Good evening President Adams, distinguished faculty, distinguished students, my friends, my family, other journalists. It’s such an honor to be standing here before you tonight. It’s truly such an honor.
They say that newspapers are dying, but I’d like to tell you I have evidence to the contrary. A few Monday mornings ago I came into the Washington Post newsroom and there was a voicemail. It was from a reader who had let her subscription lapse and was wanting to renew. She found that the Post was indispensable in her life, and she left this urgent voicemail: “My living room and going into my bedroom is flooding and I’m putting down newspaper and I need more newspaper. The rug is wet and I’m running out of newspaper. I need to get the Sunday paper, okay?”
So, whether you curse us, read us, or just use us as a paper towel, please keep us in your life.
The Lovejoy award is one of the most treasured acknowledgements in journalism. It is named after a journalist and an abolitionist who gave his life trying to keep his printing press open in incredibly hard times. Most recipients of this award will stand up here and say that their courage pales compared to that of Lovejoy’s. And, yet, this podium has seen the likes of Katharine Graham, the publisher of my newspaper, who defied the government and printed stories on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, risking her business, her empire, and her reputation.
The podium has also been visited by another one of my personal heroes, Eugene Patterson, who used his typewriter in the sixties to question the moral conscience of white Southerners who stood on the sidelines during the violence of that era. In 1963, after a Birmingham church had been bombed, Mr. Patterson wrote an editorial that just absolutely took no prisoners. There were four little girls who died in that bombing and he wrote these very simple words: “A negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church is Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe. One shoe from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her, every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.”
For years I kept the “red shoe” editorial on my desk because it acted as sort of a guidepost to the kind of journalist I hoped to become. That is, to shine a light into the eyes of someone who wishes to look away—to never be righteous, but to always admit that we have complicity in whatever is going on.
Eudora Welty, who is the great Southern short story writer, was asked once to describe the sensibilities behind her stories. And while she’s not a journalist, she gave a model example, I think, of what good journalism is, and that is: “It is not my job to judge, but merely to pull the curtain back to reveal this hidden world behind it.”
And that is what I try to do with the stories I write.
When I first started out at the Post, I was going to write about the influx of migrant labor in the South, and I went to Arkansas to write about the number of Hispanics who had come to work in the poultry processing plants there. But I wanted to look at this phenomenon from the viewpoint of a white, rural, working-class person who was absolutely in awe of this blitzkrieg. They were giving their jobs over, they were kind of losing their stake in this community they felt very familiar with.
So I ended up going to this town, to DeQueen, Arkansas, and everyone said, “They’re taking over our town.” It’s kind of the common anxiety. So how do you find out if someone’s taking over your town?
You do the old-fashioned thing that any reporter would do; you go to the property-appraisers office and you ask the clerk to see the deed books for the last 10 years. And so you’re sitting in an office for probably six hours going through these heavy, leather-bound deed books, and you could see the story of the new South unfolding in those pages: Anglo surnames transferring over to Hispanic surnames. And, again, right there, was the story of the South. It only ends up being one line in the story, but it offers one brick in the building you’re trying to build.
You need a human to carry the narrative, so I needed a white guy who was in fear of losing his job. So I hung around the factory gates of the chicken plants and watched these streams of workers coming out—greasy, feathers literally coming from their boots. That’s how I met a worker named Danny, and I asked to come into his life and sit with him and report on this. This is the kind of reporting that’s not Q&A and shoving a microphone in someone’s face. It’s asking for permission to come into their lives and explain it to the reader.
What does that look like? It means sitting at a guy’s dining room table until midnight drinking coffee while he smokes and talking with him. It means being in his house at five in the morning when his alarm goes off and he marches off to the factory to pulverize chicken bones, which is what he did for seven dollars an hour. I tried to get at the sentiment of, what does it feel like to be on the receiving end of this massive immigration? And it turned out to be a portrait of his anxieties. But he didn’t have rancor toward the newcomers, he just was in awe of their ability to work—to outwork him.
I came back to the Post and I wrote this story and it published. And one of the grizzled old Washington veterans came up to me and said, “Well, that’s great, but when are you going to get up to the Hill and cover real journalism?”
And I said, “I thought I was.”
You know, there are two kinds of journalism. There’s journalism that is very important and holds the government accountable and holds powerful institutions accountable for what they’re doing. But there’s the other side of it, and that is writing about the little guy who is on the receiving end of this vise and is being neglected and forgotten. That’s the kind of journalism that I tend to do, and that’s the telescope I look through when I’m out reporting stories.
What does it feel like to be a woman in Hurricane Katrina in chest-deep waters carrying your child on your shoulders? What does it feel like to be a gay teenager in Newark, from these trash-blown and violent streets, and to watch your best friend get stabbed to death? To know that white America marched down Park Avenue for Matthew Shephard, but no one did anything for your friend Sakia Gunn, who was murdered.
These stories aren’t found in documents or in phone interviews or in Google searches. They are only accessible by taking leave of our world for somebody else’s world. In the 1930s, James Agee and Walker Evans did this very sort of journalism when they went down to Alabama in the post-Depression years to write about the poverty of sharecroppers. They lived with some families for a few weeks and came back to New York and wrote their stories. And you read this book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and it is the lasting document of that episode in our country’s history.
You can feel the worker hungry. You can feel the sweat coming off his forehead. You can see the threadbare clothes. I would say that that sort of rendering only is possible when you’re under someone’s roof and watching them go through the motions. There is no replacement for that sort of reporting. And there’s a lot of James Agees still around doing this, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer, replaced by this caffeinated society of bloggers and Twitterers who are filing dispatches from a TMobile spot at Starbucks.
It’s a different sort of reporting, and that’s what I’m here to make a bit of a case for.
We’re all in peril of this. I was in West Virginia last year writing a story about a wounded Iraq veteran and his wife who had not been given any medical disability benefits for the soldier’s injury. They already had one car repossessed, they were about to get their house taken over, so the government was failing on its promise to care for wounded soldiers.
So I’m in their house, they’re talking, it’s a very desperate situation. And during the course of the day, I actually checked my Blackberry in front of them. I can’t tell you. That’s a new personal low. Because the minute you do something like that, you’re saying that, “My life is more interesting than your life.” You can never do that in front of somebody. It’s this pull of technology that’s both a beautiful thing and a very dangerous thing for reporters. I don’t need to stay that connected to the office that I can look down at my Blackberry.
There’s absolutely no substitute for being there and experiencing something. The hope is that this felt experience of what the subject is feeling is what emerges in the story, and the facts of it will be unassailable, because you were there and you were an eyewitness.
Some years ago I wanted to write about the U.S. Department of Labor’s government guest-workers program. It’s called the H2B program, and it allows workers from foreign countries, mostly Mexico, to come in and work for three to four to five months on a temporary basis. So these are people who are maids in hotels in South Carolina, they trim the golf courses in Michigan, and in North Carolina they happen to be coming in by the thousands to do work in the seafood processing houses. This is work traditionally done by African-American women for the last century.
So I wanted to document this season of labor, and I found a crab house owner—these are crab houses that pick the meat from the crab. It’s the most primitive, prehistoric sort of labor I’ve ever seen—and I found a crab house owner who was willing to let me come in and watch this, which is very rare. I probably had to go through a dozen people before I got the “yes.”
So, to write this story I went to Mexico, where his labor force came from. The owner brought in 22 Mexican girls and women, 17 to 25, for a season of labor. They lived in the central highlands of Mexico, so I went to Mexico and I waited in this village while the women prepared to go for their season of labor. Part of this story is the tremendous hardship it is just to get to America, to North Carolina, for the job. We caught a pigs-and-chickens bus, as they call it, from the mountain town down into the bus depot, another bus, another bus. It was a series of buses. So we were up for four days, and we finally go to North Carolina at the end of the fourth day. You are tired after not sleeping for four days. You are shaky. You are sick to your stomach from not sleeping. But I can’t imagine trying to say what that experience was like without actually having done it with the women.
So we arrive at midnight. No one’s bathed, we’re tired, and the manager of the crab house has picked us up at the bus depot and she brought us to our little, not quite a trailer—it was a trailer added on to a house. That’s where we were going to live for the season. No one had slept for four days and she says, in English, and they don’t speak English, “Good night ladies. See you in four hours.” So we were being picked up for the first day on the job in four hours.
Lo and behold she comes back to pick us up. She toots the horn, and we are just catatonic. We’re exhausted beyond belief. They get to this crab processing house, many had never even seen a crab, and they walk into these bright fluorescent lights. It’s six in the morning, and there’s already two wheelbarrows full of blue crabs on this steel table. Usually you surround the table, you have a knife, and you pick the meat from the crabs. The girls didn’t know what to expect. They just knew the crabs were there and they were going to have to go through that half-ton of crabs in the next day. So the manager of the crab house holds up a stainless steel knife and a crab and says, “Knife. Crab.” And that concluded the on-the-job training. And they set to their season of labor right then and there, to pick the meat out of the crabs.
If anyone’s never held a crab in their hand to see what it feels like, it is sharp. It is barely possible to pick up. Then imagine squeezing it to use a knife to get the meat from it. That’s what they did all day long. At one table there were the young Mexican women, this new labor force, and at this other table, there were seven African-American women, all in their 80s. That showed the generational switch of this labor force.
How do you stay out of the way and report something like that? What I tend to do is try and hang back. I don’t ask many questions at first, I just try to observe. I can never feel what they’re feeling—their feet are going numb, they’re standing on hard concrete, their hair and face is flecked with bits of crab guts, they do this for eight hours. How do you show respect to someone like that? What I try and do—and as trivial as this sounds—you never sit down in front of someone like that. You never even bend your knees, because to do that would be so disrespectful of what they’re going through. You find little ways to sort of watch them without being intrusive but also without reminding them that you are a privileged reporter just parachuting in to do a story. Which, ultimately, is what I am.
I did try and pick up a crab when they weren’t looking, because I didn’t want to do it in front of them, and I tried to work the meat from a crab. And it was impossible. You have to at least experience a little bit of what they’re doing. And I couldn’t do it. I literally couldn’t do it.
This act of trying to observe the lives of others is fraught with problems, the first of which is trying to explain what you’re doing. How do you tell this group of girls that you want to watch them go through a season of labor?
Once, we were at the Mexican border on our way into the crab house, into the United States, and they were lost and all the bus signs were in English. We were at a massive bus depot in Laredo, Texas. They looked at me to tell them which bus, and I just kind of slunk back in the shadows. It’s not my job to tell them. It’s their job to figure it out, which explains how faulty this guest-worker program is—that there are no chaperones or guides to help them get through. They were horribly angry at me, and I couldn’t even apologize because of the language difference.
You can’t rationalize that sort of cruelty, which in their eyes is nothing short of cruelty. They didn’t speak to me for a good six hours. But the only way you can show good faith is trying to demonstrate that you care enough about the story to follow them every step of the way. I can’t tell them how to get on the right bus, but I can keep showing up and watching them do what they do, and eventually they do understand that I’m there to go mile for mile with them. That’s the best I can do—just hang in there with them.
The journalists that I’ve always admired are like documentary photographers. They observe more than they speak, they become invisible, they find ways to recede into the corners of the room so that the stage is wholly occupied by the subjects.
In Newark a couple of years ago when I was doing the series on the gay teenagers, I was hanging out with a group of teenagers doing everything: we lived at Burger King, we lived at school, we went to church, we went to basketball games, spent a lot of time riding city buses, because that’s exactly what they did. A lot of time walking through snow, a lot of breakfasts of corn chips and grape soda from the corner store, walking through the metal detectors of their high school, which is the most violent and poor high school in Newark. Violence and poverty ruled their lives, and the only hope at understanding this was to hang out with them as much as possible.
I happened to focus on a 17-year-old named Felicia Holt. Felicia’s friend Sakia Gunn had been stabbed to death at a bus depot in Newark for turning down a man’s come-on. Sakia said, “No thanks, I’m gay,” and Sakia was stabbed to death. I ended up hanging out with Sakia’s friends to write about what their lives felt like, largely ignored by white gay America, never mind white America. So it was just doing a lot of going where they are, hanging out where they are. And one night, Felicia and her friends decided to go to this teenage nightclub called the Globe. We walked toward it, and Missy Elliott is just vibrating from inside the bar, and they all took off their puffy jackets and threw their jackets in the corner, and someone suspiciously came up to Felicia and said, “Who’s that?” And Felicia said, “That’s nobody. That’s Anne.”
That’s like, YES! That’s what you want. You want to be nobody. You don’t want to be a reporter. My god, you certainly don’t want to be a Washington Post reporter. You just want to sort of be invisible as best you can. This kind of journalism demands a nobody status. You don’t want to be somebody. You want to just blend in, and just try and honestly observe.
In lots of situations it’s impossible to be invisible. We cover events with our press badges and our cameras roped around our necks and it screams out that we’re journalists. Everyone knows who we are and why we’re there. But sometimes even this is a tricky role.
Ted Jackson is a photographer at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and he wrote a very candid description of what it felt like to cover Hurricane Katrina, trying to balance helping with documenting.
Ted was out in the storm when the levees broke, so he was there when the waters were at their highest that Monday morning in New Orleans. He was in the lower ninth ward and he came upon a family who was clinging to the eaves of their roof, which meant the rest of the house was underwater. The water was up that high. There was a child and several women, and Ted only had his cameras. He didn’t have a raft, he didn’t have a boat, no lifeline. One of the mothers tried using a floating log to push the little girl toward Ted, but the current was too swift. It never would have worked. There was no way that Ted could have helped this family.
So he lifts his camera to take the shot, and an elderly gentleman who was right there said, “What are you doing? Put that camera down. Stop taking that picture.” Ted kept taking the pictures, and he said, “This isn’t the time to rationalize, sir, but I’ve got a job to do. The world has to see this. One day we’ll have coffee, you’ll understand.” And the old guy said, “I will never have coffee with the likes of you.”
Ted went back to the paper. He developed the photos. He eventually got a boat, and he went back to see if this family was there. And they were not there. So he went on about his coverage. He worked for three days. He ended up at the convention center. The convention center during Katrina was tens of thousands of hungry, hot, scared, and even dying people, with not an evacuation bus in sight. The evacuation buses got in to take the hotel guests from New Orleans, but they didn’t take the residents who were seeking harbor at the convention center. It was something out of a third-world country. It would be a scene that foreign correspondents are accustomed to seeing, but journalists in this country weren’t—thousands of people outside the convention center and inside the convention center.
Ted came upon a woman named Angela Perkins, and Angela Perkins grabbed his arm. She showed him the dead bodies in the median. She dropped to her knees and clasped her hands in prayer and said, “Help us, please.” So Ted and the other photographer circled her and were just shooting furiously. Later, he said, he came to understand that Angela wasn’t praying to God. “She was praying to the world through our lenses,” Ted said.
That image made the front page of newspapers around the world—Angela Perkins on her knees—and it showed, in one frame it conveyed, the tragedy and abandonment of all of New Orleans.
I called Ted this morning to make sure I got the details of that story right. You don’t want to get any detail wrong because it’s so sensitive. And he said, “Yeah, you’ve got it right. But could you please mention that the original family stranded in the water made it to safety?” Which shows how this has haunted him. It’s impossible to let go of some of those things you see and some of those decisions, right or wrong, that you make in a snap moment.
When to be visible or when to be invisible? When to document and when to intervene? What serves a single individual versus a larger conscience? These are questions that we weigh all the time.
Sometimes a story begins in a much simpler way, like a ringing telephone.
My colleague at the Washington Post, Dana Priest, was at her desk one morning when the telephone rang. Dana had just come off of two years of covering renditions in the secret prisons that the United States used to house and sometimes torture terrorism suspects. She’d broken that story, and she had lived with ghosts for two years. There were no humans, it was only slips of papers and whispers. It was vapors, and she made a story out of it and came to show what the government was doing.
This was a completely different story, in that the phone rang and someone called and said, “Things are not great at Walter Reed. Soldiers are not being treated well. They are going without underwear, they are getting their Purple Heart ceremonies without proper clothing. They are living in barracks that are just substandard.” Dana likes to say it was a tip too good to check out, meaning this couldn’t be true. This was Walter Reed, the gold standard of Army care. For years we had written about this place. We had written glowing reports about the care that the soldiers received there, in part because the Army protocol was to always escort reporters onto the post after permissions were granted. So they had framed the story for us, and no one sort of pushed out farther to see what was really happening there.
Dana’s a dogged reporter. She is Dana Priest. She’s a rock star in the investigative world, but she checked out the tip. She interviewed a couple of people, and we decided to team up together and that the only way to get that story was to go inside the gates of Walter Reed. There was no document, no paperwork, nothing that you could call up on the computer or have someone hand you. We had to do old-fashioned reporting, as they call it (I think is kind of funny that they call that old-fashioned reporting). But we had to get inside the gates of Walter Reed, and we had to do it without the army’s permission. They would never have given permission. And we had to also do it without the Army’s knowledge.
So we spent three months behind the gates of Walter Reed observing what was going on. Our first night there together—because we went in separately at first for two reasons: one, so we could double the work, and, two, so if one got caught the other wouldn’t be caught. And we went to this place called the Mologne House. There’s Walter Reed Hospital, where the patients are treated, but then there’s the outpatient group. In the hospital, at any one time, there are probably 20 to 30 patients—soldiers who’ve been wounded who are recovering in the hospital. The outpatient population was at 900 when we started reporting our story. That’s where most of the soldiers were, and nobody looked at this outpatient society, because nobody knew it existed.
So the first thing we did was go to this place called the Mologne House. The Mologne House is like a Ramada Inn hotel on the Army post. It has oriental carpets and a big chandelier. This is where generals, prior to the war, would go and recover from hip replacement surgery at Walter Reed. They would go check in at the Mologne House for a couple of days. We went there, and all 300 rooms were occupied by wounded soldiers and their spouses, who had come to help care for them. And there’s a bar at the Mologne House. Like any hotel, there’s a bar. But unlike other hotel guests, these guests were on massive amounts of painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants. And they were drinking every night. There was no social worker in this place, but there was a cash bar open four hours a night.
That first night was just incredible to us. We didn’t take any notes, we just kind of took in this scene. And it was not the Walter Reed that the President had shown us or generals had shown us . We ourselves had perpetuated the golden image. And so we just watched, and we continued this reporting until we met families it was safe to approach. We would listen to them if they were explaining some troubles they were going through. That’s how we would approach someone—not in a public space—and ask if they were comfortable talking. We never misidentified ourselves once we did that; we always announced ourselves as Washington Post reporters, and this is our name—we could never lie, did everything ethically. And that’s how we came to get the inside stories, by burrowing in, embedding, with some of these families who were stuck at Walter Reed.
We began to review our own coverage of Walter Reed. We always see the amputee ceremonies. The amputee care at Walter Reed is phenomenal, but that’s only a small percentage of the wounded coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The invisible injuries are post-traumatic stress disorder and head injuries, and that accounts for at least a fourth of the casualties, of the wounds. These guys and females were getting really terrible care. They were on the lowest priority. You had soldiers gravely disturbed by this combat stress not getting the therapy they needed. We learned that one soldier went to his so-called therapy at Walter Reed, at the hospital, for post-traumatic stress disorder, and that therapy consisted of watching The Devil Wears Prada on DVD. The Army was not prepared to deal with the mental problems that came because of the sustained and repeated deployment to Iraq.
We watched soldiers have to get up at six in the morning—they’re wounded soldiers on heavy medication and they were forced to attend morning formation. The Army believed that would keep the soldier mentality alive. Imagine having a limb missing, or being groggy from painkillers, having to pull on your uniform in the winter cold, by yourself, hobbling on an icy sidewalk to get to formation. That’s the kind of daily annoyances and heartbreak that they lived with. And that’s the kind of stuff we documented. And we could only do it by watching them do it. They didn’t tell us they did this, we watched them do it. We did that by spending the nights there, and by spending as much time as possible seeing everything unfold with our own eyes.
We needed to do that for a couple of reasons. One: were these random anecdotes told by a few disgruntled soldiers? Or was this a systemic pattern that was across the entire base? Obviously, we needed to see it with our own eyes so we could tell the reader it was absolutely true, because we knew the government would deny it.
This is how we met Staff Sergeant Dan Shannon. He was a sniper in Iraq who had been shot in the head and he lost an eye. When Dan was discharged from the hospital, he was given a map and told to report to the Mologne House. This is a guy who could find a blade of grass in a desert. He’s a sniper. He knows navigation. But here he is, altered on pain meds and given a map and told to report across post. He literally slid along the buildings trying to find his way. He didn’t have a chaperone or escort or anything, and that’s how he reported to the Mologne House.
We met Dell and Annette McLeod. They were kind of a new face in this war. Dell was 39 and a National Guard member from South Carolina. This war is being fought by a lot older soldiers, and Dell had left his job at a textile mill in South Carolina to go off and serve. He got hit in the head by a steel cargo door in Iraq, and so he came back with a head injury, and the Army refused to say he was suffering from a head injury. The Army said that he had just been a slow learner all his life and he didn’t have cognitive problems. And it took his pit bull of a wife, named Annette McLeod, to come up and fight on his behalf. And every time they said, “Dell’s just slow, he doesn’t deserve the retirement benefits he should get,” she says, “Well y’all took him, didn’t ya?”
And I’ll never forget those words. It took a lot of courage for these soldiers and their spouses to speak out, because they could of risked everything. They risked their reputations, they would have risked getting low disability ratings—it’s a very political system. They had had enough. They had complained to the commanding general at Walter Reed for years, two years. Nothing happened. So we were their last resort. I would say that if we would have met those soldiers three years earlier, we would not have had so many being willing to talk to us. But we kind of met them at a boiling point, and they were ready to talk.
We tried to avoid all politics. We didn’t want to say whether the war is right or whether the war is wrong. We just tried to focus on the broken promises made to these soldiers.
The stories published and they accomplished this rare feat in journalism: impact. Congress acted. The Secretary of Defense acted. And the country was outraged. We received thousands and thousands of e-mails, and the Washington Post literally became the hotline for all soldiers with problems, and it remains that way to this day.
But the Walter Reed stories were old-school. Lots of burning shoe leather and simply being there. It took us four months to do the stories. And that’s two reporters, so that means eight months of a reporter’s time. A few years ago, that wouldn’t have been much. Today that would be a lot.
There simply isn’t the time to let reporters go out and chase a tip down. Not every tip is correct. It takes time to see if something is true. And then it takes time to report the story. Who will be left in our newsrooms to make sure the head of the teacher’s union is not lining her closet with fur coats? Who will spend the night in Dell and Annette McLeod’s room as we did, watching Annette give Dell his 19 pills a night before bedtime? Who’ll be left to do this sort of reporting? Most importantly—and it’s a job no one’s doing right now—is looking into how the Department of Defense is spending the money Congress gave it to fix the problems.
By now, rants like this one are so familiar in journalism that they’re sort of become a soundtrack to our funeral. I see only one way out, and that’s you, the reader, the viewer, whatever you might call yourselves. If you demand a certain kind of journalism, it will survive. Demand to be informed in complicated and subtle ways. Demand stories that attempt to get at the heart of something instead of nibbling around the edges. If there’s a market and a hunger for this sort of reporting, it will survive.
I want to put a plug in for my employer, the Washington Post, which Mrs. Graham stood behind and then passed it on to her son Don. Now her granddaughter Katharine [Weymouth] runs the paper, owns the paper. They have promised a commitment to this sort of journalism. But we’re all very frightened right now that the investment in this kind of reporting won’t be there. It’s much easier to have someone in the office blogging and riffing and doing analysis and editorial. It’s much more expensive and time-consuming to send a couple of reporters out on the road or up to Walter Reed for four months to find out what’s going on.
Last week, I had the privilege of reporting out in the country for six days. Living at a Holiday Inn Express might not sound like a privilege to you, but in this day and age, when there’s such a premium on speed and churn, it is a piece of fortune to be out in the country with a rental car and a bunch of notebooks and talking to people and finding out what’s going on. I had two pit bulls chase me Sunday—that’s how it goes out there.
My own courage compared to that of Lovejoy’s is nothing. But if there’s anything I can promise to keep doing, it’s to go out with the empty notebooks and to try and document what’s going on in the country—and I promise to do it even as the ground shifts beneath the newspapers.