooting – image from the NY Times

I do not really have any gripes about the book. It was well written, engaging, informative and moving. It also offers up the odd surprise here and there, like the source of national disunity over using April 20th, the date of the Columbine attack, as the day for a national student walkout.

As for why this movement caught fire when it did, the jury is out. It may have to do with the national backlash against the excesses of the Trump-led right, disgust, finally, with expressions of “thoughts and prayers” absent any attempt to address the underlying problem. But yeah, it definitely helps that the victims were mostly white kids in a well-to-do suburb. Of course, this is hardly the first time mostly white suburban children have been so murdered. But maybe it was a final straw. In a way this strikes me as an echo of larger social trends. As the middle class becomes more and more squeezed by flat wages, declining benefits, increasing taxes (it is not our taxes that get cut), and a threatened safety net, the miseries that have long troubled working-class people, particularly urban people of color, have been, more and more, visited on middle class white people. (See Automating Inequality) Just as the opioid epidemic was once a feeder of three-strikes legislation, and widespread carnage, the current opioid crisis, the one visited on more and more white people, portrays addiction as less a failure of personal morality and more a manifestation of biological addiction, or at the very least, predisposition. When black people are getting shot in ghettoes, it’s business as normal, but when white kids are getting mowed down in their schools, it is a national crisis.

It will be interesting to see how the MFOL movement sustains going forward. While there is no certainty of success, in the long or short terms, there is cause for hope. Even though changes in gun regulations MFOL wrested from Florida lawmakers were modest, getting any change at all was a huge success. Wins, of any sort, have been as rare as brave legislators, and this definitely counted as a win. The road ahead, though, remains long, hard, and fraught with impediments and peril. And people keep dying early, wasteful deaths. In his Broadway show one night in Summer 2018, Bruce Springsteen

reached back fifty years, and drew a straight line to Martin Luther King Jr., assuring us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but tends toward justice”—but adding a stern corollary” “That arc doesn’t bend on its own.” Bending it takes a whole lot of us, bending in with every ounce of strength we’ve got.

Review posted – February 22, 2019

Publication date – February 12, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, and FB pages and on Youtube

Items of Interest – Reporting
—–3/14/19 – NY Times – Sandy Hook Massacre: Remington and Other Gun Companies Lose Major Ruling Over Liability – by Rick Rojas and Kristin Hussey
—–8/20/18 – New York Magazine – David Hogg, After Parkland – by Lisa Miller
—–2/17/18 – The NewYorker – Calling B.S. in Parkland, Florida – by Emily Witt
—–2/19/18 – The NewYorker – How the Survivors of Parkland Began the Never Again Movement – by Emily Witt
—– 3/8/18 – “We’re Not Your Pawns”: Parkland’s Never Again Movement Meets the Lawmakers – by Emily Witt

[Joe] Kennedy recalled other instances of youth activism in American history: the mill girls of Lowell in the mid-nineteenth century; the Little Rock nine, in 1957; the children who marched for civil rights in the “children’s crusade” and were arrested in Birmingham, in 1963; the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, in 1970. “From Stonewall to Selma to Seneca Falls, America’s youth forces us to confront where we have fallen short,” he said.

—–5/25/18 – The NewYorker – The March for Our Lives Presents a Radical New Model for Youth Protest – by Emily Witt
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland: A Year After the School Shooting That Was Supposed to Change Everything – by Patricia Mazzei
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland Shooting: Where Gun Control and School Safety Stand Today – By Margaret Kramer and Jennifer Harlan
—–1/16/13 – Business Insider – How the Gun Industry Funnels Tens of Millions of Dollars to the NRA – by Walt Hickey

“Today’s NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. “While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the ‘freedom’ of individual gun owners, it’s actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory.”
There are two reasons for the industry support for the NRA. The first is that the organization develops and maintains a market for their products. The second, less direct function, is to absorb criticism in the event of PR crises for the gun industry.

—–3/22/19 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooting Survivor Sydney Aiello Takes Her Own Life – by Pilar Melendez

Items of Interest – Other
—–NeverAgainMSD on Facebook
—–Change the Ref – a non-profit set up by parents of one of the victims, to fight the NRA
—– 2/13/19 – NY Times – Would Congress Care More if Parkland Had Been a Plane Crash?
—–March For Our Lives
—–National School Walkout
—–Video for the song Burn the House Down, by AJR. This was MFOL’s anthem on their summer bus tour. AJR did an unscheduled show for them in NYC
—–7/1/18 – Dylan Klebold’s mother in a TED talk about how it is possible to miss the signs of disturbance in those close to you – Sue Klebold: My Son Was a Columbine Shooter. This is My Story
—– Bryan Reardon’s novel, Finding Jake, offers a fictional look at a Columbine-type scenario from a parental perspective
—–Since Parkland

Over the summer, more than 200 teen reporters from across the country began working together to document the children, ages zero to 18, killed in shootings during one year in America. The stories they collected go back to last February 14, the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when at least three other kids were fatally shot in incidents that largely escaped notice. As the weeks went on, the stories came to include children lost to school shootings, as well as to armed domestic violence, drug homicides, unintentional discharges, and stray bullets. The stories do not include victims killed while fatally injuring someone else or in police-involved shootings, nor children who died in gun suicides, for reasons explained here.

—–March 24, 2019 – Parkland Grieves Again After Two Apparent Teenage Suicides – by Patricia Mazzei
—–April 16, 2019 – Parkland Students Bask in Pulitzer Mention: ‘They Took Us Seriously’ – by Patricia Mazzei
—–July 26, 2019 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooter Was Searched ‘Every Morning’ While a Student: Guard by Marianne Dodson
—–November 30, 2019 – Parkland is named to the NY Public Library’s list of 2019’s Best Books for Adults (Nonfiction)
—–My review of Cullen’s 2009 book, Columbine

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Filed under Activism, American history, History, Journalism, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, True crime

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

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“Sahafi! Media!! He yelled to the soldiers. He opened the car door to get out, and Quadaffi’s soldiers swarmed around him. “Sahafi!”
In one fluid movement the doors flew open and Tyler, Steve, and Anthony were ripped out of the car. I immediately locked my door and buried my head in my lap. Gunshots shattered the air. When I looked up, I was alone. I knew I had to get out of the car to run for cover, but I couldn’t move.

Click!

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Lynsey Addario – from CBS News

You may not recognize the name Lynsey Addario, but if you read newspapers, check out magazines, or are aware at all of the imagery that accompanies major events in the world, you have seen her work. Addario is one of the premier photojournalists on the planet and has the portfolio, the Pulitzer, and a MacArthur award to prove it. In 2014, American Photo named her one of the five most influential photographers of the last quarter century. In 2012, Newsweek magazine cited her as one of 150 Women Who Shake the World. Thankfully, she does not shake her camera when she is shooting (unless of course it is for intended effect). Although no one could blame her if she did. Addario has spent a large portion of her career as a conflict photographer, working for extended periods on the scene in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Congo, Sudan, and other garden spots. Wherever people have been shooting at each other in the last two decades there is a good chance that Lynsey Addario has been there. The one place she declares she will not go these days is Syria, which says something. She has been kidnapped in the field twice and has felt her life to be in danger more times than that, so when she says she won’t go to a place, it must be something really special.

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US Soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan

It’s What I Do is Addario’s tale of her journey from growing up in a Connecticut suburb as part of a Bohemian family, to finding and developing a talent for capturing life through a lens, to pursuing a career in photography. While working in New York in 1999, she got a big break, being asked to work on an Associated Press project looking into transgender prostitution in the city, and the spate of homicides with which that community was being afflicted. It turned into a months-long undertaking and brought her work to public notice for the first time. Click!

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A shot from that series

In 2000, a family friend invited her to go India.

Everything that made India the rawest place on earth made it the most wonderful to photograph. The streets hummed with constant movement, a low-grade chaos where almost every aspect of the human condition was in public view. Click!

It was while there that she was encouraged to go to Afghanistan to shoot the lives of women living under the Taliban. She was able to gain access to a half of Afghani society barred to her male counterparts. Click!

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Women and girls study and recite the Koran in Peshawar, Pakistan, 2001 – from the Women’s Eye

9/11 brought on a whole new era of conflict. Addario was on the scene when the USA invaded Iraq, having set up shop in Kurdistan when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Of course that required some extra planning. At the time she got the assignment she was in South Korea covering refugees from the north, and enduring the extraordinary humanitarian horrors of the extended karaoke the refugees enjoyed. She needed to get tooled up for the job and it proved challenging. One thing she had to arrange for was body armor. She found herself befuddled by the on-line offerings. She wrote to her editor.

I have checked out the websites you recommended, and am not sure if I just tried to read Korean. Basically, I have no idea what I am looking at—ballistic, six-point adjustable, tactical armor, etc. Please understand that this language is not familiar to me—I grew up in Connecticut, was raised by hairdressers.

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A woman prays at dawn after the 2010 earthquake that nearly destroyed Haiti

She was kidnapped for the first time while en route to Ramali with other journalists. And was subsequently jarred when Life magazine declined to publish her photographs, because they were too real for the American public. (The New York Times Magazine would later publish some of the work.) The experience of working in the Iraq war zone and coping with the politics of news publishing provided valuable life lessons.

…something in me had changed after three months in Iraq. I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people. I wanted to make people think, to open their minds, to give them a full picture of what was happening in Iraq so they could decide if they supported our presence there.

Her work has often demonstrated the power of the image. When she got shots of a Sudan massacre she made it impossible for President Bashir to continue denying that the war crime had taken place.

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Addario’s image of armed boys and men near the Afghan border won her a Pulitzer – from The Women’s Eye

Addario pooh-poohs any notion that she is an adrenalin junkie. She says that she has come to recognize that the photos she takes have the power to inform the public and influence people, so feels a responsibility, a calling to bear witness to much of the awfulness of the world in order to shine some light on it, to bring it to the world’s attention.

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Addario stopped to help when one of these women was in labor, miles from a hospital. She gave them a ride. – From Itswhatidobook.com

When Addario first submitted her manuscript, she was advised to make it more personal, as in writing about her off-the-field life as well as her experiences behind the lens. She includes in the final version a bit of her love-life history, which entailed some admittedly bad choices. As a dedicated career-woman, sustaining relationships has always taken second place to her work. She says she even walked out on dinner dates when she got an assignment.

Recently, a young photographer asked her how to get into the business. She told him to start traveling, shooting and contacting editors for assignments. When he told her that he didn’t want to travel much because of his girlfriend, Addario told him to break up with her.
“He thought I was insane,” says Addario. “I told him you have to decide what your priorities are. If you are not willing to make that sacrifice, there are 10,000 young photographers who will.”
– from Photo District News article

The book contains many amazing shots Addario has taken over the course of her career. They add significantly to the aura of outsized accomplishment that Addario has earned. One significant thing about the shots Addario takes is that they are not only journalistically effective but expose an impressive artistic talent. She is able to tell troubling stories while at the same time making outstanding art. The book is printed on very high-quality paper, images and text, which adds a very tactile richness to both the visual power on display and the engaging text.

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An Iraqi woman fleeing a massive fire in Basra in 2003

Although one can piece together information by reading diverse articles about her, and watching sundry videos in which Addario does presentations and is interviewed, those connections are not always spelled out in the book. Particularly in the earlier parts of her photographic sojourn, it was somewhat murky why and how she decided to uproot and move to Argentina, and later to India.

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Syrian refugees in Northern Iraq

It’s What I Do is not a photography book. You will not get any technical tips there. While you will see some very nicely printed photographic images, those are there to enhance, to illuminate the text. The main thing here is her story. Lynsey Addario is a rock star in the world of photographic journalism. She takes us frame by frame on her journey from suburban origins as the child of hairdressers to becoming a world traveler covering important events everywhere on the planet in an attempt to illuminate the darkness. It is quite clear that her achievements have come at considerable personal cost, and that she is possessed of a rare personal fire that has driven her to take large risks in order to fulfill what she perceives as her mission in life. For those of us not familiar with the names that appear under all those news photos, It’s What I Do offers particular insight into just how important it is to have photographic boots on the ground wherever important events are occurring. Real-world photography is Addario’s contribution to the world. We are all enriched by her efforts, her sacrifices, her courage and her talent. This book will be an eye-opener for many. It is a perfectly focused, well-framed look at a life well lived, a life that has benefited and promises to continue to benefit us all. Click!

Publication
———-2/5/2015 – hardcover
———-11/8/2016 – paperback

Review first posted – 4/22/2016

BTW, a deal was struck at some point to turn this into a major film, with Jennifer Lawrence as Addario, to be directed by Steven Spielberg. As of 2022, we are still waiting, so who knows?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

She has a separate personal site specifically for the book

Every time I leave my family I wonder why I’ve chosen this life. I leave my two-year-old son and I come home and he won’t speak to me for a few days. And it’s lonely on the road. And I’m in these strange hotel rooms, or tents. It’s not a luxurious life. It’s something that people think that you’re out there for the adrenalin rush. They think you’re out there because it’s glamorous. But it’s not. You’re out there as a photographer who has chosen to cover conflict. It’s a calling. It’s something that sort of takes over who I am. People ask me why I do this and it is what makes me most alive. It is what I believe in. it is my happiness and It’s what I do.

Videos
—–This is must-see – Addario’s presentation, followed by an interview, at Arts and & Ideas at the JCCSF
—–National Geographic – 26 minutes – Lynsey doing a presentation, with focus on her NG assignments. Much info from JFFC presentation is repeated, but there is a lot that is different so this one is also definitely worthwhile
—–The Annenberg Space for Photography – focus on her kidnapping – 10 minutes
—– Item on CBS This Morning linked from LA‘s site
—–Time Magazine – This opens as text, but there are videos embedded

Interviews
—–Photo District News. Among other things this has a lot on breaking into the business
—– The Literate lens – In Love and War: An Interview with Lynsey Addario
—– Photojournalist Lynsey Addario On Her Relentless Pursuit of Truth – from The Women’s Eye

Articles
—–From American Photo – THE INFLUENCERS: LYNSEY ADDARIO
—–National Geographic – December 19, 2017 – Inside a Female Photographer’s Experience Documenting War – by Daniel Stone – Regarding the documentary series The Long Road Home, about the Iraq War

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Addario watched as Iraqi Shiite followers of Muqtada Al Sadr stood amidst burning tires in Sadr City moments before American tanks opened fire on the area in Baghdad, Iraq April 4, 2004
Image and image text from NatGeo article – Image by Addario, of course

—–July 10, 2020 – A new article by Addario in National Geographic – In the U.K., families of the dead still wonder: was it COVID-19?

—–August 27, 2022 – MSNBC interview with Addario – Photographer Lynsey Addario reflects on 6 months of the war in Ukraine

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Filed under Afghanistan, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Journalism, Non-fiction

Swimming with Warlords by Kevin Sites

book cover

“If the central government doesn’t stay together,” he said, “I’ll have to find a way to protect my people.”
What he said was a bad sign. “My people” in Afghanistan means one’s tribe. Very few outside of Kabul thought of themselves as citizens of the country—as Afghans.

There is a lot to like in journalist Kevin Sites’s latest report from the front, Swimming with Warlords. Sites takes us from point to point on his journey through geography and history, offering a look at the Afghanistan of 2001 as compared to the Afghanistan of late 2013. He spends considerable ink on warlords, but not enough, IMHO, to justify the title of the book. And this is just as well, because the other elements he finds to report on are even more interesting. He notes the extant miseries, for sure, but also finds some flowers blooming in the rubble, offering the fragrance of hope. He looks at the condition of women, notes gains and losses, bright spots and expectations maybe not so bright as we might hope. He looks at what is likely to happen when the US leaves. One major element here is the conflict between former allies within Afghanistan. Of course, he has been back to Afghanistan several times in between, but it is the bookend experience on which he focuses here. What has changed between the time when American forces attacked in the wake of 9/11, and today, as US troops prepare to depart in 2014?

Sites has certainly seen a lot during his many years in the field, across the war-torn planet, working for major news organizations like ABC, NBC and CNN, and newer entries like Yahoo! News and Vice. He has written two books, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (2007) and Things They Cannot Say (2012). His bona fides are impeccable. He even teaches journalism these days in theUniversity of Hong Kong journalism and media program.

There are plenty of villains in Sites’s depiction of what has become a more-or-less permanent war zone, but there are a surprising number of heroes as well, some ambiguously so, others not. The place we know today as Afghanistan, which has been called “the graveyard of empires,” has endured seemingly constant invasions and internal conflict, from the days of Alexander the Great to the present. It seems like the entire place is a huge stadium in which Premier league teams have battled it out among themselves and with the locals, with some notable modern matches having been during the Great Game days of the British empire, the Soviet invasion of the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, and most recently, the Western invasion to oust Osama bin Terrorist and his Taliban hosts after 9/11. And it is a favored pitch in which Pakistan does its best to make trouble for India.

“The Taliban is really from Pakistan; they came here to destroy our country. That is clear to everyone,” said Jilani [a former Taliban member]. “In the beginning, I thought it was jihad against international troops, but I found out we were fighting for Pakistani interests—we were getting orders from Pakistan. Most of the leaders are not religious; they want to come to Afghanistan and tax the locals during the time of the harvest and take the money back to Pakistan. There is no jihad.” Jilani said.

I imagine banners being hung from the bullet-pocked remnants of rafters noting local championships triumphs. No 90 minute clock here, no four quarters. Like baseball, perhaps, the game continues until one team wins or one team tires of playing and leaves. The locals have nowhere to go, and all their skin is in the game. There is a very strong home-field advantage amid the crags, valleys and caves of this rugged land, but there is plenty of disagreement about where home actually begins and ends.

book cover

Kevin Sites

The US entered the playing field in the 1980s by providing arms and assistance to locals and some foreigners in Afghanistan in an attempt to make life miserable for the Soviets. In a classic example of the Pyrrhic Victory, the removal of the Soviets led to a continuation of the pre-existing tribal warfare, this time with more and better weapons, the ultimate rise of the Taliban to power and their hosting of you-know-who. I wonder if Charlie Wilson would have voted for the $4 to $6 trillion cost of this seemingly endless engagement.

In retracing his earlier path, Sites notes bridges gone, landscape devastated, military remnants littering the paths that pass for roads, the many minefields, both literal and political. One of the permanent features in a place where landscape defines effective limits is the presence of warlords. Feudalism lives in Afghanistan, where inter-ethnic conflict is merely a superset of conflicts within each ethnic group. If there was ever a concept of loving thy neighbor as yourself, it is unlikely to have extended much beyond the borders of the fief in which one lives. Mistrust, born of centuries of conflict, has deep roots here. Every action taken on a national level is seen as somehow ethnically drive, whether or not it actually is. Cooperation is minimal, fear is ever-present, and allegiances are alarmingly fluid.

Sites looks in on some warlords, living and dead, and some others who function as warlords in fact if not in name. The camp of martyred Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud is now a shrine, and Massoud’s lieutenants have moved on to diverse and often dark occupations. He meets with police chiefs, who point out that they are powerless to enforce the laws as long as coping with the Taliban continues. And it is the police forces that suffer the brunt of the casualties in the fight. However not all warlords are alike. He spends some time with one who seemed to be doing pretty well in taking care of his people, improving their lives with ingenuity and managerial efficiency.

There are some darkly humorous moments, as when Sites recalls a 2001 lodging that, unbeknownst, included an unexploded 500 lb US bomb on the premises, fins up. Check please.

There are moving moments, including a weep-worthy tale of an Afghani father who had lost his daughter to a slightly off-target US incoming, yet betrayed no bitterness.

There are uplifting moments, when Sites talks with a woman who had started a radio station in order to get news and information to Afghani women, many of whom remain under lifelong virtual house-arrest for the crime of being female. Or in learning about Rahmaw Omarzad, an artist who returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell and established The Centre for Contemporary Art in Kabul.

There are delightful moments, as when we learn that an Aussie’s contribution of skateboards had grown into an island of hope in the form of an actual institution called Skateistan that includes instruction on far more than keeping one’s balance on wheels.

There are disappointing moments, when we see that many of those who had been educated, and were working on internationally funded development projects will be unemployed and maybe unemployable after the US leaves. Or in learning that Marza, the famed lion of the Kabul zoo, might have been somewhat less magnificent than reputed.

There are bizarre moments, such as learning that a fortress wall built 1500 years ago, the Bala Hisar, which legend holds has incorporated the bones of workers who died in its construction, might very well include some of the special extra filling.

And there are demoralizing moments, as when Sites describes an orphanage that would have been very much at home in the London of Charles Dickens. His report on drug addiction will strike a dark chord as well.

The condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan comes in for considerable attention, as he talks with women about their lives under the Taliban and after their ouster. There is a segment on an American woman, Kimberley Motley , who had started a legal practice in Afghanistan, and another on a woman the Taliban had kicked out of dental school, who had resumed her training and established a national Dental association. It will come as no shock that there remains in Afghanistan a practice of buying and selling wives. And a related tale tells of young boys, bacha bazi, who are treated as sexual pets by the wealthy, a substitute for the females who are kept under wraps.

The book seems a compendium of articles about Afghanistan crammed into a forced structure. But that is not really a problem here, as the information you gain far outweighs any feeling of the structure of the whole being not quite as advertised. Yes, there is a look at then and now, but the strength of the book lies in the collection of individual reports.

GRIPES
There are at least two elements in a book of this sort, the information to be gleaned about the presenting subject, and some insight into the teller of the tale. In this case, the subject is what has changed between 2001 when the Western attack on Afghanistan began following the events of 9/11 in the USA, and the present of the book, the year or so before US troops were scheduled to depart, whether completely or mostly. The other element is the author, him/herself. When you go on a journey, when you will be spending some time with your guide, you would like to know something about him. Sites does offer a few nuggets, and one that is particularly unflattering, but overall the sense I got was that it was mostly name, rank and serial number. While his recollected war stories are indeed interesting, there seems a paucity of info/insight about him. That is an area in which Swimming with Warlords only treads water. At end, we do not really know much more about Kevin Sites than we did before turning to page 1. I expect this is a lot about reportorial discipline, keeping one’s focus on the news and not the reporter, which is certainly a reasonable approach. But in this context, a book, a memoir of sorts, there is a need to be a bit more subcutaneous if an author wants to engender any feeling of camaraderie with his readers. It may be that in his previous books, The Things They Cannot Say and In the Hot Zone there is more of that. Don’t know, have not read those. But there is not nearly enough about KS in this one. I found myself wondering how he got into journalism, how from journalism he got into in-field war reporting. Is his work about adrenalin or something else? What are his values, his ideals? What does he hope to accomplish? What does he do when he is not ducking ordnance in war zones, where and why? Does he have family who worry about him when he is away? You know, stuff. This is not so much a classical road to self-discovery. Sites had already learned a lot about himself and his profession in the years between visits to Afghanistan. This is more like a look at the same eye chart with the optometrist clicking between the younger and more mature lenses. Is it clearer this way, or this way?

The title of the book seems ill chosen. There is indeed one scene in which KS goes for a literal swim with an actual warlord, but the title would make one suspect that the entirety of the volume consists of KS visiting with warlords, and that is not the case. Yes, KS does meet up with a few of these guys, but there is a lot more going on here, and it is unfortunate to have our attention focused on the narrower topic. A better title would have let readers know that he is writing a comparison of then and now. There is an ironic title for one of the chapters in the book, regarding parachute journalism, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which would have made, IMHO, a better, certainly a more descriptive title than the one that was chosen. Sites may well have been swimming with bearded sharks, but the macho-ness of it adds little in the title selection.

I would not call this a gripe, but the book could use an acronym list, which should include SNAFU and FUBAR among its entries. In fact, the place might as well be name FUBARistan for all the horror that has gone on there over the centuries. An index, a glossary, and a map would have been helpful. If Sites is retracing a path, it would be nice to be able to follow along.

There are plenty of books about Afghanistan out there, (there is a list in the Extra Stuff section below), but Sites’ work has the benefit of freshness. He was there not long ago, at least in book, if not live TV time, and there is an immediacy to his reporting that draws one in, and makes one wonder what might be happening right now. He reports on interesting elements of the current Afghan reality, and finds some informed opinions about what lies ahead. I would not call this a great book, but it is certainly interesting, engaging, and informative. Definitely worth pulling on a suit and going in for a dip, whether with a warlord, shark, or someone a bit less threatening.

Review posted 10/10/14

Pub date – 10/14/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Articles by Sites on Vice

Some other reading on Afghanistan:

I have an Afghanistan shelf with 23 titles, mixed fiction and non. Within that, I heartily recommend the following to enhance your awareness of issues in the region

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

Seeds of Terror

Descent into Chaos

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Ghost Wars

Charlie Wilson’s War

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Filed under Afghanistan, Journalism, Non-fiction, Reviews