8 Reasons YOU Should Become a Journalist

It seems everyone these days, journalists foremost among them, can’t pronounce journalism dead quickly enough. In a column last year entitled “Journalism’s slow, sad death,” The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson bemoaned the demise of objective reporting. And it’s hard to argue with Gerson when a partisan hack like Andrew Breitbart can pass for a journalist while shamelessly slandering an admirable public servant.

The immediate picture doesn’t get any brighter on the financial side, with news outlets across the country hemorrhaging jobs. As if to underscore the point, USA Today recently laid off nine percent of its workforce.

On that cheery note, I hereby announce my intention to become a journalist.

I assure you my motives aren’t masochistic. If they were, I would go work hundred-hour weeks on Wall Street. But I digress. After a richly rewarding summer interning at The Nation magazine, the country’s longest-running weekly, I’d like to make a brief pitch for a once-proud profession more Penn students should consider before running off to the nearest OCR event. Here’s why:

1. Youth is a virtue.

Forget about patiently waiting your turn for some old geezer to call it quits before you can stop fetching coffee. Journalism is full of young people doing some of the most important reporting out there. Heck, The Nation even ran a few articles of mine.

Especially today, with technological savvy so valued, young talent is a prized commodity. Look no further than baby-faced wunderkind Ezra Klein, who started writing for The American Prospect at 21, founded the now famous/infamous liberal listserv “Journolist” at 22, and then moved to the Washington Post last year at 25.

2. You’ll never have to pay for a new book again.

There aren’t many financial perks to being a journalist, but a big one is the free books. When a journalist (or his intern) calls up a publishing house to request a review copy of a book, you can practically hear the publicity rep running to the mailbox as she hangs up the phone to send it out.

“Review copy” is after all a widely-understood misnomer. As far as I know, the writers for whom I requested literally hundreds of review copies never actually reviewed a single one. Still, publicists are ecstatic to ship off free copies to journalists in the hope that a one or two might just mention the book in an upcoming article.

3. Cool people will actually want to talk to you.

OK, not all of them are that cool. But as a general rule, people like speaking to reporters—even lowly intern ones. Hit them with the words “Hi, I’m a reporter calling from XYZ magazine,” and boom! You’ll be talking to US Senators’ press secretaries and world-renowned scholars in no time.

This realization came as something of a shock after my last summer’s internship in the Defense Department, where I was literally forbidden from making phone calls after nearly provoking a full-blown interagency war (or so I like to think). When my calling privileges were restored, I had to pretend to be doing a research project for school, a strategy which actually worked pretty well. (Although seriously, people who believed my story, who the fuck does a school project on FEMA reorganization?)

4. Journalists know how to have a good time.

I don’t mean to keep shitting on my previous internship, but I think it was after one of the editors ordered the third round of tequila shots for everyone at the intern welcome party that I tried to imagine any of the Defense Department honchos from last summer doing the same. I couldn’t.

5. You can wear whatever you like.

I take that back. I wouldn’t recommend sports bras, beachwear or soccer pinnies. Other than that, most anything else goes—polo shirts, tie-dye shirts, shorts, sneakers, sandals. I’d always pity my friend, who worked at a nearby investment bank, when we’d meet up for lunch. He’d be sweating his ass off in his suit and tie, while I’d be chilling in shorts and a T-shirt.

6. You can travel on someone else’s dime.

It’s true that news publications have cut back dramatically on overseas bureaus and coverage, but plenty of avenues remain to fund your travels through a laptop and an enterprising spirit. Whether you land a gig with a national paper or freelance, there’s something to be said for a job that picks up the tab for your globetrotting adventures.

7. You can make a difference.

Few professions offer as much power to impact important issues and debates. This summer reaffirmed journalism’s enduring influence with a series of bombshell stories, including the Rolling Stone Stanley McChrystal profile and the WikiLeaks revelations. Whether your passions lie in matters a few blocks down the road or a few thousand miles overseas, a compelling story can shed light on forgotten topics and places, shape how your readers see the world around them and effect real change.

Consider this: Nick Kristof has over 165,000 fans on Facebook. Who knew the road to world domination passed through heartrending stories of genocide and human trafficking?

8. Journalism isn’t dead.

Reports of journalism’s death, it turns out, are greatly exaggerated.

Yes, newspapers are shedding jobs. Yes, circulation is down. And yes, much of journalism these days is crap at best, downright poison at worst.

But, I submit, journalism’s future has never been more exciting. Traffic at US newspaper websites is at record highs. Add to that people getting their news from blogs and other nontraditional sources, and the demand for information today is unprecedented. This brave new world of blogs, tweets and retweets, multimedia and social networking can be disorienting for those raised on a steady diet of The New York Times and The New Republic, but for a burgeoning generation of journalists, it provides a unique opportunity to fundamentally shape the direction of an entire industry.

With such immense possibility out there, surely somebody can find a workable business model!

So there’s my pitch. I hope you were persuaded. And if not, you’ve just made my job search for next year a little bit easier.

Pressured by Students, Nike Agrees to Help Workers in Honduras

This story originally appeared at TheNation.com.

The student labor rights movement won a big victory yesterday when Nike agreed to pay a total of $1.5 million to 1,800 workers in Honduras laid off when two of its subcontractors shut down last year. In a statement, Nike also said it would cover the former employees’ health insurance for a year and offer them priority hiring and training.

For 18 months, the global apparel giant had resisted calls to pay the nearly $2 million in severance and unemployment aid legally owed the workers, insisting that responsibility fell upon the subcontractors. Nike’s about-face came in response to sustained pressure from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a nationwide advocacy group. USAS held protests at Nike retailers and organized speaking engagements throughout the country as part of its “Just Pay It” campaign. Pressure from several universities also helped pushed Nike to settle. The University of Wisconsin, Madison terminated its licensing contract and Cornell threatened to follow suit.

This latest victory comes on the heels of another triumph for USAS last November, when Russell Athletic rehired 1,200 workers in Honduras, whose factory the company closed soon after the shop unionized. USAS had enlisted over 100 universities in a boycott of Russell.

Student involvement in labor rights campaigns, specifically the anti-sweatshop movement, peaked a decade ago, when undergrads across the nation organized sit-ins to push their schools to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization that monitors the conditions under which college apparel is produced. Today, the WRC is affiliated with 186 US colleges and universities.

The issue of sweatshops in the developing world is complex with  prominent liberal writers Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, consistently defending overseas sweatshops, as essentially the least bad option for impoverished workers in developing countries and the only real path to economic growth (and better jobs) for those countries in the future.

But, free-market arguments notwithstanding,  USAS’s victories clearly indicate the efficacy of putting pressure on exploitative corporations to gain higher wages and better working conditions for its workers, which neither Krugman, nor Kristof is against.

Large corporations, as proven time and again, operate with great sensitivity to their own images—images that will hopefully attract even greater public scrutiny in light of recent press coverage thanks to the work of USAS and its allies.

A Big Next Step in College Journalism

This story originally appeared at TheNation.com.

At a time when news outlets everywhere are hemorrhaging money and political apathy among young people has reached staggering levels, sociopolitical publications at several of America’s elite universities are joining forces to combat these twin epidemics.

The recently-formed Alliance of Collegiate Editors (ACE), a consortium of the Columbia Political Review, Harvard Political Review, Penn Political Review and Stanford Review, aims to address the obstacles confronting college journalism through an unprecedented editorial and financial collaboration.

ACE is the brainchild of Bob Ma, the outgoing editor-in-chief of the Penn Political Review. According to Ma, the idea for the alliance first came during his tenure at PPR. After repeated requests for an interview with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed, Ma proposed a joint interview shared by several student publications. The mayor’s press secretary finally agreed. The experience, said Ma, alerted him to the potential of a full-time consortium of campus news outlets.

The alliance plans to advance its objectives in two primary ways. Editorially, ACE will conduct joint interviews with public policy figures across the country and coordinate cross-campus polls on topical issues. It will also, according to Mark Hay, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Political Review, facilitate “cross-pollinating content” by creating forums in print and online where writers and readers can discuss material from and with other member publications. On the publishing side, ACE will offer joint-advertising packages to organizations interested in targeting a nationwide audience of politically-attuned students, bringing in new revenue and saving the publications’ staff much time and effort associated with attracting local advertisers.

Ma, the current Chair of ACE, believes the alliance’s efforts will help “reignite a passion for sociopolitical activism around college campuses that has been lacking in our generation.” He certainly hasn’t set his sights low. Ma hopes that ACE will eventually include all collegiate sociopolitical publications in the country. If it can achieve anything close to that lofty goal, it could mark a significant next step in college journalism.

Helping in Kyrgyzstan

This story originally appeared at TheNation.com.

One month after the outbreak of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the full extent of the resulting humanitarian crisis is coming into focus.

From June 10 to 14, deadly clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around the southern city of Osh triggered widespread incidents of killing, looting and rape. The cause of the conflict remains less than clear. David Trilling, reporting for The Nation, cites “a mafia power struggle gone horribly wrong” as the most likely explanation. Ethnic Uzbeks, however, who comprise the majority of the victims, have attributed the attacks to Kyrgyz military and police forces. Meanwhile, the interim government, which replaced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev after he was ousted in an April 7 coup, has alleged the complicity of the former president in inciting internecine conflict.

If the origins of the violence are ambiguous, the human suffering it has spawned is anything but. Around 2,000 people were killed and around 400,000 displaced, many of whom fled to neighboring Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch (HRW) observers have documented numerous atrocities perpetuated by both Uzbek and Kyrgyz mobs, including the following, described in an HRW report:

At about 1 p.m. on June 11, 14 armed men with guns stormed into the house of 60-year old “Nigora” in the Shait-Tube neighborhood in Osh city. The men beat Nigora on her legs with a baton and burned her skin with a loofah sponge, which they set on fire, in an attempt to force her to tell them where her son was. The bruises and burn marks were still visible more than a week after the attack. Nigora said:

“Some of the men wanted to kill me, but the oldest of them, who was about 30 years old, stopped them. I told them that there was nobody else at home, but they didn’t believe me. They went to the building in our courtyard where my son was staying. When they came out, they set fire to the house while my son was still there. They laughed and forced me to watch as the house burned down with my son inside. I don’t know why he did not run out. Maybe they killed him when they went in.

“Eventually they dragged me out on the street. I was crying and screaming. I watched as they cut the throat of my 56-year old neighbor, set fire to his house, and threw his body into the burning house. I also saw the dead body of our 14-year old neighbor on the street.”

Tensions have calmed significantly since the initial spate of violence, and tens of thousands of refugees have returned home in the past two weeks. A recent referendum legitimizing the interim government passed overwhelmingly, with 69 percent turnout and no major incidents. Still, the situation remains critical. Thousands of refugees have returned to houses either destroyed or in ruins, and food and basic provisions are running low.

Aid organizations are working furiously to respond to the desperate need for tents, food and other critical supplies. The UN Refugee Agency is coordinating relief airlifts into southern Kyrgyzstan, which you can support by visiting their website.

Mercy Corps also has a team on the ground to deliver items like jarred and ready made baby food, soap and bedding to displacement camps outside of Osh. Over the weekend, they distributed 17,000 dollars-worth in aid at two sites in southern Kyrgyzstan. To donate to Mercy Corps’ efforts, visit their website here, and help stop a political crisis from spiraling into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.

A World Cup Final in the Shadows of History

This story originally appeared at TheNation.com.

July 12, 2010

Two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, Madiba Restaurant was already pumping. The buzz of vuvuzelas reverberated off the brick and wooden walls of this, the first South African restaurant in New York City. The host nation had long since bowed out of the World Cup, but the atmosphere inside was festive, as fans streamed in sporting the colors of South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, Manchester United, Barcelona, Brazil and, of course, the day’s two finalists, the Netherlands and Spain. As the Netherlands took the field to warm up, one Dutch fan at the bar, clad in all orange—T-shirt, shorts, shoes and sunglasses—stood up and shouted, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much, motherfuckers!!” Loud cheers followed.

The scene contained more than a hint of irony. After all, it’s the Afrikaner, the descendant of the predominantly Dutch migrants that first settled in the Cape in 1652, who will forever be the face of South African racism. The Afrikaners imposed racial discrimination throughout present-day South Africa’s interior after their subjugation of the local tribes in the 1830s, and in 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party formally introduced apartheid.

Now, with the game approaching, the Netherlands stood poised to claim its first-ever World Cup title and to do it on South African soil. It wasn’t quite France about to triumph in Algeria, but for a country in which the memory of apartheid remains so raw, the political subtext has been inescapable. When the Dutch team arrived in South Africa a little over a month ago, the national press had been fixated since March on the controversy surrounding Julius Malema, leader of the African National Congress Youth League, who had revived an apartheid-era song featuring the lyrics, “Kill the Boer”—“Boer” an often derogatory term for Afrikaners.

But for many black South Africans, politics did not harden them to the Dutch fans’ renowned charms. When it comes to the world’s biggest sporting events, the Dutch are the guests at the party that everyone wants to have a drink with. The Afrikaner population accounted for much of the local support in South Africa, but Dutch fever transcended racial barriers. When the Netherlands played Uruguay in the semifinals in Cape Town, an orange monsoon swept through the coastal city, as South Africans and Dutch visitors alike sported orange garments of every variety. Politics was a distant afterthought. At Madiba too, I met Afrikaners supporting Spain and black South Africans supporting the Netherlands for no other reason than they liked the way their favored team plays.

The political element was not completely absent from the equation, though. Tassha Ngolela, a black South African visiting New York from Pretoria, cited South Africa’s historical links to the Netherlands as one of the biggest reasons she was cheering for the Dutch in the final. “We speak Dutch,” she explained to me, before going on to clarify that Afrikaans, the Afrikaner language now spoken by South Africans of all races, is not exactly the same thing as its linguistic forebear.

Other black South Africans have been less enamored by their compatriots’ apparent embrace of their colonial past. The Netherlands’ semifinal victory in Cape Town prompted widespread invocations in the local media of an old Afrikaans slogan, “Die Kaap is weer Hollands” (“The Cape is Dutch again”), to which a friend from Cape Town complained, “I don’t have a problem with enjoying the soccer for what it’s worth but when so many are using terms that relate to colonization to now support and to indicate Dutch favor, that to me is not only a matter of discourse!”

In reality, the ties between the modern Dutch and Afrikaners are thin. The biggest wave of Afrikaner immigration—which included Germans and French as well—occurred between the 1650s and 1790s. Today, most South Africans, Afrikaner and otherwise, don’t perceive any real relationship between the Afrikaners and Dutch. Stephen Ellis, a member of the African Studies Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands, observed that Afrikaners view the Netherlands as a foreign nation, although some derive great amusement when you speak Dutch to them, as it “sounds very old fashioned and archaic.”

The Netherlands also had one of the strongest track records on apartheid among Western nations. After some initial displays of solidarity with the Nationalist government in the 1950s, the Netherlands became one of its most vocal European critics beginning in the 1960s. The antiapartheid movement was especially strong, with some young Dutch people even joining the underground liberation struggle. In addition, the Dutch government assumed a leading role in developing underprivileged areas. Peter Alegi, the Italian-American author of two books on soccer in Africa, first came to South Africa in 1993 as a sports coach in a program funded by the Dutch Development Agency.

Still, after centuries of insisting upon their “Africanness” to justify their claims to the land, Afrikaners’ newfound kinship with the Dutch can rankle. Another friend in South Africa reported someone at his gym saying before the semifinal that he was going to support his “distant white cousins.” Despite the Netherlands’ mostly clean hands in South Africa’s racist history, even its merely symbolic ties with that past, from apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s Dutch descent to Afrikaans’ Dutch roots, are enough to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many blacks.

Back at Madiba, a packed house watched Andrés Iniesta claim a dramatic victory for Spain in the dying minutes of overtime. As the final whistle blew, there were both cheers and a few long faces from some of the more ardent Netherlands supporters. But moments later, the DJ perched above the bar cranked up the music, and everyone was dancing. I’ve never believed that politics and sport can, or should, be kept mutually exclusive, but as the party kicked into gear, the most political thought I could conjure was joy that South Africa has dispelled all the pre-tournament fears about runaway crime and substandard infrastructure and a country too messed up to stage the world’s greatest show.

Africa’s first World Cup is over. Here’s to many more.

Welcome all!

Welcome to my WordPress site! It seemed like the cool thing to do, and since I don’t anticipate learning how to make a real website anytime soon, I figured this was the simplest route. I’ll be posting links to my published articles as well any articles I’ve been too lazy/busy to get published/edit to an editor’s liking. Random thoughts or musings I feel compelled to share with the world may also appear from time to time.

I’ll link from Facebook and (if I can bring myself to it) Twitter, so check there for updates..

For the moment, check out my Nation stuff from the summer and my new article on journalism.