Tag Archives: NPR

Oprah, don’t let the liar get you down

 

Oprah, please don’t apologize. Please don’t talk about the liar ever again. You are better than this.

It is beneath you to spend so much time on someone who could not disclose that his complicated story was not a cautionary tale,  but a fairy tale altogether. And fretting over his insincerity causes me a million little anxiety attacks. 

I don’t watch Oprah in the mornings not because I don’t want to watch Oprah  in the mornings. When she airs in my market at 9 a.m. , I am either in the car on the way to work at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I teach journalism students to write the truth, or I am already standing in front of an auditorium full of students, talking about reporting,writing and telling the truth in multimedia platforms.

So I watch at 11 p.m. for many reasons, and not the least is because I am a big fan. A big grateful fan.

So I squirmed through her interview last night with James Frey, the author of the made-up A Million Little Pieces, who purports not to care much for the truth. In his Oprah interview, he sounded all Midwestern English adjunct professorish with his interpretation of reality and his Tropic Of Cancer accolades, talking about how he was really like Picasso who didn’t really look like his distorted self-portrait and that he only agreed to say it was a memoir so he could get an advance from the publisher.

What a bunch of baloney.

In spite of his writerliness, Frey tells a million little lies in the book that apparently caused Oprah her biggest headache in 25 years. And he does not look or sound like a man filled with remorse. 

I have read and heard this morning about how tricky it is to tell and vet the truth in a memoir. Just ask Greg Mortenson about Three Cups of Tea.

But the truth is telling the truth is not hard at all.

My first book, a memoir, came out in 1999. It took me three years to write the painful story of my experience with my husband who was violent.

Having been a journalist for 20 years by that time, I was excruciatingly mindful of the need to perfectly articulate the truth, as a journalist, with the details, the facts and indisputable realities bolstering my story. The publisher had lawyers. I had a lawyer. I had documents for every claim.

And my ex-husband was a litigating attorney. So I had to be sure to get it right.

Every description was accurate, every moment recalled was double-checked with another source. The idea of telling a story that was not truthful would ruin my career as a journalist, professor of journalism and slay my integrity and credibility.

It is not that I  dared not. It never occurred to me to even try.  

I was extremely lucky to be a guest on Oprah’s show in June 2002 discussing that book and my writing book as well. The path to Harpo Studios was lined with dutiful and diligent producers and lawyers. I took tough questions in scores of interviews over the weeks, months and years from 1999 to 2002 to earn the chance to have Oprah ask me questions about my books before an audience of millions. 

I cannot fathom getting to that point on the tails of a big fat lie. But that is me. Some authors and journalists apparently consider misrepresentation a marketing plan.

In my classes I tell my students about the dangers of fabrication and plagiarism, about how each journalist needs to fiercely protect the brand that is his or her own byline. I tell my students to be proud of every word that goes beneath their names and to be able to defend it vigorously. Because your words live forever.

Be genuine in your writing, I tell them, whether telling the story of a fire or telling your own story. 

I also give writing workshops, mostly on memoir, and have one slated for this summer through Northwestern. And I tell those writers eager to publish their stories that they own their own history.

So here is what I know. About writing, as a journalist. As a memoirist: You own your truth. You own the right to tell it, so you do not have to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to thwart your storytelling. Because as I wrote in my second book, writing can save your life.    

But no one can save you if you lie. You don’t have any rights to lie just so you can get a contract.

It is not tricky at all. It is a simple truth. So go ahead. Tell it.

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What I Believe for NPR’s This I Believe with Bob Edwards

Earlier last month I was one of four local authors who read an essay at NPR’s “This I Believe” event at Fourth Prebyterian Church in Chicago. NPR host Bob Edwards interviewed me briefly after I read, ” A Father is Born from Many Strangers,” whihc will be included in the upcoming book, This I Belelive: On Fatherhood in May.

More than 1,20o people were there including my y oungest son, Colin, and Coach Mike Powell, and his wife, Elizabeth. I wrote about how Coach Powell is a father figure in the lives of all my boys, a role he volunteered for as their wrestling coach, mentor and friend. 

What the applause and the excitement around the event told me is that the voices of individuals resonate with many. Elaborating on the history of  This I Believe  , executive director Dan Gediman spoke of the rich historical context of the views of contributors–celebrities, statesmen, journlaists, citizens all part of the project. In the 50s, the published collections of This I Believe essays outsold the Bible, Gediman said.

It is a reminder that the individual yearnings and graceful pronouncements of people from all corners of life make for compelling stories. You only need to be honest and authentic in the process. You know in your heart when words are real, and they can lift you up and connect you with everyone else.

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Fired Up Over Firing

     Early Saturday morning, in the wake of the Juan Williams/ NPR scandal, at the annual Journalism & Women Symposium camp, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard stepped up to the plate and the podium for an unrehearsed discussion of the case.

         “I don’t believe in off the record,” Shepard said. “The mike is never off.” Shepard went on to explain that she is independent of NPR as the ombudsman. “I am not speaking for NPR.”

     Putting the controversy into context, Shepard said, “No one is let go on just one action.” She added, “This is about a relationship between a news analyst and a network. You cannot say something on another venue that you would not say on NPR.”

    Williams was fired from NPR for comments he made on Fox to Bill O’Reilly. Blogs and media are percolating with opinion both measured and absurd about what was done, what should have been done, what was said and what should not have been said.

     I’m with Shepard here, who for the record and to give context,  is a friend.

    “Context is an important element in journalism,” she said Saturday at the impromptu JAWS discussion.

    I agree. And it’s what I try to teach my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. And what I do in all my stories. So let’s not violate that missive oursleves.

   Oh, and for the record? The only people who made me nervous on my flight from San Antonio to Dallas, with a brief lapse before connection to Chicago, were the ones who took too much time retrieving their overhead luggage. I had a few minutes to get from Concourse D to Concourse A, a long way to run and a lot on my mind.

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Maria Hinojosa on Humanity and Journalism

It’s all about the humanity
      Not a love fest, but close.
     At the annual Journalism and Women Symposium 2010 camp  in Boerne, Texas this weekend, legendary broadcast journalist and keynote speaker Maria Hinojosa had the more than 100 attendees on her side Saturday night before she stepped to the podium and said hello. And then she took off her left black suede platform pump to show it off and the crowd of veteran, emerging and acclaimed traditional and nontraditional journalists was hooked.    
      “We’re working journalists in America, telling important stories, how can we complain?” The author, anchor and managing editor of NPR’s “Latino USA,” as well as WGBH’s “One on One with Maria Hinonjosa,”added, “The drama of American life is all around us, how do we not tell their stories?”
      In 25 years as a journalist, including eight years at CNN, Hinojosa has been lauded with awards from Emmys to the Ruben Salazar Lifetime Achievement Award for her work telling stories and documentaries that represent “the drama of American life.”
      Born in Mexico City the youngest of four children, Hinojosa told the story of her petite mother convincing the customs officer to let the entire family go through to meet her father, a doctor already working in Chicago. It is that spirit of determination and confidence that drives her, she said.
    “My agenda is to make people feel things and to talk to people who don’t have a chance to be heard,” Hinojosa said. “My responsbility as a journalist is to find that humanity so we can all have hope.”
    Speaking candidly and without a prepared script, some journalists in the audience commented she could have arrived more prepared. But the standing ovation said it all.
    “I know I am seen as a role model,” Hinojosa said. “And I don’t want to walk away.”  
     

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Can Anyone Hear Us? Women Media Sources and Experts Need to Speak Louder

Full disclosure here, Alicia Shepard is a friend of mine. That is not critical to the story. But I need to say it.

She is the ombudsman (not ombudswoman) at National Public Radio and she wrote a brilliant, however unsettling piece last week on the dearth of female sources on NPR on her NPR blog.  

http://www.npr.org/ombudsman/

This is what she and her staff found:  

My office researched the number of female commentators who appear on air regularly, along with the number of females who are interviewed or quoted in stories on ME, ATC and the weekend counterparts.

The news is not encouraging, though NPR is trying to do something about it.

Admittedly, the relative lack of female voices reflects the broader world. The fact remains that even in the fifth decade after the feminist revolution; men are still largely in charge in government at all levels, in corporations and nearly all other aspects of society. That means, by default, there are going to be more male than female news sources.

To cut to the chase? The green bars are the female sources. The gold are the men.  

But this much? You would think from this graphic that women don’t have a lot to say as sources or commentators.  That they don’t answer the phone or emails when reporters cast the net or that they are not listed somewhere as an expert, they don’t have a Web presence or they are just not well-known.

But that inequity reflects the reporter or producer’s choice, not the lack of female expertise in the world. It reflects a comfort zone, a status quo, a settling for what is easy to do, not what is more fair, more ethical or just plain right. It is something all journalists in all platforms can do better.

As you can see, Weekend Edition comes close to parity. Are women more available to talk then?

I tell my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University that inclusiveness is required in good journalism. When we think of diversity of sources, the notion is not limited to race, ethnicity or gender. It is also about age, socioeconomic status, ability, geography, ideology, education, religion, sexual orientation, everything. 

Why bother trying to find sources that reflect the diversity of society? Because it makes the journalism better. Because, as I wrote in my last book, “Everyman News,” diversity of thought changes content. Just by asking the same question of a different type of source, you will yield different responses and ultimately deeper content.  

In her new book, “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done” (Times Books), Susan Douglas, a communications professor at the University of Michigan , writes that the myth of the all-powerful woman may be more of a hinderance than an inspiration. It may massage us into complacency thinking just because Oprah rules the airwaves, and Cyndi Lauper is having fun in Donald Trump’s boardroom, all is fair in gender terms.

But no. I agree with Douglas. It’s not time to pronounce victory and say we achieved the goal. It’s time to keep trying to make room for other voices. We can start with female voices and work from there.

Driving to work this morning I smiled when I heard the voice of Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist and author on NPR. She was commenting on the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team winning the NCAA title over Stanford University. And full disclosure here, Christine is also a friend of mine, a fellow NU alum. She is an expert, great journalist and the right source on that story.  She should be heard.

According to Lisa on her NPR blog:

When listeners don’t hear women as sources and commentators on the air, they can get the impression that women aren’t smart, aren’t experts and aren’t authoritative.

That’s just not true.

I agree. As the other half of the commenting world, we need to speak louder. As journalists and authors we need to report more fully and be more inclusive in the sourcing of our work.  It’s only fair. It’s time we all were heard. And seen. And read.    

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The hubris of paid content and the humility of good journalism

     The New York Times announced yesterday it will begin charging in 2011 via a metered system for some online content. You would think New York fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Every media pundit is posturing about what this means for the future of journalism. Take a listen to what Jay Rosen of NYU had to say:

\”NPR Story on NYTimes Paid Online Content\”

      Here’s my take. When I was a journalism student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in the 1970s, my professors told all 100 or so of us freshmen that our goal should be to work on the national desk of the New York Times. That was the pinnacle. That was what we all should want. And if we didn’t want it, well, we were just plain wrong. 

    I nodded. OK, I’ll try.

     A few weeks into classes of Basic Writing, it dawned on me that if everyone in the freshmen class of 1975 –and every year before and after–is told to shoot for the same job, then one heck of a lot of us won’t make the cut. Just how many jobs are there are on the national desk of the NYTimes? And what is the turnover rate?

    Yes, NYT is an outlet for elite journalists. It is undeniably a well-respected legacy instituition, but one struggling to be successfully heard above the cacophony of voices and background noise that is today’s media landscape. But can it expect people will pay for it? Isn’t there a generational prejudice of an expectation for free content?

        Television used to be free. True, it was a handful of narrow networks, but it was free. At first observers scoffed at the thought of cable television and monthly charges for access to far fewer than the gabillion channel and content options available today. People paid. And paid. And they have not stopped.

      My notion is the reporters and multimedia journalists who contribute to the New York Times content must be certain their storytelling is enterprising, value-added and not what an audience can derive from 1,000 other outlets. Or even 10 others. No “official source stenography” and no ranting columnists; the blogosphere has 184 million of of those. That’s worth paying for.

     In the 21st century, it’s humbling and exalting to be a writer. I know. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites and also publish books. As an author, publishers want a guarantee you have an audience before you sign the contract. No more chasing the audience after the pub date, but establish the need before you deliver a printed or kindled word. No more agent lunches with the editor and a contract by 3 p.m.

   A similar shift is true in daily journalism. There is no guarantee your content will be read, your audience loyal.  No one needs to come to you for the news that happened yesterday, unless you will offer some fresh, original take, added to  enhanced, engaging alternative storytelling that will seduce readers/viewers/clickers to stay with you from the lead to the last line. The audience is fickle becuase it can be. There is a lot of real garbage out there, but there is a lot of great, evocative narrative journalism. And much of it on sites and from outlets that are not the New York Times.     

It is hubris to think people will pay for the New York Times just because it is the New York Times. New sites, nonprofit enterprises and blogs emerge regularly offering content that is valuable and free.  No matter where you work or post, as a journalist it is worth the effort and energy to produce excellent, authentic, poignant, humanistic and compelling journalism that informs, edifies and exposes.

However the business model shakes out, it is always the goal to expend the talent to deliver stellar journalism. You just can’t expect people will pay for the brand. Just like you can’t expect as an 18-year-old that you will graduate from college and get a job on the national desk of the New York Times. Along with 100 of your closest friends.

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