Friday, December 12, 2008

New HIV/AIDS article I wrote

Here's an article I wrote about HIV/AIDS and insurance, it was posted on the website last night. The photo above is of the woman in the lead, who was infected with HIV after being raped.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Time is the most precious thing we own

Embedded at West Point

Although I chose to attend NYU in part because of the opportunities New York would offer me, never did I imagine that through NYU I would spend a day at West Point. But That’s exactly where I was this past week.

As I’ve said in prior posts, my Reporting I professor believes in learning by doing (which is a nice way of saying, "learning by messing up"). She’s sent us out on assignments that most professors wouldn’t dream of assigning first semester students. Just the other day I overheard two professors marveling at the work our class did on election night; we were really thrown into the deep end and told, “swim.”

So when the professor was contacted by a major at West Point, located in upstate New York, interested in having journalism students spend the day embedded with cadets at the military school, she couldn’t possibly say no.

When she announced in class we were to be embedded I had visions of getting dirty in the trenches, jumping over barbed wire, and riding around in humvees a la Generation Kill. That wasn’t the case.

We were there to sit in on a simulated Baghdad mission. The aim was for the cadets to experience a simulation of working Baghdad checkpoints. We left at 10:30AM and didn't get back until after 8PM. I was surprised by how beautiful the West Point campus was.

During the simulated mission the cadets sat in front of computer screens showing images of where they were: various checkpoints in the fictitious Al Mansor neighborhood of Baghdad a la Grand Theft Auto. The cadets would have to make real time decisions about how to handle various situations, and man the radio reporting back to Headquarters.

Why did they want us there? In Iraq it’s not uncommon to have a journalist embedded within a platoon or company. So the West Point major wanted his cadets to gain experience interacting with journalists.

The simulation was bloody. Two insurgent car bomb attacks (VBIED’s in military parlance- Vehicle Borne Explosive Device) rocked the neighborhood, 25 Iraqi civilians, one US soldier, and five insurgents died. I was embedded with the radio operator at the platoon’s command post, we had a map but no computer, so I didn’t see anything.

For all the simulation’s benefits, it lacked the urgency and emotion of what I would imagine of a real Baghdad checkpoint. When the American soldier was killed, his partner radio back to the command post a flat toned, “Jim’s dead, over.”

After about 20 minutes the simulation was over. We journalists had to get that day’s Baghdad story: the two bombings and resulting deaths.

The most interesting part of the day was when we met with Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty, an army press officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some would call the talk he gave us candid; others would call it unprofessional. Here are some gems:
  • “I don’t feel bad about Pat Tillman dying, I feel bad about the way we handled his death.” – I knew what he was trying to say, but damn.
  • “On a personal level, I cannot stand Dexter Filkins.” – He said this to Ali, a guy who’s worked extensively with Filkins in Baghdad
  • “The English press officers are incompetent.”
Anyway, all in all it was a pretty good week. Here are some more pictures I took:

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Age of Obama

The age of Obama is upon us. Last Tuesday night, as we all know by now, Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama buried Republican John McCain to become the first black President. He even won North Carolina, a state that hadn’t gone blue since the Civil Rights Era.

Not bad for a half Kenyan Democrat with a Muslim name and little experience.

I spent election night at NYU’s Journalism building on Cooper Square where almost everyone was hard at work filing stories. Everyone but me.

I had been up since 6 a.m. and had already filed my two pieces; an article on Cuban voters in New Jersey, and a day-of story on the hearings at the Board of Elections in Elizabeth, NJ.

I gotta say, I wasn’t quite happy with how either article turned out. But I learned a lot from them. I became much more comfortable approaching people, and I learned that it’s never too early to call people. Learning, although rewarding, sure is frustrating.

After the election was called I walked by Union Square on my way home. It was around midnight and the square was packed with Obama supporters drunk on victory. It was electric. People danced. People sang. People hugged strangers. The crowd was so big it poured into the street, blocking traffic. Cars were honking- some to get by, other to show their Obama support- and the crowd grew even more riled up with each passing honk.

Two cops stood on the South side of 14th Street looking on. They pair didn’t look too worried; these were Greenwich Village people, after all. They were content to let the College students, Yuppies, and Hipsters celebrate.

Now comes the real work. Obama’s going to face more challenges than any other President in recent memory. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The war in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan. Iran. Al Qaeda and its supporters. Energy Policy. Health care. And that’s just what we know of. Let’s see what the next four years brings. At least it’ll be an interesting time to be a journalist.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


One of the best things about going to NYU is the people the school attracts. In the last two weeks I’ve attended lectures with Dan Rather, Israeli President Shimon Peres and former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda. Last night a New York Times reporter came to talk to my Reporting class.

He looked to be in his late 30’s and entered the journalism world straight out of college when he began working at a small paper in North Carolina in the early 1990’s (he admitted that you can’t really do that today). He decided to be a journalist because he wanted to do something that could have a positive affect on the community while living an interesting and adventurous life. (and he has)

After a few years in North Carolina, he moved to the AP’s Miami Bureau. But he hated the AP job (too much sitting in an office), so he found a job at The Miami New Times, an alternative Village Voice type of paper.

Then love struck. He fell in love with a Colombian woman in Miami and when she went back to Colombia he went with her.

The relationship didn’t last, but he stuck around in Bogotá for six years where he wrote freelance and stringed for some big time places. He told us that the largest frustration of his career was a story he did on these mafia groups in São Paulo, Brazil for The New York Times Magazine.

The leaders of the mafia group he was covering were doing long jail sentences but, because they were so powerful, for all intents and purposes they controlled the jail. The warden was in their pocket and they decided who came in the jail and who came out.

Well, Semple worked on the story for three months, actually managed to smuggle himself inside the jail to interview these guys, and wrote a really long story; only for the magazine to kill the story when Bush launched the Iraq invasion and the editors stopped caring about Brazil.

He came back to the US in 2004 and landed at The New York Times. He reported from Baghdad from 2004 through 2007. Now he’s back in New York working for the Metro Desk, doing stories on immigration.
What’s in the News:
• Obama is leading McCain in the polls
• Diego Maradona just took charge of the Argentine national team
• Charlie Rose is partnering with Slate to put video clips online (although that’s not really news)
• The price of oil dropped to $63 a barrel

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Clip

Here's my first Clip in. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The person I profiled really did me a favor in letting me interview her. I've known her for well over a decade and would be surprised if anyone has ever said anything bad about her. Although this is a short piece (around 300 words), she's very interesting and smart and, hopefully, I did her justice.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dexter Filkins Talk

New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins is probably the most talked about journalist in the country right now. And, just by chance, I saw him speak this past week at the New York Times’ building.

Last Tuesday I was covering a graduation ceremony for America’s VetDogs, an organization that provides service dogs to disabled veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our reporting I professor wants us out in the field as much as possible, so this week, instead of having class, she sent us an email listing events taking place that day in New York. We had to pick an event, report it, then write up the story and email it to her by midnight.

I chose the VetDogs event because I thought it was the most interesting and important. Apparently so did a lot of my classmates. Five other people from my class showed up, including Ali, the guy from Iraq I mentioned previously.

I’ve been friendly with him and after the event finished we chatted a bit. He knows I’m interested in the Middle East and we compared books we had read about the region.
(Not only had he read the books, he knew most of the authors)

And then he told me: “I’m going to a talk about the future of the Middle East tonight at the New York Times building.”

“Oh wow,” I said.

“You wanna come?”

Do I wanna come????? Hell yeah, I wanna come!!!!

The talk featured Filkins, former Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Steven Erlanger, and Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows. The tickets, $30 a pop, had sold out weeks in advance but I got in free because of my friend. Filkins and Erlanger didn’t seem too optimistic about the Middle East’s future. Wright, citing a democracy activist who’s spent most of his life in a Syrian jail cell, weirdly saw a bright future.

The three spoke about their experiences for 45 minutes, then opened the floor for a 45 minute Q&A. To summarize what they said:

Filkins at one point admitted that we (the Western world) don’t truly understand the Middle East. On a good day we can only catch a glimpse of it. He gave a story about Iraq as an example, saying that their were two conversations going on in Iraq: the conversation the Iraqis were having with the Americans, and the conversation the Iraqis were having with each other.

He returned to the US in December 2006 to write his new book, The Forever War, which was released a few weeks ago. His goal was to give a worm’s eye view of reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. The book contained 91 chapters, he said. Each was a short-take about what it was like to cover the war.

Last month he returned to Baghdad and was blown away by the progress that had been made. People were cowering in their homes when he left in 2006. Public parks were a no man’s land, often littered with dead bodies in the morning. Now people were enjoying themselves in the street, women were walking around in jeans and T-shirts, and the vibe felt eerily relaxed.

He attributed the progress to the surge and the Sunni awakening councils, but warned that the situation could collapse tomorrow. Filkins explained that the surge was much more than just the addition of 30,000 troops. General Petreaus instituted a new counter-insurgency strategy, which was the real beneficial aspect.

The Sunni Awakening councils could not be under-estimated, he said. But the councils were made up of former insurgents (at one point he committed a Freudian slip and referred to the councils as “insurgent councils”). He recounted a meeting he had with a council leader whose last name was Al-Tikriti. The guy was from Saddam’s hometown, might’ve been related to him.

He said that the key to understanding the lull in violence was this:
Sunni insurgents saw the Americans as invaders and occupiers and fought them from the beginning. Then Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia came
along. AQM targeted not only the Americans, but the Iraqi Shi’a as well, reasoning they were apostates.

The Sunni insurgents wanted to kill Americans all day long, but didn’t see the point in killing shi’a. This created a conflict between Al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents, and the insurgents were soon forced between a rock and a hard place.

The Shi’a greatly outnumber the Sunnis in Iraq, and control the new government being established. Shi’a death squads (many of which had links to the central government) began retaliating genocidally against the Sunnis for Al Qaeda's attacks.

The insurgents looked to their left and saw Al-Qaeda. They looked to their right and saw the Shi’a. Then they looked straight ahead and saw the Americans, who suddenly didn’t look so bad anymore. An alliance with the Americans was their ticket home.

So now we have the present situation: the former Sunni insurgents make up the awakening councils and we pay each council member $300 a month, basically not to shoot at us. And we’re their buffer against the shi’a. The central government now wants to disarm and break up the awakening councils. If they press too hard, everything could fall apart.

He said he had no idea what would happen in Iraq, and anyone who does is lying. The lull in violence is built on a house of cards. But a house of cards is better than no house at all, he added.

The discussion then turned to Afghanistan. Filkins said that the surge/awakening council strategy most likely would not work in that country. Doling out money to the awakening councils worked because, in essence, we gave money to the tribal leaders who then distributed it to their flock. Iraqi society, surprisingly, has a coherent and orderly tribal structure. If you make peace with the tribal leader, you make with the tribe.

Afghanistan does not have that. Afghan society used to be based on a similar tribal structure but, after about 30 years of continuous war, that is gone. The Taliban in particular saw the tribal leaders as a threat and went after them to consolidate power in the 90’s.

Now, Afghanistan is a free for all and there’s no tribal leaders left to pay to quell violence.

Furthermore, Afghanistan is stuck in the 4th century. They have like a 20 percent literacy rate, no roads or infrastructure, and no industry. Bombing them wouldn’t really do anything. And the Taliban are literally from another planet. There’s nothing the US could conceivably negotiate with them.

When the discussion turned to the November election, Filkins said most Iraqis would prefer McCain. If the Arab world could vote, they would overwhelmingly vote for Obama, he said. Except in Iraq. Iraqis get scared when they hear Obama’s pullout talk. They know that, if the Americans left soon, the house of cards would collapse and the bloodshed would be worse than imaginable. So they prefer McCain.

The other two didn’t have anything really new to say. But Erlanger did note that the recent news that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother is a big player in the heroine trade had been an open secret for years. He also stressed the labyrinthine element to the Middle East. Speaking of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Erlanger remarked that, if there were easy answers, they would have been done already.