Archive for journalism

Death in the Newsroom

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Capital Gazette

Last week’s mass shooting of the five employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis made headlines around the world, but especially here in Maryland. These premeditated, cold-blooded murders are a tragedy for the families and friends of Gerald Fischman, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, and John McNamara. But the murders are alsoan attack on the culture of journalism.  Reporters walk alone into neighborhoods full of guns to investigate the suffering of people there; editors authorize the publication of stories that sometimes point out wrongdoing in  the community. This work is done as a service to the community; but there are those who disagree with it. Usually, they send a letter to the editor about it. But not always.

Such was the situation with suspected shooter Jarrod W. Ramos, who was convicted of harassing a woman he knew in high school. He then tried to sue the Capital Gazette because of a published story about the harassment. Ramos’s case was dismissed as too groundless to be tried in a court of law, but the man wouldn’t give up.  During the last presidential campaign, Ramos threatened the newspaper on Twitter for an opinion piece that referred to Trump as “unqualified.” He also used Twitter to violently threaten  the reporter who wrote about him, as well as Rob Hiaasen, who was the deputy editor.

The Capital Gazette is a very old newspaper that became part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group in recent years. The CG’s deputy editor,  Rob Hiaasen, was the first employee killed by Ramos. Before he became an editor in Annapolis, Rob was a general assignment features reporter at the Baltimore Sun when I was a features reporter for the afternoon paper, The Evening Sun.

I remember Rob as full of laughs: a funny, gregarious, and skilled writer. This New York Times opinion piece by Laura Lippman, who was Rob’s close friend, describes him much better than I can. I recall smiling at Rob’s stories and his status as the newsroom’s bon vivant.

I left the Sun in 1991, but I had the gift of an out-of-the-blue email from Rob about ten years ago.  He had read through all the mystery short stories in Baltimore Noir, an Akashic anthology published in 2006, and he wanted to congratulate me on mine. I was surprised and flattered, especially since I regarded that particular story, “Goodwood Gardens,” as being all about women. But Rob didn’t believe in stories being for ladies or gents. He read what he wanted, and he was known to praise and encourage writers whether they were in his newsroom or not.

During my years at the newspaper, I recall receiving a few nasty unsigned letters, typically filled with racist complaints about the newspaper’s coverage. Also, a local man picketed the newspaper for years holding a sign that said “Sun Lies.” I don’t know whether there was a story that bothered him, or he just didn’t like the paper.  In my five years as a reporter, I understood there would always be readers who felt wronged by the paper, but I really thought the biggest danger for me was going into deserted neighborhoods alone.

I am shocked that threats against these journalists that appeared on Twitter were not addressed by the police. I believe these threats multiply and gain traction because President Trump tweets frequently against the press, often by name, and has called the entire news media “the enemy of the American people.” With a climate like this, I don’t like imagining what will come next.

Baltimore’s Rap Sheet Grows

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It’s the story of former Keough School students—now women in their sixties—trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I’d watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon’s The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police’s battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore’s streets.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun—the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the “crime desk.” It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who’s interviewed in The Keepers, were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months—or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore’s image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren’t so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

Just thirty years ago, the city’s image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn’t mind a few Os, if I could get some back.

Year of the Journalist

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Actors playing journalists in "Spotlight"

Actors playing journalists in “Spotlight”

People routinely denigrate the press for spreading falsehoods and looking for scandal. In recent years, many have traded in newspaper subscriptions for free online blogs where bloggers write pieces that are rarely fact-checked or vetted. Internet media is often all about enjoyment.

Therefore, I’ve been surprised to see traditional journalists resurfacing as heroes in popular culture. Spotlight, a 2015 movie about the Boston Globe’s reporting on Catholic priest sex abuse, won an Oscar for best picture. I’m impressed it was even possible to get a film made about a serious subject and the writers of a newspaper series from so long ago. Spotlight reveals how one newspaper’s reporters and editors built a big story over time gathering information from many sources and carefully verifying all details before breaking the news.

ftf-11806r_0.0

Last week, a journalism escape film arrived in U.S. theaters. I’ve labeled Whisky Tango Foxtrot an escape film for a couple of reasons. First, the ambitious but unseasoned correspondent played by Tina Fey is bored with her long career as a TV news producer in an American city, and trades it in to report from dangerous, exotic Afghanistan. The other reason is WTF absolutely revels in portraying foreign correspondents as hard-drinking, partying, fraternity members. The producers  made the choice to employ a number of non-South Asian actors to play Afghans; again, an easy escape.

51roj5HPtsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

WTF is a celluloid version of a memoir, Taliban Shuffle, by the New York Times’ reporter Kim Barker, who was recast as a TV reporter called Kim Baker in the film. Tina Fey’s Kim character is one of only two women reporters living in a guest house; both of whom wind up having affairs with guys in the house. It’s a cheery, fraternity party sort of place, where the women are treated like the guys, for the most part. This “Ka-Bubble” of their Kabul seems ridiculously removed—but very intense and addicting.

Kim’s story takes pains to show the stupid things a reporter can do to endanger the lives of her “fixer” (a local man who’s a combination of editor and translator), as well as her driver, photographer and security guard. However, by taking the risks, she gets a great story. I appreciated the nuanced look at this issue. The foreign reporter always gets a byline or camera-time and fame; the local person who does the reporting work earns a small salary for a life-threatening job.

Whether they are unofficial “fixers” or byline journalists, too many reporters have died in recent years.

Newseum-Journalists-Memorial

One of my favorite museums in Washington DC is the Newseum. This modern museum is all about the best in media, past and present. The museum has daily displays of front pages of newspapers from around the globe, and dense exhibits focusing on huge American news stories of the past and present.

A particularly haunting stop is the Journalists Memorial. This is a massive wall with columns of dead writers’ names. Nearby is a colorful mosaic that, when you get closer, turns out to be hundreds of photos of these writers. The Newseum’s Journalists Memorial includes a searchable online database  that includes all the names. You can click on a face and name to learn more.

sai-reddy

This reporter, Sai Reddy, was a little-known rural journalist in central India with a tragic death. As a writer for the newspaper Deshbandu, Mr. Reddy spent 20 years  documenting the hardships of families struggling to live in a community where Maoists and police battled each other. Mr. Reddy,  who came from the very community he wrote about, had his home fire-bombed by the police, but was ultimately hacked to death with knives and machetes by Maoists in a city market.

In the late 1980s, I was a reporter for the features section at a daily city newspaper. I wrote mostly about people, the arts, fashion and food. You can deduce form this that I never had the kind of stories that ran on the front page. The gravest danger I encountered was when visiting  decaying, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

I still recall driving to an almost completely deserted West Baltimore neighborhood to interview the city’s first South Asian grocer. I was writing a story about the city’s ethnic markets and was determined to move past the well-known standards. The Indian shop turned out to be in a neighborhood full of vacant houses. It was in a sliver of a dilapidated building, with a buzzer entry system and metal grills for protection from thieves and bulletproof glass around the cash register to protect the Indian grocer. Walking to and from the store, I had to pass a trio of teenagers who were staring appraisingly at me. Given the isolation, the poverty, and the intense scrutiny, I had that sixth sense that I might be robbed.

The young men didn’t touch me. Thinking back on their reaction—that seemingly brutal staring—I imagine they were probably curious why a stranger had come to their forgotten corner. And I was walking past them, carrying my own stereotypes, which fortunately did not make it into print.

My reporting experiences were nothing compared to the risky work of journalists reporting on conflict around the world. But just like the overseas correspondents, I wouldn’t never have said “I don’t feel comfortable driving to that place,” or  “Can I pass on this assignment?”

I understood the job requirement.