Journalism Reality Check

 The managing editor of Ocean FM, in her radio station's control room.

The managing editor of Ocean FM, in her radio station's control room.

"Everyone listens to you, everyone knows who you are, but you don't make any money." This was how one radio journalist characterized her father's lament that his smart, talented daughter insisted on being a radio reporter.

The U.S. Embassy invited five Beninois women journalists to a roundtable discussion with me about what it's like to be in our profession, and what we can learn from each other. The pretense of these setups always worries me — that I have indispensable wisdom to impart, or that the strategies and tactics I've learned in the U.S. will be applicable to their circumstances.

A report by Freedom House describes Benin's press freedom as not great, but better than its neighbors. The problem of access journalism — the ability of reporters to directly question and get honest answers from people in power — is familiar, but the consequences are more dire. In America, over reliance on access can lead to stories that lack important critique or stories that curry favor with the very politicians who should be covered critically. Here, critical reporting might lead to the government shutting down your newspaper for a period of time, as happened to the major publication Le Matinal.

The confluence of social media and “fake news” is also creating problems for news media here, which these women described with grim expressions. The encrypted messaging service WhatsApp is used widely in Benin, often with large distribution lists circulating dubious information. On the one hand, accurate information can spread so easily and quickly that it leaves journalists wondering what their own role is in distributing information; on the opposite hand there have been numerous fictitious stories that spread on WhatsApp, and that then were repeated in mainstream media by poorly skilled reporters who didn’t ground truth the story.

And then there is the problem of per diems. This isn’t unique to journalism, many people in Benin are not paid salaries but instead receive per diem payment for work. For reporters, it means someone is paying you to report a specific story, or not report it. (The Freedom House report names this what it is: bribery.) It puts reporters in the position of getting paid, or not getting paid, in dubious circumstances.

On the surface, many of the problems they face would make their American female colleagues nod in solidarity. Dealing with squirrely politicians. The metastasis of fake news. Low pay.  I listened and took notes as they spoke through an interpreter about their specific experiences with these problems, and it left me feeling like.... wow, do we (Americans) have no idea what our colleagues are facing around the world, even in relatively good circumstances.

And then there is sexism.

Their stories unfolded gradually, their trust in each other growing the longer we spent together. One woman would obliquely refer to the sexism she faces being one of the few women working as a political reporter, and everyone would nod. The next woman would add a little detail, noting that women reporters were passed over for the plum assignment to cover the opening of the parliament that week. By the end of the discussion, one woman had explained that men would sometimes demand sex in exchange for giving her an interview, an anecdote that elicited entirely too little reaction from her peers. They hadn’t had these conversations among themselves before, and they hadn’t yet found support and solidarity with women working in competing newsrooms. Yet they bonded in the shared frustration of trying to pursue their work in an ecosystem that wasn’t built to to honor their integrity.

As they talked, I was thinking of the countless hours I've spent reading and discussing the #metoo stories that eviscerated U.S. newsrooms and shattered journalists' trust in their own institutions. The response to those stories was outrage, and that demonstrates the difference between what U.S. journalists are dealing with and what faces these colleagues in Benin. Meanwhile, I was also internally cataloging the minor grievances and petty rivalries that can preoccupy a break room or give rise to secret Slack channels back home, and I was feeling ill over how those slights compare to the egregious circumstances these women matter-of-factly described. And even as I counseled myself that it's unproductive to compare indignities, I knew in the back of my mind that I am lucky for the things I have to complain about.

 Five of Cotonou's journalists explained to two Americans what it's like to do their work in Benin, but still had energy to smile afterward.

Five of Cotonou's journalists explained to two Americans what it's like to do their work in Benin, but still had energy to smile afterward.

[April 2018]

News In The Garden

 This is what the sky looked like, almost every single day.

This is what the sky looked like, almost every single day.

"Our president just fired our secretary of state."

I was sitting at the wooden table under one of the gazebos with the purest of blue skies overhead, in the midst of carefully designed rock garden surrounded by orange trees, and the shocking fuchsia blooms of a  bougainvillea cloaked the nearby stucco wall. This place is idyllic. The news was not.

"I'm so sorry!!" Oumaima exclaimed sympathetically, as if I personally was the one who just got axed on Twitter.

My volunteer gig at the nonprofit Amal Association in Marrakech was to help them rebuild parts of their web site, and being constantly online meant I could also enjoy a steady feed of news all day while I worked. I could start the day with Monocle and BBC, and then around midday Morocco-time I transitioned to NPR as the east coast of the US woke up. Sitting in a beautiful garden, helping incredibly good people who do inspiring work, mainlining global and political news -- this is pretty much as good as gets!

Oumaima is the director of Amal's Targa Center and was my boss, and the garden was my workspace during the time I volunteered there. The wifi from the upstairs office reached far enough that I could sit in the warm shade amidst the plants and birds while I built web pages, rewrote copy and edited photos. From here, I could watch the daily rhythm of the tourists coming in for cooking classes, the trainees hurrying to their kitchen stations, the kitchen prepping and dispatching meals. At predictable intervals, staff and trainees would congregate for sweet mint tea, and to eat fresh bread dipped in honey and olive oil. At unpredictable intervals, Oumaima would appear full of excitement for new ideas, rushing from meeting to phone call to meeting, but always taking time to focus her attention on the person in front of her. Even when the person in front of her was focused on what's happening in the White House on the other side of the planet.

While energy swirled through the classrooms and kitchen each day at Amal, I found my groove outside. When I hit an HTML snag that I couldn't solve or just generally reached my limit of screen time, I'd leave the shaded sitting areas in the front garden and take my earbuds with me to the herb and vegetable beds in the backyard... and pulled weeds.

 The 'Solidarity' gazebo was my outdoor office, more often than not.

The 'Solidarity' gazebo was my outdoor office, more often than not.

Honestly, pulling weeds was more fun for me than building web pages, but that wasn't what they needed from me most. Pulling weeds was a treat, the web site was my job.

The first time I visited Amal it was February, and the garden beds had tiny sprigs of green that seemed adorably optimistic in the vast tracts of brown dirt. By mid-March though, the tiny shoots had transformed into self-respecting plants and by April the green had overtaken the brown completely, with stems and leaves and vines rioting in defiance of their garden beds' neat edges.

I would happily spend hours in that garden, carefully teasing out individual weeds out from among the coriander, sage and spearmint. I would attack with vicious joy the noxious creepers that overtook the gravel walkways, and feel satisfied when their eradication was complete. While I worked, I would not come close to draining the reservoir of news podcasts on my phone, but I would occasionally instead crank up the Hamilton soundtrack and sing along (badly) while I freed the potato plants from the crab grass that encroached their space.

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The staff and trainees at Amal seemed partly amused and partly mystified by my love of weeding; only the head gardener was unambiguously delighted by my hobby. I loved the satisfaction of applying just the right amount of tension to a reedy, annoying stem and seeing its full root emerge from the ground. I loved the immediate difference that was visible -- rows of beautiful greens in fluffy soil, free of pestering interlopers. I really loved the massive haystack of weeds that would pile up at the edge of the garden as I worked.

I think Rex Tillerson's firing stands out among all the news stories I heard during the untold hours I spent in those gardens for two reasons. First, Oumaima's response was uniquely un-American in that she was thinking of me personally, rather than reacting to the information itself. If I had relayed the same breaking news to an American, it would have been met with a highly charged opinion -- about the president, the circumstance, Twitter, something. So that fact that she said, "I'm so sorry!" struck me as humorously unusual, and also very kind.

But second, my departure for Morocco and West Africa was only weeks away when President Trump reportedly demanded to know why the US should accept immigrants from "shithole" African countries. And now Rex Tillerson was in Africa, apparently to smooth over the fissures that statement caused, and he gets called back to Washington in time to read his firing on Twitter.  I felt a personalized proximity to the bookends of this news story. And I listened to coverage of the fallout while working in a beautiful garden, surrounded by an incredible group of people who are truly making the world a better place every day.

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[March 2018]

Bus People

This week, I took a city bus from Meknes for about an hour to visit Moulay Idriss, and back. These were some of the things I saw:

  • As a blind man boarded, and another man got up to help him get to a seat. Later, two people helped him exit at the correct stop, and helped him down the steps.
  • The bus was full, and every young person got up to offer a seat to elderly people and women with small kids.
  • There were three of us who were obviously foreigners and the passengers sitting near us made an effort to find words in a common language with us. One man said to me, “You are welcome here.”
  • Waiting for the return bus, we were encouraged to stay in the shade on the opposite side of the road until the bus came. The man who ran the corner bodega there was seemingly mute, but the kids buying candy from him communicated with him like it was no big deal, and we understood him when he gestured that the bus would be coming soon.
  • A vegetable seller dropped off a huge sack of fresh peas and the bodega guy offered us a taste, then showed us how to turn the empty pod into a noise maker. He waved us a heartfelt goodbye when we got on the return bus.
  • When the bus was really full, people sat on the steps in the aisle, and everyone helped everyone else stow their packages out of the way to make as much space as possible.
  • Sitting on the aisle step next to me was a man of about 30 years. He saw that there wasn’t space for a woman with a baby and a toddler to sit. He beckoned for the woman to hand him the baby and it slept on his lap for the next half hour.
  • Getting off the bus, people wished us well, waved at us. One woman kissed our cheeks and told us, "Peace be with you" in Arabic.

All of this humanity on a city bus.

On the same day, I also saw Volubilis and Moulay Idriss -- two ancient sites that have massive cultural and religious significance. But the 70-cent bus ride left a lasting impression.

Travel Karma In Marrakech

 The courtyard at the center of our riad, home for the next three nights.

The courtyard at the center of our riad, home for the next three nights.

The few hours we've spent in Marrakech have proven the advice I'd heard from several people: Casablanca is okay, but Marrakech! Marrakech is amaaaaazing.

Liz rallied through jet lag, arriving on a red-eye in the morning and going straight to the train station for the three-and-a-half hour ride to Marrakech. I had purchased our tickets and learned the tram system the day before, and we made the train with zero problems. In Marrakech, we were booked at a riad, a guest house converted from a traditional home. Riads, there are thousands to choose from, but most evoke traditional architecture, homestyle hospitality and a peaceful escape from the city that swirls outside the riad's walls.

But being nestled deep in a neighborhood of tightly wound and high-walled streets, most riads offer to meet guests in the city and escort them in, and Liz and I were expecting our to meet host at the train station. Sadly, our host was expecting to meet us at the airport, and so we stood for a few minutes in the modern, earth-toned Marrakech train station unsure what to do.

Enter Jamal.

As we were figuring out how to call the riad (I swear, using phones internationally drains me of all travel confidence) Jamal offered to help us place the call on his cell phone. He works for a tour agency and had a few minutes while he was waiting.

The phone line was busy, but Jamal finished the task that had brought him to the train station and offered to help us catch a bus to the medina. He was going that way to meet up with friends, and our stop was one beyond his. As we waited for the bus he told us that actually he would go with us to our stop and help us find the right direction to walk in. I had perfect change to pay for our three bus tickets, and he laughed off the offer. "You are kind!" he smiled. "And because you are kind I will walk with you the whole way to find your riad."

The bus was slow to show up, and Jamal had friends to meet so he suggested a taxi instead, and then paid for the taxi against our protestations. We walked into the medina, following Jamal and peppering him with questions about his work (he arranges tours to Mecca) and his family (his mother is still living, his father has died) and the languages he knows (he lived in Japan for 10 years and taught Arabic there.)

Fast forward an hour, and Jamal had personally guided us to our riad, stopping at least eight times to ask directions of local shopkeepers as we wound through the maze of earthen walls and vendors selling shoes, souvenirs and tiny live turtles. I asked if we were making him late, and he assured us, no problem, and we kept walking briskly through the vendors and locals and tourists.

Jamal works in tourism, and has traveled extensively himself, and it was natural for him to want to help us, he said. People have helped him countless times. The situation unfolded from his kindness and taking the next logical step, but by the end his generosity was remarkable. At every stop, his smile and warm exchange with a shopkeeper offering directions was delightful and genuine. When we arrived at the riad and learned the driver was waiting at the airport, I could easily imagine a person in Jamal's position being irritated, at least. You made made a mistake that inconvenienced your guests, and I went out of my way to correct it for you.

That's one way you might look at it.

But as our riad host explained the logistics mishap, Jamal laughed and smiled understandingly. It's a mistake anyone could make! Aren't we all fortunate that ended it well? And it was lovely to meet you! The sun is setting over the old town and I'm going to meet my friends for tea. Would you like to meet us? Cafe du France, on the terrace overlooking the market. Peace be with you.

 Me, Jamal and Liz, moments after finding the front door of our riad.

Me, Jamal and Liz, moments after finding the front door of our riad.