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.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The month that was

I rushed to my Reporting I professor’s Cooper Square office before going to work last Wednesday morning. I was worried. One of my classmates had already begun interning at The Daily News, another had begun interning as a fact checker at The New York Times, and I thought I was falling behind. I hadn’t begun interning anywhere yet. I had only gotten my first clip (journalese for “published article”) the day before.

“Don’t worry,” the professor reassured me. “You’re doing better than most. If you weren’t, trust me, I’d tell you.”

Then she filled me in a bit more. The girl interning at the Daily News came into the program with years of writing experience. Fact checking doesn’t count for shit. If I wanted an internship, she would get me one, it was just a question of whether I was ready.

But I’m not ready yet. Internships are important. But it’s also important to do well at them, and that’s what I’m preparing for right now.

I have a story due for class every week. Often times we have to write a story during class as well. In the last month I’ve written about the reaction of female Hillary supporters to Sara Palin, what it’s like working by ground zero, Harlem’s African American Day Parade, A NJ hair salon owner who invested his retirement money in Fannie Mae last spring, Muslims breaking the Ramadan fast, and a former Chilean President’s visit to NYU(my first clip).

My professor has given me great feedback. She has no time for the, “it’s not bad, here’s what I might change,” bullshit. She gets straight to the point and has edited some of my stories to pieces. But I’m grateful for her attitude because I really see my writing improving.

Once my stories get good enough- probably within the next few weeks- I'll have plenty of opportunities to get more clips.  Stories for class will be published on Pavement Pieces, a multimedia website run by the professor. The professor has also arranged for us to spend election day in real newspaper newsrooms, I'll be at the Star-Ledger, where we'll file (at least) two election stories. One story is to be around 1,000 words, the other about 650. November 4 should be intense.  At the end of the semester the class will also do a big multimedia project on Aids.

That's right, I’ll be learning multimedia skills this year. I’m real excited about that. You only get out of school what you put into it, and I’m trying to squeeze NYU dry.

Last month I read The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ new book about his experience covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is a fast read, it’s more a memoir of his experiences covering the war than a book like Fiasco, which was straight up reporting.

What’s in the News?
  • A $700 Billion bailout was given to Wall Street by the US government. The bailout bill had initially been rejected by congress, but was passed on its second go round after minor changes. It’s unclear whether the $700 billion will be able to restore the proverbial floodgates. What’s the difference between a recession and a depression?
  • Tzipi Livni is about to become Prime Minister of Israel. The outgoing premier, Ehud Olmert, is stepping down because of a corruption indictment.
  • Obama is ahead in the polls.

Clips, Class and the UN

It was a perfect early fall morning- not hot enough to wear shirtsleeves, not cool enough for a jacket; the sky was cloudy, but not like it was ready to rain- and high school aged Jewish day schoolers, old people, and a contingent of pro-Israel Evangelicals stood outside the United Nations.

They were there to protest Iranian President Ahmed Ahmedinejad’s presence at the UN General Assembly. I was there to cover the protest.

The protest was staid, considering Ahmedinjead’s violently anti-Semitic rhetoric. There was no fist pumping or adrenaline raising chanting that I picture a protest having. More mid season baseball game than Latin American soccer match.

Ellie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate spoke. So did Natan Sharanksy, the Soviet Jewish dissident who, before being allowed by the USSR to make aaliyah, spent years in the gulag.

But the two, impressive if aging, failed to fire up the crowd.

Wiesel: Ahmedinejad wishes to follow in Hitler’s footsteps. This makes him an arche criminal. Honor is absent from his life and his vocabulary. Stop Iran now.

Sharansky: Iran is the evil empire. It must never go nuclear.

As I was scouring the crowd for interviews I bumped into a reporter from the New York Sun. I didn't get her name but she was young, probably around my age, and I shadowed her for a while. Although interviewing might look straight forward, it's not. So I wanted to see her MO for finding good people to interview and her way of asking questions.

Regrettably, the reporter is probably out of a job now. Last week the New York Sun closed its doors. Not good.
The former President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, was in town for the UN General Assembly as well. He spoke at NYU- although he didn't really say much- last Monday evening and I covered it for the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper. It's not exactly The New York Times but hey, I got a clip.