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Friday, April 28, 2006

Bringing you the sea

Because it's poetry month ... and Friday...

The Poet's Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell:
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn's castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying, "How can I reach the sea?"
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and of quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of sea-birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.

~ Pablo Neruda ~

(translated by Alistair Reed, in On The Blue Shore of Silence)

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Blogger sued in U.S. District Court

This release is just in from Media Bloggers Association:

Phone Sex Line Ad Embarrasses State of Maine Contractor

Lance Dutson, a tech blogger who publishes the Maine Web Report
( was served Saturday with a lawsuit filed in the U.S.
District Court in Maine. The lawsuit, filed by attorneys for Warren Kremer
Paino Advertising, LLC seeks damages based on allegations of copyright
infringement and defamation for reporting and commentary written and
published by Dutson on his blog. Warren Kremer Paino Advertising is a New
York-based advertising agency hired by the State of Maine Tourism Board to
promote Maine as a tourism destination.

Most of the financial damages claimed in the lawsuit center on Dutson
publishing a sample advertisement contained in a presentation prepared by
Warren Kremer Paino for the 2006 Governor’s Conference. The presentation,
still publicly available on the State of Maine web site, included an ad
promoting a number, 1-800-MAINE24, which directs callers to a phone sex
line. The lawsuit asserts that Dutson’s publication of this advertisement is
a violation of their copyright and seeks $150,000 per instance of use.

Dutson has been highly critical of the Maine Tourism Board and Warren Kremer
Paino Adverting for what Dutson believes to be a web-based advertising
campaign that hurts Maine businesses by driving up the cost of local
“keyword” advertising on sites such as Google.

Dutson is a member of the Media Bloggers Association which provides “first
line” legal defense to member bloggers. Greg Herbert of the Greenberg
Traurig Law Firm is acting as lead counsel and providing his services on a
pro bono basis. The Media Bloggers Association, through MBA General Counsel
Ronald Coleman of The Coleman Law Firm, is acting as co-counsel.

“This case is nothing more than an attempt by a deep-pocketed litigant to
bully a blogger for criticizing state officials and state contractors"”,
said Robert Cox, President of the Media Bloggers Association. “We have
successfully defended MBA members in nine previous cases and I don’t expect
the outcome here to be any different.”

Dutson has vowed to fight the lawsuit.

“The idea that criticism of the state government can be defamatory is
absurd”, said Dutson, "This attempt to bludgeon critics of the state
government is not going to work."

Through its legal defense initiative, the MBA provides member bloggers with
"first line" legal defense, pro bono advice on how best to respond to legal
threats related to the member's blog.

"Bloggers don't usually have an in-house legal department or high priced
outside First Amendment counsel, but they're at least as likely to need one
as any MSM outlet. That's where we come in," said Coleman.

"Many of these cases, where a large corporation sues an individual for
criticism over the Internet, appear to be motivated, primarily, by an
attempt to silence legitimate criticism and suppress speech” said Herbert.


The Media Bloggers Association, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to
promoting, protecting and educating its member bloggers and citizen
journalists is the largest association of bloggers in the world. Members
include many of the most well-known and widely read bloggers. The MBA is
dedicated to supporting the development of "blogging" or "citizen
journalism" as a distinct form of media; and helping to extend the power of
the press, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, to every

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Transparency in the news

What does transparency in news coverage mean to you? It’s a prickly word in today’s newsrooms and Scott M. Libin, of The Poynter Institute just explained why.

In his piece, Trying Transparency he writes how he associated transparency with thinness, shallowness, not something to which most journalists aspire. But he has since been converted. He describes transparency in the reporting process as viewing the inner workings of a clock. It’s about process and timing and placement and context. And all of these things help readers better understand news coverage.

It’s a common assumption of news folks to think they don’t have to explain how or why they cover news. They are the experts and they dictate what is news. I’ve heard reporters suggest that they should do away with focus groups or reader surveys because readers aren’t in a position to know what they don’t know. Somehow reporters are?

That’s one of the biggest fallacies of the modern traditional media. Believing we know what readers should know is arrogant at best and borderline negligent.

Sure reporters have a feel for their beat that the average Joe or Jane lacks; and certainly editors develop a finely tuned sense of discernment when it comes to news decisions. But they don’t — and can’t — know it all.

Journalism is a participatory sport. The reporter may be running with the ball (story), but that toss came from a quarterback (concerned citizen/government official/cop) with a play (tip). And then there are the fellow players (copyeditors and mid—level editors) on the field who help to shape and finesse the run (reporting). Meanwhile the referee (editor) makes the call as to where the ball (story) gets placed. In the end the fans (readers) will either cheer or boo the efforts.

But make no mistake; they have a stake in the game.

Libin includes this example about the need for transparency:

In 2003, Joel Sappell was the Los Angeles Times senior entertainment editor, overseeing coverage of the business of Hollywood. Sappell also held the title of deputy business editor. He edited the newspaper's investigation of allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a candidate for governor, had a history of groping women. The investigative team was ready to publish just days before the election -- which raised a host of new concerns about a story that was already complicated enough.

"The old model was, you don’t drop any bombshells on the eve of the election," says Sappell. Now assistant managing editor of the Times and executive editor of, Sappell is also a 2006 Poynter Ethics Fellow. He says California’s 2003 special election did not operate on a traditional timeline. So, "because of the compressed amount of time, we decided to run it," Sappell told me. "We knew it would be controversial."
They were right.

"In hindsight, because of all the questions we knew would arise… I think we underestimated the backlash," Sappell believes now. "I think we should have had an editor’s note that explained the timing, explaining why we broke with journalistic conventions in not breaking big stories on the eve of elections, and our methodology."

At the time, Sappell says he and his fellow editors felt the work should speak for itself, and that editor's notes could seem defensive and apologetic. Sappell says now he's changed his mind.

"I am a complete convert… I've come to believe a lot in explaining to readers our process," he told me. "I am a true believer in providing context for our large undertakings."

(Bold is mine.)

There’s so much that readers don’t know about the decision-making process in newsrooms. So maybe there are those who don’t want to see the sausage being made. That’s fine, but recognize that certain stories require more transparency. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the Podunk Gazette or the Washington Post. The public is highly cynical about our work, our ethics, our motive and our process. Maybe that's unfair, but it's reality. Mainstream journalism cannot afford to keep making the assumption that its work “speaks for itself.”

Tuesday tidbit: Blogger vs. MSM part 57

An interesting tidbit from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits:

Last Thursday, the mega-popular videoblog Rocketboom featured an interview with the prickly genius who played a key role in developing many popular new-media tools (such as feeds, OPML and podcasting), Dave Winer.

Here's my (Amy Gahran) favorite quote, and I love it because it's so controversial: "Amateur is not below professional. It's just another way of doing [media]. The root of the word amateur is love, and someone who does something for love is an amateur. Someone who does something to pay the bills is a professional. The amateurs have [more integrity than] the professionals. If you're an amateur you have less conflict of interest and less reason not to tell your truth than if you have to pay the bills and please somebody else."

I’ve heard it argued by members of the MSM that bloggers are amateurs and that passion doesn’t equal integrity. My argument has been the opposite, that it is precisely the passion and the labor of love that leads bloggers to doggedly pursue and research information.

This isn’t the case for all bloggers, but I think many are transparent about their motives for pursuing information. And doesn’t that in itself suggest integrity and transparency in the process? At its best, I think this approach is a fine complement to traditional news coverage. I will continue to argue that the news-consuming public will be best served when the two camps work together to provide the greatest level of coverage.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The news I missed

A disadvantage to being purposefully unplugged is that you do miss out on a few things. I did not read one newspaper, watch a lick of television. log on to any Web site, answer any e-mail or read anything other than the books I brought with me.

It was necessary for the full benefit of decompression. But I did miss the Pulitzer (and let's please remember is Pull-itzer not Puhl-itzer) Prizes. I'm not surprised by many of the winners.

Dana Priest did some amazing reporting for the Washington Post, though I'm a bit edgy about the prolific use of unnamed sources in her piece on black sites in Europe.

HUGE kudos to the folks in Biloxi and New Orleans for the public service and deadline reporting under extaordinary circumstances.

I was disappointed, however, to see that Chris Rose of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (the best newspaper name in the country) didn't win for commentary. Nothing against Nicholas Kristof, but he's just so east coast and it would have been nice to follow up a Midwest win with someone from the south. Rose's columns in Katrina's aftermath were pure poetry. So maybe they didn't call much-needed attention to genocide in Darfur, but they sure did convey the humanity, the grace and the tremendous need of the people of New Orleans.

Here's a recent gem about enjoying the Mighty Mississippi River with his kids and dog.

Here's an excerpt:

People from out of town ask me since The Thing: Do you think New Orleans will survive?

I tell them: America has no choice.

Sometimes when I say that, I feel like Luna Biscuit howling at the moon. I am haunted by mortality issues like never before.

Sometimes I look at the river while my kids are off on their nature walks and I ask it: Will you kill us one day? Is that your plan?

I get no answer I can brook. The river, it just runs by silent and mischievous, in swirls and eddies that I swear sometimes look like the devil's smile, and seems to whisper to me: That is for you to find out, my friend.

Only time will tell.

Congrats to all. In the next months and year of Pulitzer madness may you be able to tap unreservedly that which has made you exceptional this year.

Blast rocks Egyptian spring break

This is just coming in from one of the travel news blasts I regularly receive.

As of press time, over 22 people were reported dead and more than 150 injured Unconfirmed sources talked about more than 100 casualties following the third in a series of bombing incidents near Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.

Three bombs exploded at a marketplace in a quiet, tourist town of Dahab, about 1 1/2 hours by road from Sharm on the eastern Sinai Peninsula. Though it is still too early to confirm numbers impacted by the blasts, Dahab is reporting this period is a busy season. It is indeed high season on their tourism calendar.
People were celebrating Sham el Nessim

Three explosions rocked Dahab in an al Qaeda-type modus operandum. At this time, authorities cannot say who is responsible. But Bedouins related to the last blast in Naama Bay in downtown Sharm el Sheik were. Their act of violence killed over 80 mostly, local Egyptians working in hotels. Smoke coming from the market place has been reported.

Many tourists on spring break are in Dahab. Most are from Europe; a lot from Russia who are celebrating their Orthodox Easter.

Sham El-Nessim signifies the arrival of Spring -- an Egyptian tradition practiced since the days of the Pharaohs.

The Hoke Clan

The Hoke clan on the beach -- and this isn't even everyone. One family staying at another place missed the group photo before sunset.

The older brothers Hoke. Actually, they are not all brothers. From left to right they are:
Brian (first cousin but might as well be brother / aka Bob)
Danny (my hubby, aka Stupe, Tahz and "that mean scary guy in my pool," according to Little Lucy Hoke (age 2-1/2)
Jack (in the backround hiding his wet clothes because he was fishing / aka Big Daddy, Lanky (he's 6'4")
Jimmy (the favorite uncle among all the kids, known for very loud outbursts and one-liners and father of seven ages 17 to Lucy)
Tom (the oldest brother present in the absence of Michael / aka Tiny)
Chris Schmidt (niece Kelly's fiance and virtual member of the family because they've been dating for 10 years / aka Schmidthead)

I just love this photo. This is Clare and Moira — cousins, not sisters. They are as sweet as punch and were fascinating to watch.

Now these guys were so fun. We're even missing a couple — someone grabbed Mikey by the sunburn shoulders so he was in no mood for the photo. Cousins Ted (14) and Jacob (11) weren't there. When it's time for an outing, I got to take boys to the Nike Outlet.
Pictured in front are:
Christopher (11)
Patrick (11)
Mark (11)
Kevin (12)
And in back are:
Matthew (15)
Ryan (13)

Room with a view

Feeling utterly refreshed after a week at the Adagio (or “Ahdahhsheo” as my brother-in-law, Jack called it). The map said we were on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but honestly it felt far more exotic than Florida.

I spotted it on the bend of Highway 30-A — a mustard-colored stucco resort ornamented with stone parapets jutting from its exterior, and wrought-iron balconies that overlooked a lush swimming pool resplendent with two waterfalls, a fountain and lined with palm trees.

We had traveled as a caravan of five cars. For the last hour, we switched kids and Danny and I drove with nieces, Molly and Erin. (It’s quite a different thing to drive with girls.)

“We’re staying here!” the kids yelled jumping out of the cars. Just at the moment of arrival, little Mikey jumped out of my niece Kelly’s car with a blond wig and sunglasses on. He threw his arms in the air and yelled, “Woooo!” at the top of his lungs, essentially setting the tone as comic relief for the remainder of the trip.

As we unlocked the door to our condo, Danny and I gasped. The sales agent told us the units sell for $1.5 to $2 million. And so it appeared once inside. We immediately saw glass tables and handcrafted pottery and ceramics. Barreling along behind was Mikey, with his football in tow.

“Oh no, buddy. There’s no football in here. We break one thing and there goes the $500 damage waiver.”

But it was far from stuffy. Quite the contrary, it was something out of the Pottery Barn catalog — painted black wood armoires, jute rugs, natural-colored sofas and chocolate brown round leather ottoman (which I covet). Ryan, who shares a room at home, was like a prince in a palace with his own queen bed and adjoining bathroom.

Danny and I oohed and aahed at the granite countertops, stainless appliances and ceramic tile floor in the kitchen. We’re pretty sure we were the first ones to use many of the kitchen items. I mean, the toaster had not one crumb or fingerprint.

Our master bedroom had an entry to the balcony and our own rattan chaise lounges. And then there was the master bathroom — complete with Jacuzzi tub for two and a shower with two massaging showerheads.

“I won’t want to go home to our crappy house,” I said.

We laughed at our luck at scoring such a great deal on such a beautiful place. Living would be very easy here. Sweetening the deal was the phone call Danny received on the drive down. He had been interviewing for a new job and was somewhat distraught about leaving town without hearing anything. I tried to reassure him that they wouldn’t have bothered to call his references earlier that week without planning to make an offer.

The offer came at 9:30 Friday morning somewhere north of Louisville, Kentucky. He was on cloud nine. And it only added to my news.

Beginning next Monday, I will be working part-time for the Society of Professional Journalists as a membership manager.

The executive director and I have been talking about such a position for a few months and though it’s a tad ambiguous, I’m very excited about the opportunity to build relationships through SPJ. It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing as a member and volunteer for 20 years.

My charge, as someone who "drank the Kool-Aid," is to develop strategies for member recruitment and retention. My efforts will largely be focused externally, helping chapters revive themselves and helping new chapters form. I’ll also be working on promoting SPJ to more news organizations and establishing effective communication between national headquarters and local chapters.

So this vacation was perfectly timed for relaxation and enjoyment. And it was a great opportunity for me (after 18 months of weekly book reviews and six months of intense writing projects) to enjoy reading again. I had an amazing balcony with a lovely view of the pool. Every morning I would rise at about 6:30, get my coffee and book and enjoy the relative coolness of the morning.

On the drive down I finished, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” by Stephen Greenblatt. This was a fascinating look at what influenced Shakespeare’s writing. It’s full of great writing and some wonderful details.

On the shelves of our condo was Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” so I took advantage and read it while it was so readily available. I understand that Dan Brown is a publishing phenom, but I have to say, as a writer, he just doesn’t do it for me.

I think his books begin well and transition through multiple complex plot lines, carefully revealing motives and past and connections. But my criticism of him is that in both of his highly successful novels, he takes the easy way out in the end. Both books wrap up in such a neat and tidy — and utterly unbelievable — way that I was disgusted by the ending and felt cheated as a reader.

I don’t want convenient, tidy endings. Life is not neat and tidy. It’s very messy and I relate to fiction that reflects life’s untidiness. That’s why Edith Wharton’s novels are so appealing. There is no happily ever after.

But the book that moved me was Penelope Lively’s “The Photograph.” It was the haunting, spare story of a man who discovers a photograph of his late wife holding hands with her brother-in-law at an outing which he cannot remember. Though his wife has been long dead, the archaeologist digs for answers to the photograph and the relationship.

Along the way he — and the others in the family and assorted friends — discover things about themselves that alter how they view her. But mostly it reveals how little they really knew her — how her appearance led to assumptions and how most made little effort at uncovering the substance beneath her ephemeral exterior.

So we're back — well rested, tanned and excited about new ventures.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Last week in photos

I'm pretty sure this is a gene passed down on my father's side, but I just love a road trip. Driving vacations illuminate so much about places and people and geography and history. Living in Cleveland I think we tend to forget how much of Ohio is agricultural. As I was driving down I-71 near Ashland, I snapped this photo of an Amish buggy making its way. I happened to appreciate (in lightning speed) the juxtaposition of the Interstate and the horse and buggy.

Scripps Hall, home of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. The SPJ student chapter there gave me a T-shirt that reads "You can't spell JOURNALISM without OU." Also had a chance to briefly meet Leonard Pitts, a visiting prof and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from The Miami Herald. It seems that Scripps Howard has decided to turn its financial backing (and, thus, naming rights) to the College of Communication. At least a few faculty members at the J-School are peeved because the new deal allows for no new funding for J-school programs.

Cutler Hall on the College Green at OU is the primary landmark of the university. It's home of the President's office (and dean and provost and all those important people). Honestly, I don't think I ever set foot in this building. If I did, it was probably to deliver something from the Admissions office in nearby Chubb Hall.

If you are at all familiar with OU, I needn't explain this photo. But for the unitiated, this is the famous Burrito Buggy at the corner of Court and Union streets in Athens. When I was a student you could get a Burrito Supreme for $2. At 2 a.m., nothing tasted better. I didn't have the chance to find out what they cost today. I shot this photo while at the traffic light.

Court Street is infamous. I tended bar at The Crystal. The nearby CI was always known as a upper classmen bar. And I'm sure somewhere in his T-shirt drawer (cause he never gets rid of anything), Danny still possesses a "Get High at the CI" T-shirt.

Natalie, the little drummer girl, and her mom sneaking a smooch.

The little Charlie man is scooting around this days.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Catching up

Last week was a whirlwind of driving, speaking, workshopping, babysitting, networking, researching, etc. It's too much to recall this week since I'm also preparing for vacation. We leave for Florida on Friday morning and will be gone all next week.

Here's the abridged version:

1) OU was great fun and I enjoyed meeting the SPJ students. Can't believe how many PR majors are in SPJ. I popped in on Don Pepper, proprietor of the Crystal Casino where I tended bar and he still remembers me: "Wendy Lewis," he said as I walked in. Seems he's organizing a bartender reunion for Memorial Weekend. Anyhow, his three boys I used to babysit while I was a student are now in their upper 20s. Yikes! And the bar? Well, there are some improvements such as flat-screen TVs, but that same bar smell was there and the floor had its same stickiness.

2) Some day I'll have to look into the story behind the Nelsonville Cross. The sign still reads, "A tribute to God, a memorial to Betty." Twenty years later I'm still wondering, "Who was Betty?"

3) If you ever have the chance to get into a writing workshop, give it a shot. I learned so much about writing from spending two days discussing narrative nonfiction with other KnowledgeWorks storytellers.

4) My niece Natalie drums constantly and with incredible rhythm. She was drumming a syncopated rhythm while singing the "Hokey Pokey" on her little snare drum while I was babysitting her on Friday. Little brother Charlie was yelling in the background and she was utterly undeterred.

5) Staying at my sister, Jen's house beat the pants off spending sleepless nights in hotel rooms. I always require a Tylenol PM to sleep in hotels. I hate the smell of the sheets and I get skeeved out by the bed coverings. Oy! Anyway, Jen has an incredible in-law suite that guaranteed sleep for my busy days. And this phenomenal shower with two showerheads. Aahhh...

6) Columbus is a town for dining out. We had fish and chips at O'Shaughnessy's Public House in the Arena District and Greek at the Happy Greek in the Short North. On Friday I drove around while charging my cell phone and popped in for some wild blueberry and lavender ice cream at the Short North Market. Yum!

7) There is no more boring drive than that 90-minute stretch down I-71 from Columbus to Cincinnati.

8) Just how fast do you have to drive to get stopped for speeding on 71? Best not to think too much of that. Wouldn't want to press my luck. Let's just say that cruise control was set at 80 mph.

9) Enjoyed speaking to a lively group of freelancers, moonlighters and wanna-be freelancers at the SPJ Region 4 Convention. I'm sorry I couldn't stick around longer, but after five days away, I was ready to head home.

10) Cleveland, despite my frustration with its inability to progress to my timetable, is still and always will be...home.

Bloggers going mainstream

News from Wired yesterday tells about >Blog Burst a new service in which mainstream newspapers are subscribing to blogger content for commentary on specific areas, such as travel, parenting, tech, etc.

Here's a teaser from the Wired story:

A syndication service that delivers commentary from 600 bloggers for use by newspaper publishers is set to launch on Tuesday, further blurring the lines that divide blogs and mainstream media.

BlogBurst, as the service from blog technology company Pluck Corp. is known, includes headlines and articles for use by newspaper publishers in the news or feature sections of their online services, as well as print editions.

Pluck initially has signed up Gannett Co., Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman and San Antonio Express. Eventually, the Austin, Texas-based company will offer BlogBurst editorial materials to niche business and overseas publications.

Newspapers are looking to BlogBurst to provide expert blog commentary on travel, women's issues, technology, food, entertainment and local stories, areas where publishers may not have dedicated staff, said Pluck's chief executive, Dave Panos.

In return, a select group of popular bloggers are offered wider distribution for their writings, he said. The online syndicate drives traffic to blog sites, allowing featured bloggers to make money from resulting online advertising fees.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Back to my old school

Wow! OU has changed and yet it's still much as I remember. E.W. Scripps Hall, where I sit writing in the J-school library, used to be on the outer edges of the campus. But it's now going to be the center of action as the new Baker Center Student Union is completed just down the hill.

The drive on U.S. 33 is much the same as it always was -- my favorite one-tree hill is still visible (the U2 song by the same name was hugely popular in 1986), Dee's Diner is still in business. The Trade Post in Nelsonville is having a special on 9mm pistols and the trailer that Danny and I used to joke would be our first home is still falling apart up in the woods.

Athens still has the same overall skyline as you descend down that last hill into the valley. Has it really been 17 years? Seems hard to imagine. And yet...

Had a brief moment of panic before I left this morning, wondering where to park. We never had cars here; the campus wasn't conducive to keeping one. So I headed for the city parking garage next to the College of Communication, the only one I remember.

Everything seems smaller to me. The College Green used to always seem so vast -- tundra-like in winter -- but it was a lovely little stroll. And of course the weather couldn't be more beautiful. It's the second week of spring quarter, which is an absolutely lovely time in Southeast Ohio. The dogwoods are just beginning to bloom and the spring green grass is vivid in its emerald richness.

The students look the same as they did when I was here. J-students are still as serious as ever as they slouch along the hallways, reading the OU Post. And the Post itself looks more elegant, more sophisticated. Today's lead story: "Grads face thriving job market," by Michelle Simakis (wonder if she's any relation to PD reporter Andrea Simakis).

Big news this week is the Blogging Conference. Keynote speaker is Dan Gillmor, author of "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People." And tomorrow is Pulitzer Day. Visiting professor Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist from The Miami Herald, will be on a panel with PD's PP-WC Connie Schultz. And Tom Suddes, former PD statehouse bureau chief and (according to the flyer) Ph.D. candidate at Scripps, will moderate.

Lot's happening. I'm trying to remember if we had access to such folks when I was here. I think not, but I could be wrong. Dr. Anne Cooper-Chen, who taught foreign correspondence when I was a student, told me over lunch that the visiting professorship is fairly new and began with former hostage Terry Anderson. Though he no longers teaches here, I'm told he owns the best blues bar in Athens.

Better go feed the meter. And I need to stop in the bookstore to by assorted sundries for the boys.

Monday, April 03, 2006

OU blogging conference

I begin my weeklong Ohio tour tomorrow morning beginning with a day at Ohio University, but how cool is this?

Hat tip to Jill Z for sending it along at this late hour. My schedule is fairly loose on Friday, so I may have to swing back down to Athens to catch a little of the action. At least I'll try to get some info out of the organizers while I'm hanging around the J-School tomorrow.

Stay tuned for more news from the road!

The John Allen Jr. interview

Following is the full content of my e-mail interview with John Allen Jr. A portion of this interview appears in this month's Quill magazine.

TEN: Quill poses 10 questions to people with some of the coolest jobs in journalism

John Allen, Jr., Vatican correspondent, National Catholic Reporter

One year ago this month, Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr. was a staple on CNN, covering the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. From his home in Rome he talked about how his career path led him to journalism.

Q: What role did religion have in your childhood? Were you educated in
Catholic schools?

"I was brought up as a Catholic and educated largely in schools run by the Capuchin Franciscans until I went to college. To be honest, however, I was not an especially pious child. Indeed, I spent much of my childhood rebelling against pretty much whatever was on offer, with religion usually taking pride of place. I remember once arguing with my freshman religion teacher that our catechism class should actually be called “indoctrination”! Looking back, I can say that my teachers showed heroic patience. Once, when I was expressing doubts about Christianity to a senior religion teacher, he handed me a thick book on theology, Hans Küng’s On Being A Christian, and suggested that I read it. When I think about it, he was paying me an enormous compliment, because he honestly believed that at the age of 17, I was capable of reading and digesting such complex material. (I wasn’t, but his confidence left an impression). I suppose the point is that these experiences sowed seeds that would later flower in a genuine interest in religion, even if there was precious little evidence of it at the time.

"One defect of that experience, however, is that my religious education, which spanned roughly the period from 1970 to 1983 (first grade through high school), was heavily influenced by the post-Vatican II euphoria in the Catholic Church, so that I received large doses of social concern and compassion, but relatively little in the way of solid content about the Catholic faith. Hence I spent much of my young adult years rebelling against something that I really didn’t understand. Most of the doctrinal, liturgical and canonical knowledge I have is essentially self-taught. I suppose this gives me a certain degree of understanding for debates in the Church today about catechesis, meaning passing on the faith."

Q: Tell us about your career path? Did you set out to cover religion or was
it accidental?

"I never set out to be a journalist, let alone to cover religion. In 1992, I had just finished a master’s degree at the University of Kansas in religious studies, with a concentration in New Testament and early Christian literature. I went to the Claremont Graduate School in Los Angeles with the idea of earning a doctorate and going on to a career in teaching and scholarly publishing. My wife, who had just finished her undergraduate degree, was going to work while I studied, and then we would flip-flop. She, however, was unable to find a good job, so I decided to take a “part-time” position teaching religion at a Catholic high school. This school also needed someone to advise the student newspaper, and despite my lack of background, I got stuck with the assignment. Over time, I ended up being seduced by journalism, and started free-lancing for a variety of outlets, and not just on religion. (At one stage I was responsible for the “classic car” column in the Antelope Valley Press!)
Before long, the National Catholic Reporter offered me a job as opinion editor. I took it in 1997 because I liked the paper, not so much the job, since I wanted to write and report rather than edit. At roughly the same time, they were looking for someone in Rome to cover what they, along with every other media outlet in the world, believed would be the imminent death of John Paul II. Various candidates in Rome didn’t pan out, and eventually they asked if I would be interested. From my vantage point, covering the Catholic Church and being asked if you want to go to Rome is like playing baseball and being asked if you want to go to Yankee Stadium – in other words, a no-brainer. I arrived on a provisional basis to cover the European Synod in October 1999, and then on a permanent basis in July 2000.

"We set up shop at the same time that a number of American outlets were reducing their overseas presence, so when the sex abuse crisis, the war in Iraq, and finally John Paul’s death came along, we were well-positioned to be a leading point of reference in American discussion. I’d like to tell you it was all part of some cunning stratagem, but really it’s a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time."

Q: What’s it like living abroad and writing for an American news outlet? Are
there unique challenges in being remotely located?

"In some ways, covering the Vatican for an American outlet is an advantage. The Vatican, like many overseas institutions, has something of a love/hate relationship with the United States, but at bottom is profoundly convinced of the importance of America’s role on the world stage. Hence Vatican officials will often make time for American reporters they wouldn’t necessarily give to Austrians, Dutch, or Japanese outlets. As one small sign of that, whenever the pope travels, the largest national contingent among the press corps on the papal plane is usually the Italians, but in second place are the Americans. Vatican officials are likely to attach importance to what you write that can at times be slightly exaggerated, but it means they’re paying attention.

"On the other hand, the mainstream American press generally doesn’t take religion, let alone the Vatican, terribly seriously as a news beat, so it can sometimes be difficult to get the attention of American editors and producers for stories you may think are important. The main challenge is that reporters have to be terribly self-disciplined, with a strong internal editor, because the kind of fact-checking and question-raising that normally goes on in newsrooms on other beats just doesn’t happen on this one. If you were covering the President of the United States and wanted to write a story saying he was about to drop dead, you’d have fight through a dozen editorial layers with their own contacts and perspectives before your story saw the light of day. Write the same thing about the pope and it can sail through to A1, because nobody back home knows any better.

"Finally, if you do a lot of American TV, Rome can be brutal, because the 10:00 pm East Coast time slot for prime time broadcasts is 4:00 am here. In heavy news cycles, that means a correspondent or analyst based here has to get accustomed to essentially going without sleep for several days in a row."

Q: Americans, including some Catholic Americans, often view the Vatican as
a great monolithic entity. How has your work shaped your view of the Vatican
and how do you cultivate sources there?

"When you get to know the Vatican on an up-close-and-personal basis, what reveals itself is its complexity. This is not an organism with a unified intellect and will, but a complex bureaucracy that encompasses many different temperaments, visions, and policy positions. Hence sentences such as “the Vatican wants …” or “the Vatican is afraid that …” can make nice leads, but they’re almost always misleading over-generalizations.

"As far as cultivating sources, Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up, and I’m a great believer in that. I go to a lot of conferences, book presentations, embassy receptions, symposia, and so on, all in order to make the personal connections that are the lifeblood of a beat like this. I also take a lot of people to lunch and dinner, which in Rome is where an awful lot of important business is done. My experience is that the Vatican really isn’t all that secretive. It’s more unique, in that it has a language and a psychology all its own. But if you have the time to “crack the code,” so to speak, you can usually find out most of what you want to know."

Q: You described the two weeks of John Paul’s funeral and the election of
Ratzinger as ‘the longest running infomercial for the Catholic Church in
primetime in the history of the planet.’ Nearly a year later, how do you
think the events of April 2005 have shaped the world’s view of the Catholic Church?

"First, especially in places such as the United States, it gave the media a ‘Catholic’ story to do other than the sexual abuse crisis. Cardinals could go on television and talk about something other than lawsuits, protests and cover-ups. That was of tremendous importance, because it reminded the world that as important as the sexual abuse crisis undoubtedly is, it’s not the whole Catholic story.

"Second, it reminded a very secularized media that religion still has a powerful hold on a vast cross-section of humanity, and not just narrow-minded fundamentalists. It spoke to the enduring power of religious belief in a heavily secularized world. I remember sitting with Aaron Brown at 5:00 am Rome time, after a live broadcast to the States, on a Roman roof looking down at the vast rivers of humanity that had formed to catch a glimpse of the pope’s body lying in state, and Brown said simply: “There’s something here I don’t understand, but I know now I need to understand it.” I think that summed up the reaction of a lot of media people over those days.

"Third, it drove home what a vitally important institution the papacy still is, especially in the hands of someone who knows how to utilize its unique resources effectively. John Paul II may not have had any divisions to put in the field against the Soviets, but he still played an instrumental role in bringing down the Soviet system, and went on to be one of the titans of his time. When 57 presidents and prime ministers turned out for his funeral, the largest gathering of heads of state for the funeral of any human being in history, it was impossible not to grasp that the papacy still matters."

Q: What is your most vivid memory of John Paul II?

"I covered John Paul for six years and traveled with him to 25 countries, so it’s essentially impossible for me to isolate one memory as most vivid. I could talk about the first time I met him, or the first time I was on the papal plane with him, or any number of other things. It’s easier to talk about the last memory I’ll have of him, because it’s still fresh. During the April 8 funeral Mass, I was part of CNN’s coverage team, seated next to Christiane Amanpour. I remember very clearly when the papal gentlemen lifted John Paul’s coffin at the end of the ceremony to take it inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and just before they passed through the main doors, turned it around for one last salute to the crowd. I described on television how appropriate this was, as this was a space John Paul had towered over in life, and now in death he had one final opportunity to enjoy that special magic he always enjoyed with crowds in the square. As I finished the sentence, I became emotional, because it flashed in my mind that this was the final sentence I would every write or speak about John Paul II in the present tense. Of course, I realize that John Paul was in some ways a controversial figure who governed in contentious times, and there’s a legitimate debate to be had about different aspects of his legacy. But he was nevertheless a unique, unrepeatable personality, and it struck me in that moment how much I would miss him."

Q: How did you become CNN’s Vatican correspondent? Does offering commentary
on television compromise your objectivity in print? Is it difficult to
maintain your objectivity given that you also are Catholic?

"I was hired by CNN in 2001, and have been under contract as a Vatican analyst for them since. I don’t think it compromises my objectivity, because they don’t bring me on for opinion (there are plenty of people willing to offer that), but for insight into why the Vatican does certain things, what certain Vatican formulae mean, and so on. In other words, it’s my job to explain, not to editorialize.

"As for being a Catholic and covering the Church, I do think some reporters struggle with it. Some become defensive on behalf of the Church, and end up acting as an apologist. Others have a chip on the shoulder because of some resentment against the Church, and end up practicing advocacy journalism, crusading for some reform or another. It’s a fine line to walk between being close enough to understand, but far enough away to be objective. I try to negotiate that as best I can."

Q: Do you have a favorite CNN reporter? Who and why?

"This is a dangerous question, because I have lots of friends at CNN and I hate to single out one person. I think people will forgive me, however, if I say it’s Delia Gallagher. Delia and I became good friends when she was in Rome for Inside the Vatican magazine, and we were CNN’s tag-team of analysts during John Paul’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2003 and during the death and conclave coverage in 2005. Delia is everything you want in a TV reporter; smart, unflappable under pressure, hard-working, and a transparently good person. I’m delighted, and very proud, about her success."

Q: Many people who have a brief papal audience talk about their inability to
speak in his presence. What was your reaction the first time you met the
Pope? Did the cat get your tongue or were you able to set emotion aside to
do the job? How often do you sit down with the pope?

"The pope very rarely grants interviews, so journalists don’t often have one-on-one access to him. I suppose I met John Paul maybe a couple dozen times over the course of covering him for six years. I knew the current pope, Benedict XVI, relatively well in his previous position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and have met him now four times since his election.

"The first time I met John Paul one-on-one was on the papal plane during the trip to Kazakhstan in 2001. As I was preparing for the encounter, I ran through all sorts of things I could say, since by that stage I had written maybe a million words about his pontificate. When the time came, however, all I could croak out in Italian was, “Nice to meet you!” Since then, I’ve managed to be a bit more composed."

Q: What kind of readership do you have for The Word from Rome? Was it your
idea? How much editing goes into your piece before it’s sent?

"It’s basically impossible to estimate readership on the Internet with any accuracy, though we conventionally use the number of 50,000. Before I came to Rome, I had suggested to my editors that I do a weekly “reporter’s notebook”-style feature on the Internet, since I would be gathering all sorts of material that for different reasons would not make it into the paper, and otherwise all that reporting would just be lost value. I had initially expected that maybe a few dozen Vatican junkies around the world would follow it, and I’ve been utterly astonished at the following the column has developed.

"Each week’s piece is read by Tom Roberts, the editor-in-chief at NCR, and by Dennis Coday, who does the technical work of posting it and sending out the e-mail alerts. Tom will often give me some editing suggestions, which I almost always follow, although he makes it clear that “The Word from Rome” is my space and ultimately it’s up to me. The selection of which stories to follow is always mine, since I’m the one on the ground.

"Probably the aspect of “The Word from Rome” of which I’m most proud is that its readership includes people from a wide variety of points of view, from quite conservative to quite liberal. I think that’s for two reasons. First, I try to offer solid reporting about the Vatican and the universal church that’s of interest to people regardless of their ideological perspective. Second, I make an effort to treat different perspectives with respect, and to try to understand people’s points of view sympathetically. My view is that there’s enough ideological “spin” out there, and people need places where they can find tools for doing their own thinking. I hope that, at its best, that’s what “The Word from Rome” provides."

Q: You file weekly reports from Rome, you write stories for the National
Catholic Reporter, you write in-depth books and you serve as a correspondent
for CNN. When do you sleep?

"The reality is that there are some times when the news interest in the Vatican is quite intense, and in those periods I work pretty much around the clock. They’re followed, however, by long stretches in which the interest is much more relaxed, and that’s the time in which I can do the reporting and writing for the next book, have some conversations that aren’t related to today’s deadline, and catch up on sleep.

"In truth, I’m lucky to be following a beat in which I’m intensely interested, and I never have to force myself to keep going. I always look forward to the next assignment, the next interview, the next conference, or whatever it is, because I believe I’ve got the best beat in journalism. The Vatican may be a small window, but it opens up onto the entire world. If I’m interested in Iraq, or in bioethics, or in Islam, or in cultural debates over homosexuality, or whatever, there’s always a natural “Vatican angle” on the story. The work never gets boring!"

Q: Does Rome ever become tiresome? What do you miss most about the States?

"The work isn’t tiresome, though Rome itself can sometimes be frustrating, especially for ex-patriates with American expectations about efficiency and customer service. I tell people that it’s the only city on earth where you can call a plumber in mid-November and he’ll tell you he’ll get back to you after the holidays, by which he means February! Yet going to one of the city’s magnificent restaurants, over fine wine and a four-course meal always eases the pain.

"As far as the States, in recent years I’ve been doing so much speaking across the country that I’m never more than a few weeks away from my next trip home, so I don’t really have time to miss it. I can say, however, that when I’m in Italy, the two things I crave from the States are real American breakfast and barbeque. When I’m in the States, however, after about 48 hours I get the shakes from withdrawal from bucatini all’amatriciana, my favorite Roman dish, so I guess it’s always a mixed bag."

Reporter shares view from Rome

Here's the latest "Ten" interview in Quill magazine.

John Allen Jr. is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and CNN. He was an amazing interview and the Quill piece is only half of what he shared. I'll post the full interview here later today.