Yikes

It’s been awhile since I updated this blog. I remember having some followers. I wonder if y’all have hung around like neighbors on the porch waiting to see headlights coming up the drive.  Sorry I didn’t leave the light on since January, 2015. It would have burnt out by now, I guess.

What’s happened: I moved to DC, did an internship with Al Jazeera during which I wrote an embarrassingly passable thesis and pulled my hair out over where I was going to work after graduate school. Then I finished graduate school and did a fellowship with Al Jazeera, for most of which I continued to pull my hair out over where I would work afterward. Then they told my I could have a job at AJ, but a few days before Christmas that became untrue. Budgets, oil prices, etc… it happens. No hard feelings.

I moved by to Texas. I’m a newspaper reporter, like I always wanted to be when I was a kid and made a neighborhood newspaper using a very early version of Microsoft word on an HP computer that froze all the time. Edited largely by a pedantic paperclip, we broke some news and were an early adopter in replacing photojournalists with stock clip art images.

I fell in love, bought a car, got married. Is this the dream? Maybe if my dog were here.

 

Why I am not Charlie

One of the smartest takes on the present situation I’ve seen thus far.

a paper bird

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not…

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That time Ayn Rand wrote an episode of That 70s Show

As it’s my last week of graduate school classes, I’ve been revisiting some of the work I did early in the fall of 2013 when I started here. The very first thing I wrote as a graduate student journalist was a review of the film Jobs for Vox Magazine. Having never gone to the movies as a reviewer, I approached it the same way I normal approach going to the movies at a large megaplex: by sneaking a six pack of beer in to the theater with me and taking mental notes of every little thing in the film that bothers me.

It’s not the most clever review, and looking back at it there are some poorly worded and clunky sentences. But it’s not entirely cringe-inducing, so I’ve reproduced it here without any permission from Vox (I don’t think they’ll mind as they didn’t even bother to transfer it to their new website when they did a redesign this year).

Genius is a difficult term to define and even more difficult to depict in art.

In the Steve Jobs biopic, Jobs, from director Joshua Michael Stern, Ashton Kutcher portrays the young Apple Computers founder from the time he drops out of Reed College in the late ’70s to his heroic return to Apple in ’94. In between, Jobs visits India and rips off a young Steve Wozniak only to later partner with him after seeing the potential of the early, crude personal computer. He founds the now iconic company only to be forced out in knock-down, drag-out war with the fiercely independent, imaginative Jobs being restrained by his board of directors who value profitability over innovation. After Apple stocks continue to plummet in Jobs’ absence, he is brought back in, achieves complete autonomy from the Apple board and the rest is history.

Kutcher’s Jobs isn’t believable. The film fails to offer a good explanation of how the anti-establishment, acid-dropping, barefoot enfant terrible transformed into the already mythologized figure of American capitalism. Jobs moves from serape-clothed hippie to suit-wearing businessman seemingly overnight. At the film’s beginning, he cries to his girlfriend about not knowing his birth parents but later denies his paternity of his first daughter and insists that he needs to focus on running Apple not on being a father.

http://archive.voxmagazine.com/stories/2013/08/17/review-jobs/

But even his leadership of the company is nonsensical in the film. Jobs floats around with a vacant look in his eyes and then suddenly says — sometimes yells — vague, abstract things about “innovation” and “creativity” that miraculously inspire everyone around him. Think Hollywood’s depictions of Jim Morrison and Mark Zuckerberg in one untenable character.

We aren’t even led to believe that Jobs knows very much about building computers. The Apple CEO isn’t shown doing any computer work after 1978 in the film. But he orders other people to make better computers and even fires an employee for doubting the functionality of multiple fonts in a word processor despite Jobs’ own lack of understanding of how one would make that work. But he wore sandals to the office, so he must have been a visionary.

Globalization as Marketing

Last week, two boats full of refugees passing from North Africa bound for Europe sank in the Mediterranean. At least 700 refugees were killed, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Also last week: A new news organization built upon social media, video and interactivity was launched. A well-intentioned friend who works for them tagged me in a promotional post  as part of their marketing campaign from their Facebook page. The text of the promotional post read:

We’re part of a #global generation – without borders – connected to issues that impact your life, our world. [This new news org] is where we’ll begin experimenting with these stories and we want your help in shaping it. Do you ever laugh, cry, get angry or inspired? You’ll fit right in.

Although I am technically a member of it, I would never sit down intent on writing about the “millennial generation.” But this post about my generation as a “global generation without borders” bothered me to the point of logging into this neglected blog to record some thoughts.

The implication of the claim “we are part of a global generation” is that our generation includes people of our age range all over the world. I understand the use of “[Blank] without borders” is popular for emphasizing modernness, the reach of an organization or network, and many with that use the tag are great organizations (see médecins sans frontières and reporters sans frontieres).

But the global generation ‘without borders’ qualification come across as remarkably classist.

It underscores an ignorance of or a willful disregard for to the experience of the vast majority of people, young and old, throughout the ‘developing’ or ‘third’ world. Although globalization has given us ease of access to communication technology and information from around the world, and perhaps eased the travel of millions in the West across international borders, for people in the colonized world or developing nations, borders have never been more real and more restrictive.

One of the real consequences of globalization is that it facilitated the flow of money across borders while restricting the movement of people seeking access to that money. I heard someone propose an alternative definition of refugee as “a person who has been separated from capital by an international border.”

Imagine someone from this news organization (which, it should be said, is based in the tech-utopia of central California) looking a young Palestinian in Gaza, an Iranian imprisoned on Nauru island, or a Honduran detained in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in the eyes and tell him or her that our generation is ‘without borders.’

Perhaps for Westerners, who maintain levels of wealth unheard of for most of the world and are thus allowed to move with considerable freedom, the reaction to globalization is to celebrate technology the flow of information. In the Middle East, where borders have been imposed on them by colonial powers, the reaction to them is often a violence that, far from being resistance-as-branding, is demonized in the West: Hamas or the Islamic State.

Instead of buying into this “generation without borders” mythology, we could be first the first generation to really address the damage that borders cause. We could begin to repair communities torn apart by them, such as in the West Bank or the Mexico/Texas border. We could assist and facilitate people, such as those refugees crossing the Mediterranean, who are literally dying to access the economic opportunity that is allegedly created by globalization.

Ours could be the generation that builds a better world — instead of cynically trying to re-brand the problems out of the one we have.

Watching Ferguson, Mo.

For the past few years one of my main interests of critical inquiry (and a a subject I am interested in reporting on) has been urban policy and conflict. As the economy has become increasingly globalized, we’ve seen a significant increase in interurban competition for infrastructure projects, foreign investment and jobs. I’ve been seeing, think we’ll continue to see, a growing conversation about who cities exists for; are they to cater to the interests of businesses and foreign investors, or are they to prioritize the interests of the people and help even the playing field for everyone? 

The media is going to be able to play a crucial role in facilitating and framing this conversation. And of the many threads in this complicated discussion will have to be whose interests the police really serve.

A few days ago an unarmed 18-year-old black kid in Ferguson, Mo. was shot to death by a police officer. According to witnesses, Mike Brown had his hands up in the air when they fired the fatal shots. 

As human beings are want to do in situations like this (which are not as rare as they need to be in America), members of the Ferguson community demanded answers from the police by protesting and even beginning to organize a boycott of businesses in Ferguson. 

Sunday night, the community held a peaceful candlelight vigil in Brown’s honor. Increasing already high tension between the wounded community and city officials, the Ferguson police showed up, allegedly to keep the peace during a peaceful vigil. They were wearing riot gear, presupposing the violence of the night.

Headlines this morning focused on vandalism, property damage and looting that ensued throughout the night. At one point I saw a story on how police had protected a Walmart from the “angry mob.” Although these types of stories offer little to help us understand underlying issues in our society that make police shootings of unarmed black men frequent occurrences, they say a lot about how many journalists view urban conflicts.

Reporting from the end of history

I’ve been working on a research paper about representation and the use of non-elite sourcing in community newspapers and I keep running into the same issue of how we, as journalists, deal with a lack of interest that many readers seem to have for stories about the lives of other people, particularly the more vulnerable populations in our own cities.

It’s common in journalism school to hear that either people are too busy to read about things that don’t directly affect them, or that stories about vulnerable populations are competing with fun buzzfeed style content in the information age.

But I had a thought yesterday that perhaps the lack of interest, and consequent spoon-feeding approach to giving the public information about their own communities, has a lot more to do with the way our society is structured. A lack of interest in one’s own community could very well be the result of being socialized into a society in which we are taught to be motivated by material rewards; a way of life that isolates people from their communities and neighbors, who we are led to see as competition.

In his famous post-Cold War essay The End of History, Francis Fukayama claimed humanity had reached the climax of its sociocultural evolution, marked by the conquest of Western liberal capitalism over Marxist-Leninist communism. “And the death of this ideology means,” Fukayama claimed, “the growing ‘Common Marketization’ of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.”

The era of neoliberal economic restructuring that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has meant not just the common marketization of international relations (although the continued instance of wars contradicts Fukayama’s claim that this would all be peaceful), but also the marketization of social relations between people, a quest to privatize all space and commodify all natural resources. The dismantling of the welfare state throughout the 80s and 90s was a product of this ideology. Evolutionarily and traditionally social creatures, human beings were atomized to compete as allegedly free acting individuals in accordance to market laws.

In the introduction to the booklet “Trashing the Neoliberal City: Autonomous Cultural Practices in Chicago 2000-2005,” the editors describe life in Fukuyama’s post-historical era:

“Neoliberalism refers to the historical transformation and recent extension of capitalist market domination into every corner of the globe and into every moment of our waking lives. Its dominant logic of free-market fundamentalism corrodes social solidarity as it rejects social justice in favor of individual ‘freedom’ to compete and consume.”

Community-minded and civic-minded journalism is antithetical to this ideology, and thus we as journalists are up against far more powerful forces than the distraction offered by buzzfeed quizes and cat youtube videos. It sounds romantic and idealistic, but affective and powerful journalism has the potential to reweave the social fabric that has come undone in the neoliberal era. Newspapers and media have an emancipatory potential in their ability to get people interested in their neighbor’s or fellow citizen’s lives. Community journalism can show people not just how public issues hurt or benefit the readers themselves, but also the affects they have on people living on the other side of town.

Fukayama wasn’t entirely deterministic about the hegemony of the neoliberal social order. He ends his famous essay with a lament for the creativity, intellectualism and cooperation that marked the ‘historical era.”

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

In the early part of this century, when everyone was pronouncing it dead in the wake of the Internet’s rise, journalism could have easily been thrown in there with art and philosophy. But of course, just as history didn’t really end, neither did the desire of more than a handful of people around the world to produce quality and powerful journalism. Just as moments like ousting of fascist dictators in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, the rapid spread of the occupy wall street and the Arab spring show that resistance to the dominant “post-historical” order is not dead, so too does the enduring existence of journalists who want to inspire interest in their local communities (as evidenced in my research and interviews with editors).

As Fukayama said at the end of his essay: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”

Journalistic detatchment

It’s not a unique experience, but growing up in post-9/11 US had a profound effect on the formation on a lot of my world view. Having been in Texas in 2003 and the lead up to and throughout the US invasion of Iraq, I’m not really a stranger to cognitive dissonance, emotionally fueled arguments the fly int he face of logic and casual racist nationalism. But I still manage to be shocked each time I witness any of these things (and they usually aren’t alone).

I covered a Jewish community event Sunday evening the explicit purpose of which was to show support for Israel in its Operation Protective Edge. Several of the speakers at this event offered pretty nuanced testimonies about their conflicted loyalties to Israel, comparing it to a family that you don’t always agree with but still love and support. Others gave the kind of speeches that took me back to 2003, when I would get dragged along to my mom’s church and hear people beat their chests and act as if ‘freedom-hating, anti-American terrorists’ had developed in an a-historical vacuum.

An Israeli woman spoke about how she remembers visiting Gaza in the 80s, insisting everything was peaceful between the Israelis and Palestinians before the first intifada. It was as if she didn’t connect the military occupation, the demolition of homes to build settlements, or the large-scale detention of Palestinian youths to the build-up before the intifada. She also denied that there was before protective edge an occupation of Gaza, when in fact the Israeli government has been blockading the strip and restricting almost all economic and personal border-crossing since 2005. The people can’t even fish in their territorial waters, a traditionally large part of the Gazan economy.

Another speaker, a local pastor no less, very loudly proclaimed that the Israeli Defense Force is doing the Palestinians a favor by ridding them of Hamas, who he said (right out of the Israeli PR department handbook) do not value the lives of the civilians in Gaza. I’m certainly no fan of Hamas. But I don’t get what people who insist that Hamas doesn’t care about civilian life think the point of Hamas is. The pastor went on to recycle the same ‘human shield’ rhetoric that essentially blames Palestinians for their own deaths and denies any Israeli role in pushing Palestinians into such a precarious position that they would vote for Hamas.

For better or worse, I was unable to stay for the entire event because I had to file a story by 9. I pondered how to frame this story while I drove back to the newsroom. Having a recording of the speeches I’d heard, it certainly would have been possible to parse every logical fallacy, historical inaccuracy and instance of blatant racism and victim-blaming. But there isn’t really anything to gained by using a small paper in mid-Missouri to essentially mock perfectly well meaning people who have an emotional and personal attachment to a place that is the center of an ongoing conflict. Had there been a pro-Hamas rally, I could certainly have done a similar parsing. But these types of articles, in small papers, don’t really serve to change anyone’s mind.

So I let the people’s quotes speak for themselves and framed the article as a community coming together to support each other just as much as Israel.

 

 

 

Using the language of our sources

We’ve been talking a lot in our lectures about language. It is easy and safe to borrow the language of our sources. But the job of a journalist is to parse what we’re told be our sources — especially PR people and PIOs — to get at some approximation of the “truth.”
I was concerned and excited this morning to catch professional journalists making the mistake of taking language right from the source. Concerned, because it showed laziness on the part of the professional journalists; Excited, because noticing it is kind of a sign it’s becoming easy for me to recognize this sort of thing.
The news from Gaza this morning was that the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that was supposed to last 72 hours didn’t make it much longer than a few hours. According to NPR News, the Israelis called it off after Hamas kidnapped one of their soldiers. Renee Montagne, the host of Morning Edition, kept repeat this phrase with the verb “kidnapped.” Even when she’d speak with journalists on the ground who would use the more appropriate verb “captured,” she kept saying “kidnapped.”
The connotation around the word ‘kidnap’ is that the abducted person is an innocent who probably didn’t have any connection to the people who took him or her. Soldiers in an active battle don’t get kidnapped.
Captured is more fitting because the abduction, according various sources, happened before the cease fire began, and it’s likely the soldier was involved in some form of fighting.
I’m not trying to justify capturing anyone, but it is important to call it what it is. The Israeli military surely has a calculated reason for using the word kidnapped when talking to the press about the incident. Journalists should know better than to be complicit in the distortion of information.

Naming the Creek

I made another mistake that was brought to my attention almost immediately after posting my previous blog entry. My editor got an email from the press contact for the civil war event notifying us that the creek beside the monument is misidentified in my article.

I called it Auxvasse creek

in my lede.

Every account of the battle of Moore’s Mill that I read or heard from the reenactors mentioned that it was next to Auxvasse creek. It seemed completely obvious to me that the men would have also been buried next to Auxvasse creek. So I didn’t ever bother to ask anyone if the creek that I could see was in fact Auxvasse creek.

It wasn’t. Auxvasse creek is less than a mile away and on the other side of where the battle happened. The mass grave sits beside a smaller stream called Dyers Branch.

Arguably, my lede could still have been accurate, depending on how far you think smoke from cannons can drift before it is totally dissipated. But that is another issue entirely.

The point is, I made a faulty assumption and didn’t verify it. But I learned an important lesson from this almost insignificant mistake.

War During Lifetime

In the spring of 2009, my roommates and I were planning a birthday party for one of my best friends. We were arbitrarily throwing out theme ideas that grew increasingly ridiculous as the conversation went on. Someone would toss out an idea and everyone would respond with laughter and other stupid ideas. The early ideas escape me now, but I remember very clearly suggesting that we throw a Civil War themed party. I laughed, but everyone else got quiet.

“That’s it,” my friend said.

So we throw a very satirical, irreverent Civil War themed birthday party. Its still common for one of us to say, while waxing nostalgic about our college days, that the Civil War party was one of the better parties.

So when an editor asked if anyone wanted to go to a dedication ceremony for a Civil War memorial, I jumped on it.

I won’t go into details here about what the actual event is, you can check it out on the Mo’an website here

But I learned some important lessons while working on this piece.

Although I spent a lot of time researching the battle that happened there, I had only written a few grafs of b-material before leaving for the event. When we didn’t get back until after 4, I didn’t have a lot of time to write. Consequently, the story didn’t get to the copy desk until after 8 (which in my defense is pretty fast for a 50 inch story). I definitely should have written a lot more of the stuff I could have gotten without going to the event before going to the event. That way it would have been a much quicker turn when I got back to the news room.