Archive for journalism

Truth Tellers of Two Eras: Maddow and Murrow

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Even though my fiction is set in the past, what makes it tick for me is whether the issues are relevant. Sadly, gender discrimination, political unrest, religious violence and oppressive government are not a problem anyone’s solved yet.

These days, I have been watching The Rachel Maddow Show quite a bit. I feel it gives me a suspenseful, truthful analysis of the day’s political news. In my opinion, Rachel Maddow has become the bravest voice in television. The veteran MSNBC journalist doesn’t hesitate to call out corruption or talk about the deaths in the immigrant detainment camps established by the Trump administration. Rachel Maddow reports all of this without bombast or name calling, although she is not afraid to show her indignation and grief, and at times, uses black humor . Watching her, I often have the bizarre feeling she has focused her attention so it really feels she’s speaking directly through the screen. It is a rare gift and makes my connection with her different than when I watch other news programs.

This Stanford public policy graduate and Oxford PH.D. in politics is also a powerful writer. Her current nonfiction book, Blowout, was written over the course of four years and paints a chilling long-term picture of the fight to control oil with an emphasis on Russia’s role as a rogue state. The book is carefully researched and was written over the last four years, so It is an astonishing coincidence that its publication around occurred shortly after a whistleblower reported on Trump’s phone call with the President of Ukraine requesting that he investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who Trump fears could beat him in the 2020 election.

The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) has become the most popular news program in the country, although CNN’s News and Fox’s Sean Hannity news talk show are also close behind. During early October, as the impeachment inquiry began, TRMS viewership rose from 2.2 million average to 3.3 million per night.

No matter what side of the political spectrum one favors, it is generally agreed that Americans (and people around the world) have had had a very hard time since the 2016 election. The family divides that began at the Thanksgiving tables that year have morphed into people simply not eating together or speaking anymore. One of the things I really appreciate about Maddow is that she doesn’t mock or demonize Trump supporters. And she presents the news with a mini-recap of things came to be, which makes it accessible to someone who might not have absorbed honest information about the government until that moment.

And she also offers hope. “When this is over,” Rachel says after she’s concluded talking about something that seems impossibly bad. When this is over. Please.

Maddow’s success as a truth-teller reminds me of the another important radio and TV personality: Edward R. Murrow. Their surnames are eerily similar, for a start. Both journalists  are both tall, dark and good-looking and partial to tailored dark suits. They are known for their furrowed brows. Loads of people became fixated on them, making them the most-watched newscasters of certain intense political eras.

These are big claims, but if you also were were not alive when Murrow was a star, I’ll share a little about what I’ve learned. This longtime CBS news host became famous in the 1930s, when he was in charge of CBS’s European Bureau and reported on Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Murrow stayed vigilant in Europe, bringing America reports of Hitler’s danger at a time that most lawmakers were urging non-involvement in Europe’s troubles. Murrow warned he could not be ignored, and his reports were instrumental in changing America’s emotional opinion of the faraway crisis.

Edward Murrow stayed in Europe through the war, never entering a bomb shelter once to protect himself, and doing such things as flying on bombing raids and interviewing everyday people rather than the elite. He hired a small group of intrepid reporters nicknamed “Murrow’s Boys” who went all over Europe to bring the human cost of Hitler’s aggression home to America.

Murrow had a television show on CBS called See It Now during a time that the country faced a similarly dark time. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy hated Communists, and with the race to build deadly nuclear weapons in the 1950s, people lost sleep fearing attack from the USSR. McCarthy took advantage of this paranoia by speaking constantly of a Communist menace. He conducted hearings designed to expose secret Communists, charging many people who had no relation whatsoever with the political party.

Murrow was friends with CBS head Bill Paley, who admired the newsman so much he allowed him to report on any topic he wished. Murrow wanted to address Sen. McCarthy from the beginning of his reign of terror, but he knew if he jumped the gun, he would not have enough material to make the show succeed, nor would the public be receptive to it. If McCarthy successfully fought him, Murrow might even find himself and his colleagues at the network blacklisted. In the end, Morrow went to Michigan and interviewed a young air force officer fired because his father and sister had been accused of reading a book considered suspicious. Many viewers were horrified by what happened to this family and wrote to CBS in support of Murrow’s reporting. A second See It Now program used clips of the senator’s own speeches and testimony to paint a picture of his real motivations. The national outrage stirred up against McCarthy by that program may have been an important factor in leading the senate to formally censure him,  which brought the destructive hearings to an end. Yet because of the controversial show, a major advertiser left CBS, and See It Now was shifted to another time slot to avoid further damage to corporate coffers.

When Murrow signed off at night, he always said, “Good night, and good luck.”

Rachel Maddow doesn’t have a stock phrase like that. Instead, she greets Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s following news program. MSNBC’s wish must be that readers will not recognize a clear ending to her show and will continue watching the network for many more hours.

But at ten o’clock, I am usually off to bed, sometimes extremely charged up, and other times a bit more reassured as I dream of, when this is over. 

Picturing History with Homai Vyarawalla

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

These days, photography seems to have become an expected skill for writers. Confession: I like to take pictures, but I don’t understand how to artfully compose them or wait until the right moment to get a great shot. I wish I’d learned more during my years as a newspaper features reporter, because so many photographers were working just over my shoulder.

When I think back on that era—the late 1980s—I remember that out of the newspaper’s whole photography department, just two photographers were women. This was a significantly greater gender gap than among the newspapers reporters, although there were many more males than females in the newsroom.

The composition of my newspaper’s staff made me all the more surprised and impressed to learn about India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla.  I first heard this name in a conversation with a smart and famous Bollywood actress. She said to me, “You probably already know about India’s first woman photojournalist, who was working in British India during the time of your books…”

I didn’t know anything about her. But I was intrigued.

Homai was born in 1913 into a priestly Parsi family who moved from Gujarat to Bombay for a better life; her father worked in the fledgling film industry that later became known as Bollywood. Some accounts say that Homai married at age 13; other accounts say that at 13, she met the man whom she later married. The gentleman in question, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, was both an accountant and a photographer. After high school, Homai went to Bombay’s famous training school for artist and artisans, the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School for the Arts. Homai was interested in painting, but because the new field of photography was booming and had paying jobs, she went for the latter.  Her first jobs were snapping pictures of women and often went into the Bombay Chronicle. She earned one rupee per published picture.

Because Homai was a woman, she wasn’t considered a trained and reputable photographer, and she therefore had to use her husband’s name on her work. Later on, when she was accepted as a working photographer, she created a catchy professional name: Dada 13. This was a combination of her car license number, her birth year, and the age she was when she met Manekshaw.

During Homai’s years in Bombay, her pictures had a wide range of subjects, but during World War II, she and her husband shifted to New Delhi, and she was hired by India’s ministry of information to take official photographs as part of an imperial propaganda force: the British Information Service. (In my novel The Sleeping Dictionary, this was the kind of work Mr. Lewes undertook during the war). While Homai was shooting pictures for the government, Manekshaw Vyarwalla managed the studio and dark rooms where the film was processed.

Homai now had front row access to shoot both staged and candid photos of famous politicians and visitors to India. Among her typical subjects were Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatton, the Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered her favorite subject of all time because he was both photogenic and fun to be with. Homai’s photographs were always shot in monochrome and processed by her; they are mostly part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi. Some of her most famous photographs are gathered in this story by Catch News. After the British were gone and there was no longer a need for British propaganda, she worked for the Illustrated Weekly of India, which ran from 1880-1983 and was kind of like TimeNewsweek and People rolled together.

Within the press corps, Homai Vyarawalla was a standout, with her practical but elegant short hairstyle and trademark sari or salwar kameez. Although many Parsi women felt free to wear dresses instead of saris, she chose the sari as her daily dress probably as a means of securing a bit of respectful distance  at the chaotic, male dominated events. Yet she was no shrinking violet. Homai carried her own cameras, rode long journeys to get the pictures she needed, and did not ask for special favors. She talks about her special vintage cameras and the adventures they brought to her  in this documentary film by producer CS Lakshmi.

In 1970, one year after her husband’s death, Homai abruptly quit working as a photographer. She was at the peak of her career, but she said she was sick of the rude behavior of the photography corps. She retired to live with her only child, now an adult, and after his death, stayed alone in a walk-up apartment without a telephone in a small town. Far removed from the life she’d once lived close to the top of Indian politics and power, she passed her days quietly and thriftily, sewing her own clothes and doing other homemaking. Yet journalists persisted in visiting to ask about her trailblazing career, before she passed away in 2012 at age 98. Fortunately, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, in 2011, when she was still alive to receive it.

Being first at something, and even being very good at it, does not guarantee a long or well-paid or publicly honored career. Such was the situation for  Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam, India’s first two women lawyers. But the joy for the ones who come afterward is exploring the records they left for us. These great ladies may not have felt like legends during their lifetime, but the work they left ensured it.

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.

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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.