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A Message to Independent Journalists

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Our image of the journalist, especially the independent journalist, is the stand-alone, arms-across-chest guy with the cocked hat, grubby coat and tattered notebook in his hand. That’s not my reality. 

Carolyn Forché, the wonderful anti-war poet of the ‘70s and ‘80s, has a new memoir out, in which she describes her origin story. A man shows up at her door, a stranger, who has driven three days from Central America with his two young daughters in his car to invite her to come to his country and see for herself what is happening in El Salvador. She goes. 

I think of the way I’ve been invited to do the journalism that I do. I’ve been lucky to have some great inviters—women, mostly, in Northern Ireland, Haiti, Central America. I’ve had some great mentors, too—people who gave me space to grow and trust to do the work I do: Jeff Cohen, when he was at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; Samori Marksman at WBAI, who let me get on the air, no training whatsoever; Vivian Stromberg of the organization MADRE who said, “Come, you take the pictures; I’ll pay your way.” I traveled with Vivian, photographing MADRE’S work in Central America, Palestine, Iraq, and later Lebanon and Rwanda; June Jordan, who invited me to meet her Poetry for the People poets and invited me to smile; Eve Ensler. The list is very long.  

I think of independent journalism less as a matter of independence and more as a matter of ingenuity. (Can you figure out how to get where you want to go in a way that pays your bills?) But more important even than ingenuity is inquisitiveness, curiosity and being willing to take up invitations. 

Journalism, to me, is an exchange of generosities. Someone is trusting you with their story, you are paying attention. The exchange is an exchange of trust and faith. If there were any journalist’s pose, it’s not the pose of standing alone, it’s the pose of paying attention, of listening in. 

A lot has changed in thirty years, but a lot has stayed very much the same. One of the things that is the same is that it is still, very largely, white, straight men who decide what is newsworthy—and who is worthy of making and reporting the news. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that journalists love to talk about themselves and their beleaguered field. We’ve heard a lot, especially in the last two years, about the “crisis” in journalism. 

I humbly suggest that if we had reported as much on the small towns across America that have lost their local paper as we have reported on the loss of local papers, we would have a much better sense of what is happening in this country. 

It’s true, journalism across America is in a turbulent state. Newsroom employment has dropped by nearly a quarter in less than ten years. A third of large newspapers have seen layoffs in the last year alone. But these crises are related to others. The richest Americans now live on average 15 years longer than the poorest. While billions of dollars have stacked up in a few households, 36 states have seen cuts in school funding over the last decade, even as student enrollment has risen. Hospitals close at a rate of 30 a year, and over 27 million people are uninsured. In the wealthiest country in the world, access to healthy food and economic opportunity is seeping away from millions of Americans.

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Thanks !

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