On my first day as a freelance reporter for the New York Post I was sent to Staten Island to talk to a man who had recently been paroled after serving several years on charges related to child pornography. The man, the Post had learned, was enrolled in classes at the College of Staten Island.
“Ask him if he thinks the students should feel unsafe around him,” my editor instructed. “And make sure to get a picture.”
Once I got to Staten Island, I met up with the photographer, an amateur motorcycle stunt rider named Ron. “Here’s what we’ll do,” said Ron, “you knock on the door and bring him out into the light. I’ll drive by and get a shot.”
It was a beautiful late summer day, and the sex offender was working on a car in his garage with an older man I took to be his father.
“Excuse me,” I said, coming up the driveway with my notebook, “I’m looking for Thomas Austin.”
“What for?” asked the father.
“I’m a reporter for the Post,” I said. “We heard that he’s enrolled in CSI and I was wondering…”
Thomas, who was shirtless, wearing denim shorts, cut me off: “Why can’t you people leave me alone? I’m just trying to better myself! Why can’t I better myself!”
He started to come toward me, into the sunshine, and suddenly Ron appeared, leaning out the window with his camera. Click click click, and he sped away.
“Is he with you?!” screamed Thomas. “What the fuck!”
“Why can’t you leave him alone,” wailed the father, trying to pull his son back into the garage. “He’s just trying to make a better life. Please.”
It was the first of many times that the people I tried to talk to during the three years I was a reporter for the Post said “Please” to me in a similar tone. Please, they’d say, my sister was just found murdered. Please, my husband has just been indicted. Please, I’ve just lost my job. After a while, I learned to wiggle past the pleases and get a quote for my editor, but on that first day, the father’s please was enough to shame me, and I ran back to my car.
Without a doubt, I had just ruined these two men’s day. But what didn’t occur to me until years later was how that interaction may have shaped the way they thought about reporters, and the entire news media, for the rest of their lives. Ten years later, when their president told them that journalists were “enemies of the American people,” and “mainstream media” was pumping out “fake news,” might my daylight notebook-and-camera ambush have made it more likely they’d nod their heads and say, Hell, yeah?
When I got home from that first shift, I had a couple drinks and I called one of the professors I admired from American University, where I’d just completed a graduate degree in journalism. When I told her the story she was aghast.
“That’s unethical,” she said. “You’re really not supposed to take pictures of people without their permission.”
The next day, the paper ran an article announcing that the “pervy pupil” had been barred from enrollment.
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The article was the truth (Austin was not allowed to attend CSI), but not the whole truth. The whole truth might have made mention of the fact that most of the people I asked about the situation on the college campus hadn’t heard about Austin and, once told, didn’t seem terribly concerned. Or it might have included the fact that although the school made his schedule available, presumably for anyone who wanted to avoid him, the woman at the registrar’s office told me I was the only person who’d asked.
But that whole truth would have complicated things. “Pervy pupil” was a monster – everybody knew that. Even if they didn’t.
I DIDN’T GROW UP dreaming of being a reporter. My mom suggested I join the high school paper my senior year because I was “good at writing.” That was true. I got easy As in English and was on the speech and debate team. My dad was a lawyer, and he liked to argue, so I argued with him. I excelled at the persuasive essay.
At the high school newspaper, I wrote op-eds about Valentine’s Day and affirmative action and I reviewed REM’s latest album. At the time, writing and what I thought of as “reporting” did not necessarily go together, which worked for me. I wasn’t terribly comfortable talking to people I didn’t know. The writing was what I enjoyed, so I stuck mostly to that through college, continuing my path as a reviewer, opinion columnist, and arts editor. I tried news only a handful of times, and each time I was petrified. It didn’t matter if the people I was interviewing were forthcoming, I felt like I was intruding.
She begged me to stop the story and I told her the truth: I had absolutely no power to do that. The decision was made by people in an office who would never have to face her.
When I came to New York, I fell into women’s magazines; I wrote book recommendations, and “service” pieces about dating and body image. Occasionally I interviewed a celebrity for a profile to tie in with their latest project. I was usually instructed to keep my questions to a specific, previously agreed upon subject, and the answers they gave me were as generic as a politician’s. Each of us played a role in a game of publicity.
The first time I tried “real” reporting, I knew almost immediately that I was in over my head. It was 2004, and a friend at Seventeen magazine asked if I would go to Birmingham, Alabama to write an article about a 12-year-old girl who had been killed by her mother. I accepted the assignment because it interested me—I’d long been fascinated by crime—but once I got to Birmingham, it took me 40 minutes to build up the courage to ring the bell at the house next door to where the crime had occurred. I called the police who’d arrested the mother, but I didn’t really know what to ask them. I didn’t know what paperwork to pull. When I finally sat down to start writing, I realized I didn’t have half the information I needed to tell the story. Fortunately, Seventeen had a generous budget back then, and they let me go back to Birmingham to try again.
Two years later, I went to journalism school and was introduced to the value of “shoe-leather” reporting. When I graduated, my professors all gave the same advice: Get a job at a newspaper. Daily reporting, I was told, was the best way to strengthen the skills I’d just spent a year learning. I knew the market in New York City was tough, but my life was there, so I put in applications at probably half a dozen newspapers. A friend wrote about real estate at the Post and told me they were hiring on the city desk. I started working shifts just a few days after my interview.
But while I credit journalism school with imbuing in me a sense of the seriousness of my chosen career, it did not prepare me for the work I encountered at the Post – or, in some ways, for my work since. It didn’t prepare me for the kinds of compromises I was going to be asked to make in the name of sales (or “clicks”) and deadlines, or for a competitive story. It didn’t prepare me for the time my editor bought me a floor seat at a Knicks game and instructed me to hold up a giant sign that said “Fire Isaiah” until security kicked me out. (They didn’t kick me out. Instead, a news photographer “made” me as participating in a stunt, and I bailed, angry and ashamed I’d folded to the pressure to go in the first place. The next day, the editor who had sent me admitted the whole thing was a bad idea.) It didn’t prepare me to chase Paul McCartney’s new girlfriend through a grocery store for a quote. And it didn’t prepare me for the dozens, maybe hundreds, of times people I talked to told me I was scum for doing my job.
At the Post, I learned to tolerate people’s scorn. I learned to ask questions with respect, and to show compassion. It cemented in me the instinct to always be a human being before a reporter. I would never feel like shit going home without a “great” quote for my editor, but I would stay up all night thinking about the face of the teenager I pushed too far with questions about her just-arrested favorite teacher.
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The New York Post taught me to read people quickly and to be brave in pursuit of a story. Asking intimate questions of strangers and powerful people is always going to be frightening. But you can’t be a journalist if you can’t handle the fear. You can’t even pretend you’re trying to get to the truth if you’re too scared or lazy or careless to ask the important question, or fight over a misleading headline with your editor, or acknowledge that the article you spent all day running around for is so trivial that it might as well be “fake.”
SOMETIME AFTER THE SEX OFFENDER STORY, I was sent to Staten Island again. I can’t find the link to the article to be certain about the relationships, but my recollection is that it involved the niece of a local politician who had been arrested after allegedly getting in a fight outside a courthouse. Ron was my photographer again, and this time, I tried to take charge.
“Let me get a quote from her first,” I said. “If you start snapping pictures, she’ll just run away.”
Ron shook his head. “Photo’s more important,” he said. “There’s no story without a photo.”
The young woman we were looking for came home just as the sun was going down. We both ran toward her and she ran into her apartment.
I knocked on the door. I could hear a dog barking, its nails scraping against the floor, and voices. One male, one female.
“I’m sorry,” I said – and I was sorry, sorry my editor had decided her family drama deserved five inches. “But my boss isn’t going to let me go home until I ask you a couple quick questions.”
“My family already hates me,” she said from behind the door. “They’ll probably never speak to me again. If this is in the paper, it’s gonna really hurt my uncle’s re-election…”
“I know,” I said, though, of course I didn’t know. “But if I leave they’ll just send someone else tomorrow. Give me two minutes. That’s all.”
She opened the door, and Ron pushed past me. Snap snap snap. Her face was puffy and red from crying. She slammed the door again.
“What the fuck?” I hissed at him.
Ron looked in his viewfinder. “Sorry,” he said. “Got my shot. You want me to hang around?”
(Another thing journalism school didn’t prepare me for was working alone in unfamiliar places, often after dark. I didn’t really want Ron anywhere near me, but I also didn’t want this woman and whoever else was in the apartment to take their anger out on me with no one knowing where I was. )
I told him to wait in his car, and I knocked again.
“He’s gone,” I said softly. “I promise.”
The girl opened the door again. The dog I’d heard was a pit bull, and she was keeping him back with her leg.
“I know this is awful, but that picture is going to run in the paper. Do you want to try to explain, at least, for the readers, what happened?”
She let me in. I walked upstairs to the little apartment where her barefoot boyfriend was pacing in basketball shorts. On the kitchen table was a copy of the Post.
“We love the Post,” she said, sadly. “My mom’s been a subscriber since before I was born.”
We talked for almost an hour. They offered me tea. She begged me to stop the story and I told her the truth: I had absolutely no power to do that. The decision was made by people in an office who would never have to face her.
“In a couple days nobody will even remember,” I said. But I knew it was a lie. Sure, none of the millions of readers who didn’t know her would remember, but the people that mattered, the family she was so worried about, they would.
When I called the city desk to give them the girl’s quotes, I made a feeble attempt to get them to kill the story.
“She didn’t have that much to say,” I said. “Is it really worth it?”
I don’t remember if the explanation for why it was so important to run was because of a news hole, or “great art,” or just the fact that an elected official figured in the drama. What I do remember was that the girl who was depicted in the story that appeared in the newspaper was one person, and the girl whose home I’d been in was another person entirely.
Was the story we published about her “fake?” It likely seemed so to her. It was a fleeting moment of her life, magnified because of a familial connection. So would you blame her if she started looking at reporters as a kind of enemy after that? Would you blame her if she (and her boyfriend, and their friends…) started to dismiss stories she didn’t like as “fake?”
I STARTED THINKING THAT I NEEDED TO LEAVE the Post in 2009. That June, after an uprising over voting in Iran, the paper’s front page declared: “TURBAN WARFARE.”
I happened to be in the office the next day and mentioned the headline to an editor I didn’t know well.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t think they wear turbans in Iran.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, but our readers don’t know that.”
It was a moment that stuck with me, and I mentioned it when I wrote about the role of the tabloid media in the frenzy surrounding the Central Park Five rape case in 1989. It wasn’t as if I’d never encountered peddling to stereotypes and lowest common denominators in my media life before—or since. When I worked in women’s magazines, I learned quickly not to even mention a potential profile subject unless I had a photograph to show the editor. The story had to be interesting, of course, but the woman had to be attractive, too. In crime reporting, it is much the same. “Clean victims,” like white college girls and gainfully employed fathers, get daily updates and hour-long specials. “Dirty victims,” like women in sex work or men with criminal records, barely make the pitch meeting.
I left the Post in 2010 for a job at The Crime Report, a non-profit criminal justice news site run out of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and in 2011 I moved to CBSNews.com, where I still work part-time. In 2014, I published Invisible City—the first in a series of novels about a New York City tabloid reporter—and since then I’ve spent more time fictionalizing the life of a journalist than living it.
As I’ve done that fictionalizing—thinking about what “doing journalism” means and who it affects and why it matters—I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the “shoe leather” reporting my professors talked about and the desk chair reporting that supports and sometimes subverts it. When you work every day on the streets of New York City (or Tampa, or Fresno, or Detroit) you have to contend—physically and emotionally—with the people whose stories make up “the news.” In an office, however, aggregating or editing or even working the phone, it is much easier to think of these same people as column inches, or “great art,” or “good characters” or just “subjects.” You have tremendous power over their lives, but no access to the real details of their humanity: the smell of cooking grease in their apartment; the cold sore; the screaming toddler. Without this, you aren’t confronted with the visceral reminders that your decision to put them in the paper, or speak about them on camera, or tweet about their story with some sort of Nancy Grace-style hashtag that reduces the greatest tragedy of their life to alliterative shorthand, will have consequences for them, their family, and maybe their attitude toward the news for the rest of their lives.
Knocking on doors for the Post forced me to acknowledge that power each day. And as the years since I left that job pile up, replaced by years at a computer making decisions about coverage and headlines, it has become clear to me that ignoring that power undermines our work, and undermines our industry.
TRENDING: Photos reveal media’s softer tone on opioid crisisJulia Dahl is the author of a series of novels about a New York City tabloid reporter, most recently CONVICTION. She lives in Brooklyn and writes for CBSNews.com.