Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin's Foreign Policy Experience

Two weeks ago the country was introduced to John McCain’s VP pick: Sarah Palin, a first term governor of Alaska. Not the most experienced person to ever be in a Presidential race (not to say Obama has a lot of experience either). But Palin’s foreign policy “credentials” are absurd. I’m sure it’ll only get worse as time goes on, but this is what we’ve got so far:

• She went to Kuwait (not Iraq) to address Alaska National Guard troops

• She’s been to Ireland- her plane refueled there on her Kuwait trip

• She’s seen Russia from an Alaska island

• She’s been to Mexico and Canada on vacation

Life is for the Pushy

Last week I wrote my first article for class and, just as I thought, the professor tore through it (although she did tell me that it was decent for the first article). But the hardest part of it all was interviewing people. I’ve never been rejected by so many people in my life.

So on Sunday I asked Professor Serrin if he had any tips about landing interviews. He had organized a little party at his Greenwich Village apartment as a chance for the first semester students and third semester students to meet each other. (The journalism program is three semesters) The third semester students were all real cool and most remembered me from my visit to NYU last spring, which I appreciated.

“You gotta be aggressive but nice,” Serrin told me in response to my question. “Life is for the pushy.”

Then he told me a story to illustrate that you’ll never know what you’ll get if you just ask:

In the early 70’s he was on assignment in Miami for the Detroit Free Press. He was hanging out in a hotel lobby looking to interview people when he saw the light above the elevator flash. The elevator doors opened and an old Jewish guy stepped out of the elevator who looked a lot like Meyer Lansky.

But he didn’t just look like Meyer Lansky. He was Meyer Lansky, one of the most notorious organized crime figures in American history. The guy Hyman Roth was based on in Godfather II. The arch villain so smart the FBI actually gave up on catching him.

So Serrin walked up to him and asked for an interview. The old mobster looked at him and said, “sure thing, my boy.”

Lansky obviously didn’t tell him anything heavy. But he interviewed Meyer Lansky. All he had to do was ask. Life is for the pushy.

Some things I learned in class this week:
• Never use “however” in a newspaper article
• Never start the lead (the first paragraph of an article) with a quote
• A journalist should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”
• Never put your opinion in an article, no one cares what you think
• My dad knows a hell of a lot more about the Pentagon Papers than my Law & Mass Communication professor

I finally got my third class and no, it’s not Arabic. I did everything I could but the Middle Eastern Studies Department told me to get lost. I couldn’t even sit in on the class the departmental director said. I’ll spare explaining the reasons why, not like I really believed them anyway.

But I will learn Arabic. It’ll help me a ton in my career.

In the end I registered for a class on US – Latin American Relations taught by Jorge Castañeda, the former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003). We have to read a book a week and I already have a background in Latin American history. But the big positive is that I’m taking a class with Jorge Castañeda. He seems like he has a firm head on his shoulders and is living in the real world, not like the classic ivory tower professor.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Back to School

It’s weird to be back at school. The undergraduates that will graduate come May were high school seniors when I received my BA in May 2005. But back I am, at NYU for a Masters in Journalism.

I’ve wanted to be a journalist ever since I wrote some stories for the Santiago Times while in Chile two years ago. But breaking into the industry is tough. Impossible if you have no clips. So upon returning from Chile to the US in January 2007 I began working at a law firm.

But my journalism dream never vanished. I applied to J School at the end of last year, and I will now make my dream my reality.

The first we thing we did at orientation is sit around a big table- all thirty-something of us- and introduce ourselves. The dean of the program, Professor Serrin, went first. He’s somewhere in his seventies and seems like a warm guy who really cares about the students, plus he’s a Hall of Fame journalist, so to speak. He grew up in a blue collar family, wanted to write but couldn’t afford to move to Paris to write novels so he began working at a newspaper.

He moved up the writing ranks and made a name for himself in Michigan; he covered the National Guard at Kent State, striking steel workers, won all sorts of prizes, and then went to the New York Times where he was a big shot reporter for a long time. Pretty impressive.

Next is our turn: the students. Not too many people stood out- most are early to mid twenties, little writing experience- until about two-thirds away around the table when a middle-aged Middle Eastern looking guy introduced himself.

His name is Ali, and he’s from Iraq. Yes, a real Iraqi. In the flesh. He’s been living for the past year or so in Dearborn, Michigan. But prior to coming to the U.S. he worked at the New York TimesBaghdad Bureau- first as a translator, then a journalist- where he covered the insurgency and Saddam’s trial and execution.

Oh, and he’s friends with Dexter Filkins- perhaps the greatest American foreign correspondent of his generation- and John Burns- the mop-topped legendary Times journalist. (On a side note, the very British sounding Burns actually grew up in Canada, who would’ve guessed?)
Hardly a bad guy to study around. Hopefully I’ll get to know him over the next year and a half.

After Ali introduced himself there’s a few seconds of silence. The vibe around the room was: Holy Shit.

Then someone asked Ali a question. Something about John Burn’s feelings on the war and whether he’s personally apologized to Ali about initially supporting the invasion.

What?!?! You’ve known the guy no longer than 13 seconds. I’d have a tough time ever asking him about the war, let alone about the thoughts of his friend while in front of at least 30 people. Who asks that?!?!?!

Well, a forty-something know-it-all with no discretion, that’s who. Regrettably she’s in one of my classes. In case you’re wondering, Ali stepped around the question. He essentially said they had had a number of conversations about the situation in the past . . . it’s a real tough issue . . . life under Saddam was hell . . . etc.
My first class was Reporting I. The professor used to work at the Philadelphia Inquirer and just completed a book about Iraqi war veterans. She’s a proponent of the “learn by doing” school; so airy, theoretical talk will be kept to a minimum. “This is not a classroom, it’s a newsroom,” she says. We’ll be going out, finding stories, and writing articles.

Our first assignment was to interview female former Hillary supporters to see how they felt about McCain’s VP pick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. I think I did a decent job on the story but I’m sure she’s tearing it apart as I write this. I can’t wait to look at the article again a few years from now and think, “Oh my God, how could I have written such garbage?”

We’re supposed to be registered for three classes but currently I’m only registered for two: Reporting I and Media Ethics. I would like to take Arabic as my third course. It’s an undergraduate course which technically is not allowed so Professor Serrin is looking into it (he thinks it’s a great idea).

Anyway, it feels good to be advancing toward a goal again.